Wild edible fungi are collected for food and to earn money in more than 80 countries. There is a huge diversity of different types, from truffles to milk-caps, chanterelles to termite mushrooms, with more than 1 100 species recorded during the preparation of this book. A small group of species are of economic importance in terms of exports, but the wider significance of wild edible fungi lies with their extensive subsistence uses in developing countries. They provide a notable contribution to diet in central and southern Africa during the months of the year when the supply of food is often perilously low. Elsewhere they are a valued and valuable addition to diets of rural people.
Commercial harvesting is an important business in countries such as Zimbabwe, Turkey, Poland, the United States of America, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Bhutan. The export trade is driven by a strong and expanding demand from Europe and Japan and is predominantly from poor to rich countries. This is good for local businesses and collectors, providing important cash income that pays for children to go to school and helps to reduce poverty in areas where the options for earning money are limited. Local markets around the world reveal a widespread though smaller individual trade in an extensive range of species. Though difficult to measure compared with the more visible export of wild edible fungi, local trade is of considerable value to collectors and increases the supply of food to many areas of weak food security.
Collection and consumption within countries varies from the extensive and intensive patterns of China to more restricted use by indigenous people in South America. Substantial quantities are eaten through personal collections that may go unrecorded. The nutritional value of wild edible fungi should not be underestimated: they are of comparable value with many vegetables and in notable cases have a higher food value.
Wild edible fungi play an important ecological role. Many of the leading species live symbiotically with trees and this mycorrhizal association sustains the growth of native forests and commercial plantations in temperate and tropical zones. The saprobic wild edible fungi, though less important in terms of volumes collected and money earned from local sales, are important in nutrient recycling. The saprobic species are the basis for the hugely valuable global business in cultivated mushrooms, currently valued at around US$23 billion each year. This is an increasing source of income for small-scale enterprises in developing countries.
Wild edible fungi are among the most valuable NWFP with much potential for expansion of trade, but there are also challenges in the integration of their management and sustainable production as part of multiple use forests. There are concerns about the impact of excessive harvesting, which require better data on yields and productivity and a closer examination of collectors and local practices. Closer cooperation between forest managers and those using wild edible fungi is needed and suggestions are made on how this might be achieved.
There is a strong emphasis on subsistence uses of wild edible fungi and their importance to rural people in developing countries, although this is an area where there are still significant gaps in information. There is also significant commercial harvesting in developed countries, such as the United States of America and Canada, and in the emerging economies of eastern Europe, for example Poland and Serbia and Montenegro. However, countries in the north are of greater significance to wild edible fungi as a destination for exports and as a source of scientific expertise, especially in mycology (the study of fungi).
This scientific expertise is increasingly being applied to help achieve the major development goals, which include poverty alleviation and sustainable use of natural resources. Real progress has been and continues to be made in the roles that wild edible fungi contribute towards these goals.