To say that the discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s in Oloibiri community of Bayelsa State, Nigeria, was the last straw that destroyed the Nigerian agricultural nerve is to state the obvious.
Before the discovery of this product that has been given different names including black gold, Nigeria ran an agrarian economy with the west boasting of cocoa and timber, the South palm produce while the North was noted for its groundnut pyramids with the East also known for producing plantain and yams amongst others.
But all these legacies were thrown to the wind soon after the discovery of oil, and ever since, oil has come to be the economic live wire of the Nigerian economy.
Of course, cries from numerous quarters have not yielded any result for the government to diversify the economy away from oil as those in power see oil as the shortest path to the nation’s wealth and by extension, theirs.
However past and present governments have ventured into one form of agricultural programmes or the other notable among which are Green Revolution, Operation Feed the National, including the one put forward by the immediate past administration under former president Goodluck Jonathan christened Agriculture Transformation Agenda (ATA).
It is important to note from the onset that any government that has the political will to tackle agricultural development in the country cannot escape the reality of cost of machinery as only mechanized agriculture could drive the economy of any nation.
From the above, it can be deduced that cost of machinery apart from political will has been the bane of any revolution in agricultural sustenance and development in the country, although there are examples by some state governments that are striving which is not the subject of this piece.
Interestingly, however, there is a crop though common that abounds in the year round across the country to which has economic potentials but has been relegated to the background.
This crop is the mushroom which experts in the field have described as a major crop that if properly harnessed could boost the economy of the country.
According to John Aroye Okhuoya, Professor of Mycology and Plant Pathology at the University of Benin, mushroom growing is big business if only the Nigerian government can encourage people of his class to go into mushroom farming.
He raised the alarm that mushroom could go extinct if not grown in large farms as the environment was changing and most of the indigenous species are disappearing and that is not good for the country he added.
Okhuoya emphassied that it is proper if the government can help encourage documenting indigenous mushrooms in Nigeria especially in the geopolitical zones because the forests were fast depleting.
He explained that mushrooms have peculiar relationship with some trees and expressed fear that such mushroom could be gone if nothing was done to protect them.
“It will be in our own interest to document now and maybe have a gene bank where we can develop some strains since we have the technology to cultivate a number of them in the laboratory” he said.
He further explained that the public should be made to know that the Asian countries are making a lot of money out of mushroom production.
According to him, Ghana has gone far ahead in institutionalising mushroom production and wondered why Nigeria which has a wide variety of mushrooms all over the country cannot have an institute for mushroom science.
If Asian countries were well into the business of mushroom production and solving unemployment and other economy related activities, Okhuoya believes Nigeria can also benefit in that direction.
Apart from making a lot of money, they cultivate them for the production of drugs, food supplements and so on, so if you go into cultivation “you can either go into the cultivation of edible mushrooms or medicinal mushrooms which is today big business” he said.
According to the mushroom guru, due to the medicinal potentials of mushroom they can be used in the fortification of food.
“We have mushroom rice which have been tried as a means of increasing the appetite of HIV patients and it was found that they gained weight.
“You can have mushroom bread, fortify our break with mushroom because they contain protein. No cholesterol, we can have mushroom snack.
“They are in the market and Asian countries are making billions of dollars from mushroom so why can’t Nigeria also begin to think of things like that, diversify” he stated.
He pointed out that petroleum is not the only thing that Nigeria is endowed with that can fetch it a lot of money.
Nigeria is also endowed with things like mushroom that we can export to enrich our country, he added.
Another notable mushroom farmer and proprietor of Dilomat Farm in Rivers State, Pastor Moore Chinda also shares the passion that Nigeria can benefit economically if it goes into aggressive mushroom cultivation.
According to him, China came into limelight as major world producer of mushrooms through the introduction of what has come to be known as the Household Responsibility System (HRS) reforms which took place in that country.
Reports have it that China produces more than 8 million metric tons of mushrooms valued at over 40 billion US dollars and employing over 30 million people.
This shows a dramatic increase from the 60,000 metric tons before the 1978 reforms.
Today, according to reports, Pennsylvania is reputed to be the leading producer of mushroom in the world employing over 10 million people that produce mushroom valued at more than 63.8 million Chinda, who won the 2009 Local Raw Material Content Award recalled that he was able through research to successfully and scientifically produce the seed that grows the mushroom (spawn).
He expressed optimism that mushroom production can create jobs in Nigeria and reduce poverty and restiveness which has charactrerised the youth in recent times.
He said if well articulated, mushroom business was capable of improving the agricultural output as well as boosting the industrial development of the nation.
The Dilomat boss who described mushrooms cultivation as “white Agricultural Revolution” said if a youth was empowered with at least N30,000 to N40,000 to learn mushroom cultivation, they would be able to have a turnover of between N500,000 to N1 million within 6-10 months.
At the end of that period, he should be able to have close to N1 million at his disposal.
“I am talking about 30,000 to N40,000 weekly in one month that translates it to close to N1 million. It is a cumulative sale of mushroom” he said.
However, experts are unanimous on the need for controlled scientific cultivation of mushrooms to check the possible incidence of mushroom poisoning accassioned by picking of mushrooms in the wild.
For example, a national daily some years ago carried a story about a family in Okpokhumi-Emai in Owan East Local Government Area of Edo State that died after eating a meal served with mushroom soup.
This problem arose and will still arise as long as people depend on collecting mushroom from the wild, and the practice is fraught with the danger of collecting edible mushroom along with poisonous ones, according to Prof. Okhuoya.
He noted that people of old had their own way of identifying and differentiating poisonous from edible species, even as most of the criteria they use are not reliable and are best described as old wives fables.
According to him, one of such tales is the belief that insects and animals both domestic and wild do not eat poisonous mushrooms.
Prof Okhuoya described such claim as not true even as he said some insects and rodents eat some poisonous species and survive because the body mass of these creatures were not the same with that of man.
The other fables are mushrooms lose toxiduty after cooking, all spring mushrooms are edible, when your silver spoon turns yellow when cooking soup with mushroom, such a mushroom is poisonous, good odours of some species indicate edibility and latex exuding species are poisonous.
One the belief about your silver spoon turning yellow when cooking soup with mushroom as an indication that such a mushroom is poisonous, Okhuoya argued that “this is not reliable as the type of spoon mayvary.
“Also Amanita species of mushroom do not change spoon colour yet they are poisonous”.
Talking about good, adours of some species indicating edibility, he warned that there are some poisonous species without strong adours.
And on the latex-exuding species being an indication of their toxidity, he disagreed and said this is also not reliable adding that some lactarius species are edible.
All said and done, any of these traditional beliefs could have led the unfortunate family to eat the meal served with mushroom soup.
If only they had known they should have consulted Okhuoya for advice or test.
As it were, it is possible that they did not know that someone like him exists who studied everything about mushroom up to PHD level.
Infact, as far as mushroom growing eating and marketing is concerned, he is a specialist, a guru.
Not only that, one of his products is now assisting one of the states in America to grow mushrooms in commercial quantity.