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Threat to Truffles Leaves a Bad Taste
source:China Daily     author:     2011-11-03

A villager from Gaoshitou hunts for truffles with an iron hoe. The soil has been dug so many times that the roots of some pine trees, which are part of the reproduction process, are exposed. [Photo by Yang Wanli/China Daily]

'King of fungi' faces extinction from overeager farmers, Yang Wanli reports from Yunnan province.

Truffles are called the "king of fungi" for good reason. Aficionados pay a king's ransom for these underground mushrooms that resemble stones in appearance.

Specialty markets in Europe open in December or January, when the truffles are mature. Thousands of fans and sellers gather to trade, with prices averaging $2,000 to $3,000 a kilogram.

These gourmets may be at risk of indigestion if they knew that on the other side of the world, in China, truffles sell for less than $100 a kilo and markets open five months earlier.

Chinese farmers are satisfied with the relatively pitiful sums, a fortune when set against their usually low income. But growing demand brings its own pitfalls. Few farmers realize that overeager truffle hunting is pushing the fungi to the brink of extinction.

The truffles that Pang sells are black balls with a rough surface, no bigger than a ping-pong ball. The scent is slight but distinctive. "I think it is much like the smell of brown sugar," she said.

Pang, 42, would give only her family name as she worked at one of the biggest mushroom markets in Nanhua county, Chuxiong autonomous prefecture, in northwest Yunnan province.

She has sold truffles since 2006, she said, and the price the past two or three years has averaged 400 to 500 yuan a kg. "The price peaked at 600 yuan per kg last December and we had started to collect truffles from local farmers in July or August," she said.

"The mature ones collected in December and January have a stronger fragrance and sold at higher prices. But the premature ones also sold well, and cheaper."

Statistics from the county's commercial department show that 709 tons of truffles were traded last year, producing revenue of more than 11 billion yuan ($1.72 billion). Nanhua has three major mushroom markets with hundreds of sellers. Everyone sells at least four or five kinds of mushrooms but only one in five sells the underground variety, truffles.

Pang said she sold about 20 kg every day last month, at 300 yuan a kg. "It will be priced higher in December," she said cheerfully. "It is the most profitable mushroom of all."

When told that mature truffles sell in Europe for what amounts to tens of thousands of yuan, she couldn't hide her surprise. But a few minutes later, she seemed indifferent. "We can't control things that far away. After all, earning this much is enough."

Taste tests

"That is the attitude of most local farmers, which has become the biggest problem for us to protect truffles," Liu Peigui said. "If they continue to hunt truffles before the mature season, it will lead to extinction in the next three or five years."

Liu is a researcher at Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, who has devoted nearly 30 years to studying wild mushrooms. He said China has more than 1,000 edible macro-fungi and 80 percent of them grow in Yunnan province.

"Truffles have the highest economic value among those 800 kinds. People in Western countries deny the quality of truffles in China, but our research found that the similarity of their fragrances is 95 percent." In blind tastings, he said, "Some even say Chinese truffles are better."

They were good enough to spark a boom in mushroom trade with European countries about eight years ago, two years after the truffle trade emerged in Yunnan. Farmers realized the potential, but went after the profits through what Liu calls irrational hunting.

They need each other

Liu described the situation this way:

Eighty percent of mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with a certain plant. Truffles, for example, usually grow with chestnut, pine or hazel trees. Unlike plants with roots, truffles start from spores, which play the role of their seeds. Spores produce hyphae that will later infect the root of its "partner tree". Hyphae are nourished by the tree and later grow into truffles.

After they have successfully infected the root, hyphae need four or five years to grow into truffles. If mature truffles are collected without hurting the hyphae, new truffles will grow next year.

"It is not a unilateral benefit. Truffles produce enzymes that will break down nutritive material. Then the partner trees will grow better," Liu said.

"Only mature spores are able to produce new generations. Premature gathering will not only bring down the price of truffles but also break the chain of their reproduction."

What is more worrisome is the rough manner in which Yunnan truffles are harvested. The hoes and iron-toothed rakes that local farmers use to dig out truffles - instead of gather them - destroy hyphae under the surface. Without hyphae that connect to trees, truffles can no longer grow.

'They don't know'

One of the biggest truffle companies in the province has struggled with farmers for years over their gathering methods. Feng Yongmin, manager of Yunnan Truffle Technical Co, said he bought what is called usufruct - the right to use the natural resources, such as mushrooms - on a mountain rich in truffles but he couldn't stop local farmers from gathering them secretly.

"What really makes me feel depressed and helpless is that farmers dig the earth again and again for those low-price, premature truffles. They don't know that this way of gathering will neither bring them big profits this year nor new truffles next year," Feng said.

Truffle gatherers are called hunters because they traditionally use a pig or a dog to sniff out this precious food hidden underground. But on Feng's mountain in Dabanqiao town of Kunming, Yunnan, farmers use hoes and random digging to find truffles.

"We came to find truffles in July every year and truffle selling could be found in the market five or six years ago," said Liu Xiulian, 45, who lives in Gaoshitou village, Dabanqiao county. She came with her younger sister and a male villager. After searching for an hour, they found only two truffles no bigger than a thumbnail.

She said those small truffles would sell for about 100 yuan a kg. Even with such a low price, there is fierce competition among hunters, including some from townships 200 kilometers away. "They take coaches to Dabanqiao and rent a room to stay. Their iron-toothed rakes are strong, to make deeper digs.

"It's a great business," Liu said. "We earn about 10,000 yuan every year spending just six or seven months collecting truffles. No investment, no cultivation, and easy gathering can bring us double the income we would get growing crops."

Five years ago, she said, truffles could be found in shallow ground and dug out easily by hand. But now, the roots of pine trees are exposed because of the digging, and most places where truffles would grow are covered by loose red soil. "But even if we don't hunt before the mature season, other people will," she said.

"Truffles will never grow here again," the truffle company's Feng said. He can't build a fence to protect his area, about 200 hectares, and there are no regulations to protect truffles.

Model protection

Liu Peigui, a researcher at Kunming Institute of Botany, tends to trees he has infected with truffle hyphae in hope truffles will grow. The fungus' future is at risk, and Liu appealed to the Yunnan government in 2009 to enact laws on the gathering of truffles, but to no avail. He said, "We need more support from the government." [Photo by Yang Wanli/China Daily]

A method that successfully protected another kind of mushroom - matsutake - in Nanhua county might work.

Matsutake mushrooms have sold well since the 1980s to Japan, where they are thought to prevent cancer. The price in Yunnan hit 3,000 yuan a kg in 2002, but the average last year was 1,000 yuan. Before 1980, it was 10 yuan a kg.

As one of the areas of Yunnan rich in matsutake, Nanhua sustained damage from overeager harvesting similar to that seen now with truffles. But local government took action in 2002, requiring farmers to sign contracts to obtain the right to gather matsutake.

"Every family 'owns' a certain area of forest," said Yang Yihua, director of the forestry technology department at Chuxiong Institute of Forestry Sciences. "We also give lectures to family leaders three or more times a year, telling them how to protect mushrooms and, at the same time, to increase production."

Wujie town has promoted such contracts since 2002. In Kaimen, one of its nine villages participating in the plan, 77 families benefit from the contracts. Production of matsutake was 14 tons in 2001 but had jumped to 45 tons by 2005.

"Every family made marks on the trees in their forest," Yang said. "And they no longer gather premature matsutake, instead taking time to let them grow bigger. Some even pitch camps near the mushrooms. It is worthy that a three-person family earns more than 20,000 yuan a year just by gathering matsutake. Now, local farmers even know to drop over-mature mushrooms, helping them to spread their spores.

"I think this mode can be adopted to protect other high-value mushrooms, such as truffles," she said. "But it needs support in terms of both policy and education."

A helping hand

Botanist Liu has spent 10 years researching artificial production of truffles at Kunming Institute He said the special relationship between trees and truffles inspired him.

In a glass greenhouse covering 100 square meters, saplings are infected by truffle hyphae and are moved outside six months later. The first chestnut and pine trees that stand outside are now about 2 meters tall.

"They are 4 years old it will be time to see the result next year," Liu said while pulling up some weeds near the trees. "People always asking me whether the artificial growing will succeed or not. I tell them, only if you believe in science."

(Source: China Daily http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-11/03/content_14026967.htm)

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