(I) Why should people care about fungi?

As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for more than a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms – as broad and busy a category as “animals” or “plants” – and provide a key to understanding our planet. Globally, the total length of fungal networks in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion km: about half the width of our galaxy. These networks comprise an ancient life-support system that easily qualifies as one of the wonders of the living world.

(II) What are the specific benefits provided by fungi?

More than 90% of plants depend on symbiotic fungi, which weave themselves between plant cells in an intimate brocade, supply plants with crucial nutrients, and defend them from disease. These fungi are a more fundamental part of planthood than leaves, flowers, fruit or even roots, and lie at the base of the food webs that support much of life on Earth.

Fungal networks are ecological connective tissue. Soil would be rapidly sluiced off by rain were it not for the dense mesh of fungal tissue that holds it together. Mycelial networks wind through plant roots and shoots, animal bodies, sediments on the ocean floor, grasslands, and forests – one of the largest known organisms is a mycelial network in Michigan that sprawls over 75 hectares. Bacteria use fungal networks as highways to navigate the crowded rot-scapes of the soil.

Symbiotic fungi can link plants in shared networks sometimes known as the “wood-wide web,” through which water, nutrients and chemical signals can pass. Of the carbon that is found in soils – which, remarkably, amounts to more than the amount of carbon found in plants and the atmosphere combined – a substantial proportion is bound up in tough organic compounds produced by fungi. 

Fungi are metabolic wizards, and their chemical accomplishments have long shaped human life: bread, cheese, soy sauce, penicillin, a host of powerful antiviral and anti-cancer compounds, cholesterol-lowering statins, immunosuppressant drugs that enable organ transplants – not to mention alcohol (fermented by a yeast) and psilocybin (the active component in psychedelic mushrooms, which shows promise in treating severe depression and anxiety).

Today, radical fungal technologies can help us adapt to life on a damaged planet. Voracious fungal appetites can be used to break down pollutants such as crude oil from oil spills, in a process known as mycoremediation. In mycofabrication, building materials and textiles can be grown out of mycelium and used as replacements for plastics and leather. And antiviral compounds produced by fungi can alleviate one of the more pressing threats to global food security: colony collapse disorder in honeybees.

(III) Have fungi been purposefully excluded from relevant law and policy frameworks or is it an oversight?

Fungal taxonomy is challenging. Fungi were considered to be plants until the late 1960s, when new scientific techniques revealed that fungi comprise their own kingdom of life – as broad a category as ‘animals’ or ‘plants.’ The term ‘funga’ describes the fungi of a given region, by analogy with fauna (animals) and flora (plants).

The bedrock agreements of international environmental law were negotiated before there was widespread recognition of fungi as their own kingdom of life. The result is that international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) – signed in 1973 – refer to fauna and flora but not funga. The same applies to many national environmental laws around the world. 

In short, the absence of fungi is an oversight rather than the result of a willful attempt to exclude them from law and policy frameworks.

(IV) Are fungi actually excluded from relevant law and policy frameworks or do the law and policy frameworks cover fungi but just don’t expressly mention them?

It depends. Some agreements, laws, and policies that mention plants (flora) and animals (fauna) but not fungi (funga) have issued interpretations or implementing decisions that clarify that fungi are covered by the agreement, law, or policy even if they aren’t explicitly mentioned. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) refers to animals and plants but not fungi. In a conference resolution (Resolution Conf. 12.11), however, the CITES Conference of the Parties (COP) clarified that fungi species were indeed covered by the agreement and could be listed as subject to its requirements by proposing fungal species as plants. A number of agreements lack an equivalent clarification, however.  

Crucially, very few laws and policies explicitly acknowledge fungi as a co-equal kingdom of life along with flora and fauna. The result is an institutional bias against fungi: fewer resources are devoted to fungal identification, education, and monitoring of threats to their survival. These oversights are compounded by a general absence of specific policies and regulations designed to protect fungi and the vital roles they play in maintaining the health of ecosystems.  

(V) Are fungi spread across the world or concentrated in particular areas? Are there places with more fungi than others?

From deep sediments on the sea floor, to the surface of deserts, to frozen valleys in Antarctica, to our guts and orifices, there are few pockets of the globe where fungi can’t be found. Tens to hundreds of species can exist in the leaves and stems of a single plant. But fungi are not distributed evenly. Some areas are home to higher fungal diversity than others.