The current emphasis on expanding woodland cover in the UK has the potential to create significant conflict with food production systems. Agroforestry, in which food production is combined with timber crops, has the potential to reconcile food production and forestry yet a poor understanding of high yielding and economically attractive production systems restricts its practice in the UK. Many tree species grown in the UK form a mutualist association (mycorrhizae) with fungi that produce edible fruiting bodies, providing great potential for incorporation into agroforestry systems.
The saffron milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus) is an ectomycorrhizal fungus that produces highly appreciated edible fruiting bodies. This species has a broad European distribution, but is more common in the north of the UK than the south. It forms mycorrhizae with coniferous trees and particularly pines (Pinus species). Since 2007 small-scale experiments in the cultivation of this species have been successful in Europe as well as New Zealand where reported yields have reached 490 Kg/Ha. Scots pine is one of the UKs major forestry crops and so the combination of valued edible fungi (5-23GBP/Kg) and this commercially and ecologically important tree partner, presents the opportunity to develop a system that combines food production with forest expansion.
The successful development of a reliable, cost-effective production method for saffron milkcap crops would incentivise landowners to plant new woodland at the same time as bringing larger areas of the UK into sustainable food production. This agroforestry approach would be a valuable contribution to UK resource security at a time when the UK is struggling with ways to boost tree planting rates and to mitigate the land-use-conflict of food production and forest expansion.
This interdisciplinary PhD project combines biotechnology with microbiology, agroforestry and environmental niche and economic impact modelling to develop the methods required for the successful implementation of this agroforestry system in the UK and evaluate its potential impact.
The project centres on the following objectives:
1) To determine the environmental associations of wild L. deliciosus fruiting body production, thereby enabling us to best target new forest locations for agroforestry development.
2) To develop the methods required for inoculation of host trees that will support fruit body production. Initially this approach will involve developing cultures from collected fruiting bodies and optimising methods to scale fermentation of the mycelium. The work will also involve strain selection, plant partner selection and inoculation methods of tree stock.
3) To determine the effectiveness of inoculation in realistic field conditions. This objective will centre on assessing success of inoculation of young seedlings through field trials in a range of planting conditions and locations, including assessing differences in existing fungal community composition.
4) To assess the potential impact of the rollout of this agroforestry system in the UK using a) environmental niche modelling to assess where in the UK this dual-cropping approach will be most productive based on occurrence, climate and soil data, and b) the likely impact on timber yield class and food production per unit area, for a range of climate and soil scenarios.