Degrees of innovation in the mushroom industry vary greatly around the world. In North America for instance, selling mushrooms in a blue container is the standard and product containing dirt is completely acceptable. “Mushroom growers in this part of the world have been able to get away with it,” says Jose Cambon, CEO of Canadian Highline Mushrooms. In other parts of the world however, including the Netherlands and Australia, innovation has continued, and mushroom consumption increased as a result. There’s a sheer difference between US mushroom consumption of 1 kilogram per capita and average per capita consumption in the EU of 3 kilograms.
The opportunity to increase consumption is significant, but change is needed in order to make it happen. “In a sustainable way, we need to delight consumers with a great product,” mentioned Cambon. “We don’t need to invent the wheel ourselves. We can just take a proven formula from overseas and apply it in North America.” One of the innovations Highline Mushrooms is working on is a clear punnet. Not only would consumers be able to see the product they buy, clear punnets can also be recycled as opposed to blue containers. This would kill two birds with one stone. “However, providing product in clear punnets will force us to raise the standards. It will take effort and a change of growing techniques to provide consumers with a clean product and a great eating experience.” Highline Mushrooms is in the process of converting to clear punnets with rollout at select retailers starting this summer.
Mushrooms in clear punnet.
Creating a message
Cambon is convinced consumption will also get a boost if consumers have better knowledge of the industry. “We haven’t done a great job in telling the mushroom story. Consumers eat blueberries because they are healthy and contain antioxidants, but why do consumers eat mushrooms? We need to create a message and consumers will eat more,” he said. What could also be better underlined is the fact that mushrooms are one of the most sustainably produced foods in North America.
"Byproducts and waste from other sectors of agriculture are converted into compost to grow mushrooms. Mushrooms are also a fairly low-energy footprint crop as they grow in the dark and don’t use artificial light. Just like vertical farms, mushrooms don’t require much space. According to the American Mushroom Institute, one acre of land can produce one million pounds of mushrooms. Recently, vertical farms have emerged. The popularity of vertical farms is driven by higher yields, lower water use, and a lower carbon footprint. “That’s exactly what mushroom farms have been doing for years,” commented Cambon. “It’s nothing new and we need to find a way to convey that message.”
Not only from a consumer perspective, but also from an operational perspective Cambon sees opportunities to interrupt the industry. “At our farms, we want to create highly skilled technical jobs for Canadians as well as offer opportunities for people from foreign countries.” It’s an extremely labor-intensive industry, but it has been difficult to attract local labor and promote migrants. “We want to change that as well.”