The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An ingenious way to combat India’s suffocating pollution

Sonali Prasad is a freelance journalist based in India.

BANGALORE, India — In a laboratory on the outskirts of one of India’s biggest cities, Meera Pandey gazed down at a legion of mushrooms shaped like spaceships and seashells and buttons. These were her soldiers in a war against the nation’s smog.

India’s wheezing prognosis is no secret. It tops the world in poor air quality standards, according to recent rankings released by the World Health Organization. Fourteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India.

In particular, the capital city, Delhi, often suffocates. In November last year, its chief minister dubbed Delhi a “gas chamber,” and citing pollution, United Airlines suspended its flights to the capital. During a match against Sri Lanka in December, cricket players vomited on the field.

One of the main contributors to the toxic haze over Delhi is the burning of crop residue — the plant material left over after a harvest — on the farmland that surrounds the city. In the foggy onset of winter months, the air is at its worst as farmers burn a colossal amount of residue that remains in their fields. Harvesting machines only shred the upper part of crops like wheat, rice and sugarcane, leaving the lower half or stalk behind. India produces an estimated 550 million tons of crop residue each year, of which about a quarter is burned on farms. Although crop burning is a punishable offense, farmers still find it to be the least labor-intensive and cheapest way to clear their land for a new sowing season.

It is this burning of agricultural waste that Pandey, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, seeks to remedy with her fungi. Crop residue is valuable organic material — it can be used for power generation, biogas production, animal feed, compost and, if you ask Pandey, for growing mushrooms.

Mushrooms are the master scavengers of our plant world, creating new life out of waste and decay. Pandey’s plan is to take paddy straw from rice farms — which makes up about a quarter of all the crop residue produced in India each year — and use it to grow mushrooms. In the process, she argues, this will produce jobs for rural women involved in mushroom cultivation, generate extra income for farmers selling the paddy straw and, by cutting down on crop burning, reduce air pollution.

“I can see this working as a public-private partnership or a cooperative,” Pandey told The WorldPost, “a central repository or warehouse for a cluster of villages where the straw is transported from farms and fields, then stored, processed and sold to buyers for several purposes such as biogas, manure and mushroom cultivation.”

Pandey explained that farmers, who sometimes sell straw to power or paper companies for around $25 a ton, could earn more by selling the straw to mushroom cultivators, who can afford to buy it for up to $75 per ton.

“We can recycle what is being carelessly wasted to grow something resilient and nutritious out of it,” Pandey said. “In fact, if we end up reusing just 10 percent of the total crop residue, including rice, wheat and other grains, we can be next to China in global mushroom production.”

When I visited recently, Pandey’s office was adorned with fungal specimens suspended in glass boxes full of formaldehyde: the fluttering frills of the pink oyster that blooms in the Western Ghats; the slippery brownish wood ear, which grows in humid Karnataka; the delicate snow-like white jelly found in the Andaman Islands. These were her treasures from explorations across the country and their edible, industrial and medicinal properties the focus of her intensive research.

A poster hanging in the lobby estimated the lab’s ecological impacts. Nearly 1,620 tons of paddy and wheat straw had been reused in the lab to grow mushrooms since 2008, it read, preventing the release of almost 5,000 tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

The numbers may seem small in the shadow of the smog crisis. Burning one metric ton of paddy straw produces 6.5 pounds of particulate matter, 132 pounds of carbon monoxide and over a ton and a half of carbon dioxide.

But Pandey isn’t daunted by the scale of the problem. “Imagine how much smog we can cut seasonally if the mushroom cultivation system takes off,” she said. “Even the residue left after mushroom harvest, what we call the spent mushroom substrate, can be used for biogas production, as animal feed or as manure.”

To assist in her war on India’s smog, the 59-year-old scientist, with short tendrils of hair that weave like the mycelial webs of her mushrooms, is training a colorful coalition of mushroom cultivators. During my visit, women from neighboring villages had come to Pandey’s lab to learn about mushroom cultivation. Dressed in intricately embroidered kurtas and sarees, their hands jingling with bracelets and their long braids often tugged by impatient toddlers, they ogled the gargantuan machines used to disinfect paddy straw. Under Pandey’s instruction, they studied how different mushroom species grow in varied conditions, along with their nutritional values and the intricate processes of seed production.

Afterward, they stepped out in the scorching sun, draped the loose ends of their garments over their heads and got to work on Ready To Fruit (RTF) packets — a mélange of mushroom seeds sprinkled over wet straw. When slit open, the straw in these packets starts to decay after a few days, providing the substrate for the fungi to feed on. With a little air and a few sprinkles of water, mushrooms would be growing in less than a month.

To reduce crop burning on a national scale, Pandey is negotiating with the government to set up mechanized seed production units (SPUs), where mushroom cultures are seeded on substrates such as maize and sorghum on a small scale, as well as RTF bag assembly stations and training groups across the country. So far, she has set up 15 SPUs in several states, including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim and Manipur.

Some of her more ambitious pupils have also opened up SPUs in their homes. In a small village northwest of Pandey’s lab, Vijay Kumar H.M., a former assistant in Pandey’s lab, and his wife Manasa sell seeds to customers across South India, making a profit of about $750 per month. “We are comfortably sustaining the business,” Manasa told me.

Pandey’s rural students leave her lab not just with the knowledge of how to reuse paddy straw but also with new recipes that incorporate mushrooms and mushroom powder into traditional delicacies like sambar, chutneys, rasam and puliyogare rice.

“Up until recently, mushrooms were always looked at as food for the affluent class or as a staple for small indigenous communities,” Pandey said. “They have not yet become part of our daily diets, and the masses are still only exposed to three or four varieties in the markets.”

One of the varieties Pandey grows that is not yet widely available is known as “doodh chatta” or milky mushroom. It is native to India, with an oily flesh and a peppery smell reminiscent of a radish.

For mushrooms to gain more acceptance in the Indian diet, the first step is myth-busting, explained S. Sreekanth, the lab’s technical assistant. Many villagers who eat traditionally vegetarian diets think that mushrooms are non-vegetarian because of their fleshy texture; others believe they are dirty, poisonous or inauspicious, feeding on dead matter to sustain the living. “Sometimes,” he said, “mushrooms pay the price for the places they are seen in.”

Changing mindsets seemed to be the hardest part for Pandey and her team, but there was evidence it was starting to work. During my visit, a cohort of previous trainees entered the lobby, returning for their next round of RTF packets. “I’ve started growing mushrooms regularly,” said one, Manjula Ravichandran. “I dry them up and use their powder in my rasams and sauces at least once a week.” Ravichandran and her giggling comrades were in the planning stages of a small community venture, aiming to prepare their own RTF bags for sale.

Meanwhile, a group of cooks huddled enthusiastically in the laboratory kitchen. The aroma of mushroom-rich rice wafted through the hallways of the lab and into Pandey’s office. The air smelled clean and pungent, of organic food grown off waste. Pandey lifted her nose into the air, took a long sniff and smiled.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.