You know that old gag about being treated like a mushroom? Kept in the dark and fed sh*te? However, it seems that mushrooms are about to see the light. Well, at least a certain spectrum of light – ultraviolet.
It turns out we have more in common with mushrooms than we previously thought. Humans can only make vitamin D from the sunlight that we absorb through our skin.
Otherwise we are dependent on fish and animal products, because no vegetables provide significant amounts of this immune-boosting vitamin.
That’s a big problem for the growing cohort of vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians out there.
The ability of a mushroom grown under UV light to provide vegetarian vitamin D is just one of the reasons mushrooms are becoming a crucial part of the future food supply.
When a mushroom is dried and ground into a powder, it can also be used as a key ingredient not only for flavor but also for texture and binding ability in the vast array of meatless foods that make their way onto supermarket shelves.
I recently got a glimpse into this world of cutting-edge food technology at a Teagasc seminar in Ashtown.
It was remarkable to hear how a fourth-generation family of butchers from Offaly had decided that the most sustainable option for their large burger and sausage factory in Birr was to convert it into a factory that only produces meatless options.
Eoin Loughnane, one of the owners, told the audience that companies from around the world are looking to Irish manufacturers like him to make more vegetarian options.
For a country not blessed with a large vegetable growing base like Holland or Spain, it confused attendees. Why Ireland?
“Because they trust us,” was Loughnane’s explanation. He has received offers from venture capitalists looking to invest hundreds of millions in meatless processing facilities in Ireland as it is seen as such a huge growth opportunity in the years to come.
And all the numbers from Bord Bia and market research point in the same direction. Sales of meatless options are doubling and tripling every year or two, and there seems to be no end in sight.
The question of the health of a vegetarian diet with regard to long-term nutrition was raised by the speakers, but experts also had answers to this.
“The fact is that much of humanity has survived on an effectively vegetarian diet for centuries,” said Pat Fitzgerald of Kilkenny plant breeders Beotanics.
“But since 75 percent of our food comes from just 12 plants, there are of course nutrient gaps. The answers lie in all the vegetables that Western culture has ignored for centuries.”
Because of this, he has embarked on a major breeding program to commercialize previously ignored plants like oca and yacon, both of which are rich in antioxidants.
When successful, these types of foods are dried and ground into powder for use in food chains and nutraceuticals.
The other big food trend is the desire for “clean” ingredients. Nobody wants to see endless lists of E numbers, preservatives and emulsifiers on bread, soups or ready meals anymore.
The reason so many were included was primarily to maximize the shelf life of food. Now major food manufacturers are switching from additives to technology to make food last as long as possible.
Touring the astounding array of labs and kitchens on the Ashtown campus gave me a glimpse of the futuristic methods already in use to preserve food.
Tanks that pressurize food to 6,000 bar and gizmos that generate pulsating electric fields to remove bacteria from food are now being commercialized for use in everyday food products like hummus and soups.
It is this continuous evolution of food processing that allows companies like Ballymaguire Foods to scale up and scale up their production even further.
Established as a spin-off of North Dublin farming business Country Crest, Ballymaguire will employ over 400 people by this time next year. The business only started in 2008 and is already generating sales in the double-digit millions.
Michael Hoey, one of the owners, started sniffing cabbages and bagging potatoes in the fields of the home farm many moons ago. Along with his brother Gabriel and chef Ed Spellman, he had the vision and drive to continue elevating that cabbage and bag of potatoes.
There is no fortune to be made in agriculture, but for those who are able to maximize the value of the primary products that this land possesses in abundance, the world is at their mercy.
And perhaps Irish farmers should start viewing the veggie trend as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farming business in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/why-farmers-should-see-the-veggie-trend-as-an-opportunity-rather-than-a-threat-41538621.html Why farmers should see the veggie trend as an opportunity rather than a threat