What unseen riches lie beneath your feet?

One morning when we were dairy farming, my husband came home for breakfast after milking the cows and parked the tractor directly behind my car so that I would have to walk past it and realise it was there before I moved my car.

Shortly after, I set off for work, walked past the tractor, jumped into my car and backed right into the tractor with a very decent crunch. The look on my husband’s face as he stared through the window will be forever etched in my memory as a "marriage moment".

Observational skills are not a strength of mine. This was highlighted once again when a friend took me mushrooming recently. We walked paths that I had walked with my dogs only hours before, but because my lens had changed, a whole new world opened up — a world of fruiting bodies and decomposing tree trunks. Because I am now social media free, I have wonderful time on my hands to explore my latest obsession: fungi.

Amazingly, we see only a tiny proportion of what is out there. The fruiting bodies, mushrooms or toadstools, represent about 10% of fungi species and only pop up at certain times of year. The majority of fungal biomass takes the form of mycelium, a one-cell-thick network that weaves its way through soil, secreting enzymes and acids that degrade large molecules of dead plants into simpler molecules. In Oregon, a mycelial mat has been found on a mountaintop that covers more than 900ha and is thought to be more than 2200 years old.

Fungi outnumber plants at a ratio of at least six to one, yet we do both plants and fungi a disservice by classifying them separately. The symbiotic interactions across species is quite mind-blowing — the network beneath our feet is as sophisticated as global data systems. Check out the book Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets for further inspiration.

New Zealand has many native fungal species, many of which have not yet been identified. Years ago, I used to tease a friend of mine, who in her holidays would go on "fungal forays". At the time, I thought she was a bit nuts. It turned out I was the ignorant one.

She has spent a career identifying fungal biocontrols to reduce our use of herbicides and pesticides. She is one of only a handful of New Zealanders who study fungi. At the University of Otago there is a whole department of microbiologists, exploring bacteria and viruses, yet only a couple of mycologists (housed in the botany department). This is despite the immense impact these organisms have on our ecosystems.

Interestingly, the only other group of people I have ever heard speaking extensively about fungal ecosystems are regenerative farmers. As contentious as the term "regenerative" is in agricultural circles, these farmers recognise that fungal species play a key role in healthy soils and plants, and that agriculture can play its part in rebuilding ecosystems.

When we do read about fungi in the news, it’s not usually a good thing – think Myrtle Rust and Kauri die back – these types of outbreaks are often caused by introduced fungal species, changing the balance of ecosystems. We are likely to see more outbreaks as our sensitive ecosystems come under greater challenge from increased global temperatures. Scientists at Scion have identified a tiny fungus, of the Sphaerellopsis genus, around Taranaki and the Kaimai and Mamaku ranges, that feeds on myrtle rust. Could a fungal control be one of the solutions to die-back?

Fungi also play a significant role in human health — most of us know of penicillin, derived from the Penicillium species. When you think of the enzymes and chemicals secreted as fungal mycelia grow, we are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the anti-viral and medicinal properties of fungal species. I wonder what unique offerings our native fungal species have and how we might use them in a way which rebuilds ecosystems.

As a species, we consistently underestimate the sophistication of the world around us. We think we see, we think we understand — yet we blindly walk by what is often right in front of us.

Humans are one species in a complex ecosystem, and what happens ecologically when a species destroys its food source is that species starts to die. Sadly, we are likely to destroy many other species in that process. Ultimately though, fungal ecosystems, in some shape or form, will march on, adapting and living symbiotically with plants, bacteria, insects and what mammals remain. In Paul Stamets’ words: "the interconnectedness of life is an obvious truth that we ignore at our peril".

 - Anna Campbell is co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She holds various directorships.