Mushrooms too can keep the doctors away

Pranjal Baruah, General Secretary, Mushroom Development Foundation talks to Fit Northeast about the nutrition, immunity and livelihood prospects of mushrooms

Why do you think mushroom cultivation makes sense in the context of North East?  
Well in the developed countries mushroom cultivation entails skilled and expensive labor and hence they want the underdeveloped countries to cater to their mushroom market. While I am not justifying the differences in labor cost I do feel that this translates to an export opportunity for mushroom growers in India. Talking about Northeast, Guwahati has had a workforce (though not too entrenched then) that has been engaging in mushroom cultivation since the past two and half decades. Incidentally North East India is blessed with the ideal agro-climatic conditions coupled with an abundance of raw materials that are conducive to growing various species of mushrooms.  By organising these raw materials efficiently, North East India has the potential to produce 5 crore kilograms of mushrooms annually that can generate employment for 5 lakh people by 2030. My vision is that when we Google in 2030 North East should pop up as the Mushroom Capital Region (MCR) of India.  North East India is the rice bowl of our country and if we are able to use just 10% of the bio or agricultural waste we shall be able to produce 50 crore kilograms of mushrooms. For this to happen we shall require 50 crore compost bags in a standardized manner. For these, we need to organize this disorganized mushroom sector by addressing the prevailing gaps that we have identified.   
As a country India is generally a malnourished country with a pronounced protein deficiency. The north eastern states are no different. Since mushrooms are fortified with nutrients and address protein needs of the human body, by engaging in mushroom cultivation one can address this issue in the easiest and most cost effective manner. The cultivation process also aids in mitigating pollution as superior quality organic manure is added into the soil. If our innovative models are further developed to address farmer issues, mushroom cultivation can go a very long and prosperous way in the North East.  
What have been your specific learning's and milestones? What about challenges and how did you surmount them?
There is no end to learnings with respect to mushrooms, mushroom spawn and mushroom value added products. There are continous learnings in terms of organizing farmer value chains for income optimization and sustainable livelihood too. Every investment I did was preceded by researched conviction. For instance I set up the mushroom spawn lab in 1995 when I was absolutely sure that spawn is the need. I started the mushroom farm, diversified the mushroom products and had scaled up from Rs 20,000/- to Rs 30, 00,000/- during the period from 1998 to 2004 with the same level of conviction. By then I had a full-fledged business house where products were sold under the Mushfill brand.   
After I was conferred with the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 I realized the importance of social enterprise. I gradually stopped my business and started investing my time into the Mushroom Development Foundation that entailed intensive field learnings in terms of developing farmers' federation, cooperatives and developing cost effective farmer clusters. By 2019 we had developed a very robust value chain linked to the markets. This was achieved by forming a cluster of 25 farmers along with a complete collection and distribution system and by connecting eight such clusters forming a social enterprise of 200 women. 
The biggest trick of the trade was to learn about bringing third party investments into the business. The problem is that farmers invest everything on their own and investors even if they come along look at their own profit interests. Since the win-win scenario and trust factor is missing in different players in the value chain sustainability, scaling becomes a very big challenge. 
The mantra for enduring in life and mushroom cultivation is simple: Patience and courage is required. We need to keep on training ourselves and remain positive despite numerous failures. I keep on telling myself that I have failed 62 times and I have not run away from my dreams. The 63rd failure will not make any difference.        
Mushroom works wonders for people who are diabetic, obese, have high blood pressure, hypertension, heart problems, tumors, anemia or cancer
Lastly and most importantly what are your views on the nutrition and immunity boosting capabilities of mushrooms?
Pranjal Baruah, MDF
Image: Pranjal Baruah, MDF
I would like to say that any food can boost the immune system only if it is a part of your everyday diet. You cannot increase your immunity suddenly during COVID 19 by eating mushrooms or ginger or any other food item which you were not consuming previously. That is why even in Ayurveda emphasis is given on including things like ginger, garlic etc in your everyday food.
Mushrooms are called immune boosters due to the presence of certain compounds like beta glucans which have a role in the immune boosting system. Mushrooms have been studied for the presence of such compounds. If you are looking for human clinical trials, I don't think you will get any. However you can still search in Google with the following key words, "Human clinical trials for mushrooms as immune boosters".
After the national lock down was declared on 24th March we are all mostly at home and this reduces our exposure to the sun. Consequently,many people are bound to experience a Vitamin D deficiency. We need Vitamin D to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. These nutrients are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. A lack of vitamin D can also lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and bone pain caused by a condition called osteomalacia in adults. Mushrooms are among very few foods that provides Vitamin D to humans.
Our body uses protein to build and repair tissues; it also uses protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Mushrooms have high quality protein ---up to 45% on a dry weight basis.
Just like vitamins, minerals help your body grow, develop and stay healthy. The body uses minerals to perform different functions  from building strong bones to transmitting nerve impulses. Some minerals are even used to make hormones or maintain a normal heartbeat. Mushrooms are fortified with a generous dose of essential minerals and vitamins.
Mushroom contains antioxidants and antioxidants are essentially substances that protect our cells against free radicals, which may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases. Free radicals are molecules that are produced when our body breaks down food or when we are exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation. For example, our immune cells use free radicals to fight infections.
The nutrient-profile and versatility of mushrooms can be added to everyday dishes to provide important nutrients including niacin, selenium and riboflavin. Mushrooms provide many of the nutritional attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains. Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium, yet they provide several nutrients that are typically found in animal foods or grains. Research has also revealed its medicinal values. Mushroom works wonders for people who are diabetic, obese, have high blood pressure, hypertension, heart problems, tumors, anemia or cancer.

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