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Mushrooms: An Alternative to Agricultural Livelihoods in the North East

Mushrooms

The North-east India is primarily an agrarian region with over 70% engaged in farming in one way or another. However, rising desertification, flooding and other climate-related risks have led to a decline in rural incomes and yields alike. For many farmers, cultivation is no longer a lucrative opportunity – they farm due to the absence of alternative options. 

Mushrooms, however, are slowly opening up an alternative livelihood opportunity for struggling farmers. Their growing popularity as a “superfood” has led to rising market interest in the product. Nutritious, a good source of vitamins (B), particularly niacin, riboflavin and protein, mushrooms are low fat and low carb. This makes them an attractive alternative to meat-based protein sources. 

In the North-east, most mushrooms in markets are grown in sterile conditions. The types of mushrooms generally sold are button mushrooms, shitake and oyster mushrooms. Outside of these formal markets, however, mushrooms are a highly coveted commodity, gathered largely through foraging. For several indigenous communities in the region, wild edible mushrooms form a staple part of the diet and contribute to a large portion of protein content required for normal growth and development. 

The Opportunity 

Mushroom production is one of the many critical commercial steps towards the diversification of agriculture-based microbial technology for large-scale recycling of agro-wastes in India. It relieves the pressure on arable land and minimizes impact on the forests and local biodiversity since it cultivates in indoor spaces. 

Critically, as the North-east battles the problem of hunger and poor nutrition, mushrooms represent a simple means of enriching local diets and improving nutrition. 

The popularity of mushrooms in the North-east, due to their appearance in the traditional cuisines of various communities, makes it a highly attractive product for farmers. High demand and high value, both economic and nutritive, makes it a potential source of livelihood for the north-eastern landscape of India. On average, a kilo of oyster mushrooms retails at INR 200 in the local markets of rural Assam. This represents an opportunity to increase incomes by INR 20,000 monthly as a single mushroom cultivation unit produces up to 100 kilos per month. 

Mushrooms in action: the case of Baligaon village 

In 2019, five mushroom incubation units were set up in the Baligaon Miri village as a way to secure food and livelihoods. This community participatory project is helping empower communities and increasing their self-sustainability by providing health benefits. The units are run and managed by women, with about ten women managing a single unit and caring for the spawns. In 2020, the units harvested 250 kgs of mushrooms and increased the community’s income by INR 50,000. 

On the whole, the village households saw an average increase of up to 15% in their incomes. Women took the lead and saw an astonishing expansion of their economic opportunities. By managing the mushroom cultivation units, with minimal to no disruption of their regular schedules, their overall incomes increased by 50% each month. Dusila Mili, an entrepreneur involved with one of these units, found that the added income came with a bonus. The waste leftover from mushroom cultivation serves as a bio-fertilizer, thereby reducing the need to buy chemical fertilizer and increasing her savings on top of the added income. 

The Challenges & the Future 

Identifying edible mushroom species, outside the regulated few already being sold in  formal markets are difficult. Some mushroom species are toxic, even lethally so. Separating edible from poisonous species requires meticulous attention to detail - there is no single  trait by which toxic mushrooms can be identified. Neither is there one by which the most edible mushrooms can be identified. Careful scientific assessment can safely make this distinction but requires both time and specialist skills to do so, outside the realm of indigenous knowledge of mushroom species. 

Mushroom spawns also vary in terms of inputs and care required. Oyster mushrooms are easy to cultivate, but other species can be difficult. Meanwhile, poor quality spawns diminish the earning potential of a unit. For rural communities, access to spawns is the biggest challenge in a mushroom cultivation endeavour. Wild species foraged locally may have spawning potential, but without research; they remain a low volume opportunity. 

For mushrooms to become a meaningful livelihood for communities in the North-east, greater investment in mushroom biodiversity research is needed – to identify edible mushrooms as well as wild species which can be domesticated and commercially spawned. Robust value chains, with quality spawning centres, need to be established to enhance access to spawns for growing. Investment is needed, as well, to help rural entrepreneurs with the initial seed cost of setting up growing and processing units needed to make them market-ready. 

Mushroom cultivation is an easy low-hanging fruit for the North-east to solve the twin problems of rural livelihoods and poor nutrition. Led by women entrepreneurs, it can even increase economic gender parity. A lucrative opportunity for livelihoods that minimizes forest dependency, its future depends on our willingness to act now. 

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