The onset of rains in Goa not only mean change in the weather but also eating habits.

As monsoon winds and a two-month fishing ban make fishing in the sea difficult, river fish find pride of place in daily meals. Meanwhile, for vegetarians, it’s the season for Olmi or edible wild mushrooms, widely sold all along the highways in cities from the month of July till September. The aroma of mushroom xacuti, a gravy made with coconut and spices, or shallow-fried mushroom waft out from vegetarian households – heady enough, some claim, to make even the staunchest non-vegetarian go weak in the knees.

Social media images of women selling the mushrooms on huge leaves on the roadside create an even bigger buzz around this monsoon favourite. “We prepare these seasonal wild mushrooms in a variety of ways including mushroom fried rice,” said caterer Anjana Amonkar who waits for these mushrooms to make her favourite delicacies. “It has the taste of the soil and it is as natural as it gets – for it being organic.”

However, experts believe that the general lack of knowledge among consumers about this species of edible mushrooms can affect the ecosystem.

Mushrooms play an important role as decomposing agents and widespread harvesting can have repercussions on forest health. Credit: Dr Nandkumar M Kamat/Mongabay

“Edible mushrooms are very popular in Goa but few know about their ecological and biological aspects,” says Nandkumar Kamat, assistant professor, department of botany, Goa University, who has been studying these mushrooms for more than 30 years now.

Mushrooms in Goa have interesting local names which are derived from either the habitat – such as Roen olmi for termite hill mushroom, shape – Khut olmi for mushrooms with a long stem and Fugo olmi for balloon-shaped mushrooms, colour – tamdi olmi for red mushrooms and size and occasionally the fruiting season – shith olmi that grows in winter. The Termitomyces species in Goa, which grow on termite hills, are eaten most widely. They are harvested from the forested areas mainly in talukas of Valpoi, Sattari, Canacona, in the Western Ghats in Goa.

These mushrooms play an important role as decomposing agents and thus harvesting them can have severe repercussions on the health of the forests, says Kamat. In fact, the Goa forest department banned the harvesting of these wild mushrooms in 1992. However, the very next year, the ban was amended to cover only wildlife sanctuaries and government-owned protected forests.

According to Kamat, these mushrooms grow only on termite hills and are, therefore, impossible to cultivate artificially. The termites eat them to obtain enzymes and nitrogen. “No termites, no mushrooms,” he said, adding that the Western Ghats has 35 species, about 15 are endemic, out of which 12 are brought harvested for sale.

A complicated relationship

According to Kamat, each roen or termite hill recycles about 500 kg of organic matter from the forest each year and the mineral and nutrient-rich soil are returned to the forest soil pool.

Over 50% dead plant material on the forest floor and in grasslands, millions of tons each year is converted by the powerful enzymes of these species inside the fungus gardens of the termite hill. Each hectare of forest in the Western Ghats has about 810 termite hills. In mixed forests, like in the Western Ghats, where there is a lot of tree diversity, creating mixed leaf litter on ground for termites to decompose, termites invade between 21% and 79% of trees.

Fungus grower termites transport moist subsoil and construct covered tunnels up to the base of a tree and then slowly plaster it all around while chewing up the soft bark and transporting it mixed in saliva to their underground fungus gardens where it’s composted. All biodegradable matter like fallen leaf litter is also plastered in the same manner. Below the plaster one will find hundreds of active termite workers.

The plant material taken inside the termite hill ends up in the fungal comb. Each comb weighs 28 kg to 31 kg. The Termitomyces fungus in the comb decomposes 167 kg to 341 kg of organic matter annually. Besides the mutualistic system, it also creates an isolated space by removing virus-carrying vectors, like ticks, on the forest floor. These are brought along with dead litter inside the termite hill and composted,” elaborated Kamat.

Termitomyces in the wild. Credit: Dr Nandkumar M Kamat/Mongabay

Due to this complex system, these 130 million-year-old mushrooms are known as solid waste managers in forests and grasslands. These termite hills also have cultural importance as they are worshipped in Goa and neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra. The termite hills are considered as the symbol of Mother Earth and associated with fertility. One can still come across termite hills in the sanctum sanctorum of temples in tribal areas of Goa.

Even today picking of mushrooms from termite hills is preceded by a ritual. “Picking happens in the wee hours,” said local from Canacona, who didn’t wish to identify himself, who harvests these mushrooms for self-consumption. “First, a small ritual is performed by dusting the termite hill with branches of the uskai [Getonia floribunda] tree. It could be to get rid of snakes as it is believed that snakes reside in them.”

Kamat believes that the veneration could help in conservation of the termite hills but commercialisation of the mushrooms is far too rampant. “Urban populations must curb the fad around eating wild produce or anything can’t be cultivated,” he insisted. “Goa is already 65% urbanized with only 41,000 hectares of land left for any further development. From the perspective of species diversity, gene pool, distribution pattern and habitat stress, there needs to be a total irreversible ban on collection and consumption of all wild edible mushrooms.” Instead, he suggested, people opt for the commercially grown button or oyster mushrooms that are easily available in the market.

Vasanti, a local vendor who sells these wild mushrooms on the roadside, said, “We get these mushrooms from Valpoi. And we sell them as there is a huge demand for it during this season. It is an ideal alternative for fish or even chicken. Buyers even though they bargain, they love to buy these as they may get a chance to eat either twice or maximum thrice. Also, it helps us to get some income from this seasonal produce.”

Moreover, Kamat pointed out, the wild mushrooms are sold from anywhere between Rs 250 and Rs 1,000 or more for around 50 pieces. It is an expensive price to pay but consumers don’t hesitate as it is available only for a couple of months. He said that it is one of the most expensive fungal foods in the world. “These mushrooms contain 90% water,” he said. “A bud weighing 15 grams is sold by these vendors from Rs 10 – Rs 15. So, a kilogram of the mushrooms costs from Rs 700 or 750 up to Rs 7,000 or 7500.”

In Goa, the mushrooms are sold by packets and each packet has less than 30 mushrooms and weighs less than 400 grams but this year the price was Rs 600 on an average so it comes to Rs 1500 per kg up to Rs 15,000. The high prices people are paying are not for number, weight or volume of purchase but for the taste of the seasonal delicacy which competes with prized expensive European Perigord truffles.

Till 1965 these mushrooms were not commercially available in Goa. The growing urbanisation and tourism facilitated their entry into the market, creating a supply chain that involves villagers who know these edible mushrooms, sorters and packers, vendors and saleswomen. Locals and consumers argue that it provides employment and easy money to those involved.

Wild mushrooms are sold from anywhere between Rs 250 and Rs 1,000 or more for around 50 pieces. Credit: Arti Das/Mongabay

Raya Shankwalker, secretary of Goa Heritage Action Group, a group of experts who document and create awareness about Goa’s built and natural heritage, said, “Olmi are a part of Goa’s monsoon diet and very popular. While previous generations knew the season, and method of harvesting them without affecting the ecology, newer generations deprived of traditional knowledge are overharvesting the fungi, much to the detriment of their future growth.”

“However, on the other hand, these mushrooms do make for an alluring seasonal income source for marginalised, rural communities and banning the harvest can cause a ripple effect in such households that depend on the income,” she said. “These kinds of questions about our natural heritage need constant conversation and negotiations to come to a viable solution.”

Meanwhile, the local from Canacona argued, “We are consuming these mushrooms for generations now and this knowledge of harvesting is mainly among villagers only. They have the best knowledge of how and how much to harvest. They are well aware that over-harvesting will reduce these mushrooms. I don’t think one can put a total ban on its consumption. Also, if someone is selling them, it is not right to target them. They are also doing for survival.”

Kamat however, did not buy the argument: “They can earn even more income by growing oyster mushrooms at home. But they [those who harvest and sell] are addicted to taking everything free from nature.”

Parag Rangnekar, a member of Goa State Biodiversity Board, opines that there is no easy solution to this issue. He said, “Harvesting these mushrooms very early in the bud stage, digging them out is an issue. If the harvesting is done after the fruiting bodies have matured, it could be an option. And of course, collection in protected areas shouldn’t happen at all.”

Miguel Brananza, former secretary of Botanical Society of Goa, suggested that there is a need for a fine balance. “Natural resources are renewable and need to be used responsibly and not abused,” he said. “And Goa has a culture of environmental responsibility. The best example of it is the sacred forests found here. I believe total ban and senseless exploitation are equally bad.”

Say ‘no more’?

Kamat has been working on creating awareness about the conservation of Tertmitomyces for almost two decades now. He says not much is done by the state machinery.

Last year he conducted a workshop on the subject for the Biodiversity Management Committees under the Goa State Biodiversity Board.

Pradip Sarmokadam, member-secretary of Goa State Biodiversity Board, says various Biodiversity Management Committees in Goa are given toolkits from last year, 2018, following the workshop conducted by Kamat with photographs and names of mushrooms for identification as part of People’s Biodiversity Registers. It will also locate the areas where these Termitomyces are found in abundance and the areas which are under threat.

According to Sarmokadam, “Conservation is only possible when the owners of the bioresources, the local people, are convinced, involved and are able to derive the benefits in a sustainable way by ensuring that varieties are not overexploited or lost.” Although not a supporter of rampant commercialisation, Sarmokadam suggests, however, that local consumption be allowed albeit for a fee. “Responsible consumption may be allowed by levying of a fee by local Biodiversity Management Committees. Before that, conservation programs should be taken up for at least five years before allowing access to the mushrooms,” he concludes.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.