WED 2013: Megawasted Opportunity?

WED 2013 - Raxa Collective

On June 5, we’ll celebrate World Environment Day. This year UNEP focuses on the theme Food waste/Food Loss. At Raxa Collective we’ll be carrying out actions and sharing experience and ideas. Come and join us with your ideas and tips to preserve foods, preserve resources and preserve our planet.

When I tell people that it’s possible to grow highly nutritional food on agricultural waste products with almost zero technology, I usually get a blank look. On a good day, someone will demand an explanation. Why would such a process, if existent, be so obscure if it could help solve malnutrition in underdeveloped communities? While I’m sure there is a logical explanation for this, it remains a mystery to me at present.

In the United States alone, approximately 150 million tons of wheat and corn cellulosic material is thrown away annually. If secured, with minimal processing (chopping and pasteurizing), 150 million tons of straw (136 billion kilograms) could be used to grow as much as 200 million tons of oyster mushrooms (181,436,948,000 kilograms), which contain up to 30% protein. Comparing this to the number of malnourished people in the world (925 million), if the waste wheat straw of only the United States were to be used to grow mushrooms (and distribution were not an issue), each malnourished human on the planet could have more than 200 kilograms of mushrooms a year, or up to 60 kilograms of crude protein. In perspective: the average human being requires about 20 kilograms of protein a year. By now you’re probably asking yourselves the same questions as I have; the tonnage of cellulosic waste available annually throughout the world must be massive, so where is it going? I won’t outline the current uses, some of which include paper-making, biofuel production, and livestock feeding, but I will discuss the changes that could be made in the practices of agricultural waste disposal today.

In India, where I live, rice paddies cover about 43 million hectares, producing between about 90 and 100 million tons of rice a year. The rice harvest yields a significant byproduct – paddy straw, approximately three quarters of which is used for animal feed and bedding, as well as packing material for transport of goods. The other quarter is burnt in the field by farmers trying to get rid of their waste product as quickly as possible, an absurd disposal method of a valuable asset and also a heavy air pollutant. By my estimates, this leaves about 20.5 billion kilograms of paddy straw to be claimed for mushroom production.

Let’s localize the numbers outlined in the first paragraph. India’s available paddy straw (per annum) is about 20.5 billion kilograms. There are between 220 and 250 million undernourished human beings in India. 500 million kilograms of crude protein would satisfy the nutritional demand for these people annually – in other words, 15 billion kilograms of mushrooms. Therefore, if all the spare paddy straw (i.e. all the paddy straw that is currently being burnt or otherwise improperly disposed of) of India in a year were used to grow mushrooms, every undernourished human being in India (distribution issues aside) would be matched by the necessary amount of protein their body requires.

So far, this post has been dedicated purely to the hypothetical – the numbers I’ve presented are so unlikely that this has been more of a mental exercise than anything else. From this point onward you will see the more practical side of growing mushrooms.

Since last December, I’ve been establishing a mushroom growing operation to accompany Cardamom County’s natural farm. Despite frustratingly slow progress, this weekend the pieces finally came together, and the kitchen can expect a steady supply of mushrooms to cook with. Although I have grown oyster mushrooms at home, I’ve never been relied on by a commercial enterprise as a source, so this has been a learning experience in that sense.

Growing mushrooms is not at all a complicated process. In fact, growing mushrooms requires even less care and dedication than growing plants – just more prep work. Although the amount of care allotted to a plant varies from species to species or even cultivar to cultivar, growing (oyster) mushrooms is very straightforward, and can be basically broken down into three parts: the prep work, the wait, and the harvest.  In my next post, I will outline the steps and demonstrate how easy it is.

This was originally posted on July 25, 2011

4 thoughts on “WED 2013: Megawasted Opportunity?

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