Friday, 7 November 2014

Friday Fungus: the economics of Himalayan mushroom foraging

The Yartsa Gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is a weird little fungus that infests a species of Chinese caterpillar eventually growing out from the head of the creature. It is cherished in Chinese medicine and, if you're writing tabloid headlines, the term 'Chinese viagra' is recommended.

The problem is that, as China has got richer, these prized traditional medicines have got ever more prized and ever more expensive. And the Yartsa Gunbu isn't farmed but foraged - this is hunter gathering. So it presents a problem - as Tim Worstall (slightly polemically) puts it:

There are those out there who think that we should return rather to our hunter gatherer roots. Simply pick from nature’s bounty rather than intensively farm the planet. There’s really only one problem with this delightful idea: we’d all starve within months having stripped the Earth of everything edible

Indeed this is very much an issue with Yartsa Gunbu especially given how important it has become for the economy of part of Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet:

With an eight-fold increase in value from ¥4,800 to ¥40,000 per pound (Winkler 2008b: 18) yartsa gunbu has become the mainstay of household economies across the Tibetan Plateau and in the highlands of Nepal, India, and Bhutan. It fills an economic void in Tibetan areas of China that state-sponsored development projects, which tend to focus on infrastructure, do not always satisfy.

So it's no surprise that there are reports of violence, extortion and criminal activity linked to the collection of this valuable product. Plus suggestions that the high prices lead to over-exploitation and the destruction of future production. So it is interesting to see how different communities have responded to this situation and to the threat of over-exploitation. In some areas the Yartsa Gunbu is found on land that is in existing private (or local village) ownership and, as a result the harvest is leased out by the land owner who secure the income in rent rather than by selling the fungus. Elsewhere a controlled number of permits are issued to outsiders and they are limited to specific locations.

However, Geoff Childs and Namgyal Choedup in an article in Himalaya report on two areas that use a different regulatory method to control the exploitation of the Yartsa Gunbu:

Using data from household surveys and in-depth interviews, the authors describe the process of gathering and selling yartsa gunbu within the parameters of management practices that combine religious and secular regulations over natural resources. The authors conclude with a discussion of the indigenous management system in relation to sustainable development.

The review concludes that regulation limiting collection is essential - what different communities have done is limit who can collect and when they can collect. Some, such as the places studied by Childs & Choedup, use traditional controls (religious tradition, inherited collection rights and regulation of collector behaviour) whereas others use more 'modern' approaches such as licensing, permits and leases to limit collection and provide incentives to protect the long-term supply.

The lesson of this is that, for all our modern urban idolising of wild foraging, this practice is pretty bad news for the environment if it is not controlled. As we see with UK demand for wild mushrooms (all that soup and pasta in all those gastro-pubs) and other foraged goods, the result is a problem:

Epping Forest, an ancient woodland straddling the border of greater London and Essex, is one of the best fungi sites in the country, with over 1,600 different species. But, like other fungi-rich sites such as the New Forest, it is being stripped out by illegal picking by gangs believed to sell the wild mushrooms to restaurants and markets

Perhaps rather than - as has happened in Epping Forest - simply banning foraging, we should pay a visit to Nepal and look at how they manage their harvest of an (admittedly pretty odd) wild mushroom.


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