Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain are Europe's largest mushroom producers. Mention La Rioja in northern Spain, and most people will picture majestic sun-drenched vineyards nestled in the hillsides. But, hidden from the sunlight, the region is also home to a very different crop that happens to be at the heart of efforts to make European food production more sustainable.

Three small villages in La Rioja house the vast, dark, humid growing sheds that produce 77,000 tonnes of mushrooms each year. Almost half of Spain's cultivated mushroom crop is grown in the region, making Spain the third-largest producer in Europe, behind Poland and the Netherlands.

New world
'Mushrooms are a whole different world than we are used to, from growing plants or rearing animals,' said Pablo Martínez, an agronomist who worked in wineries before being drawn to the specialist mushroom sector after a chance conversation with a former colleague.

Based at the Mushroom Technological Research Centre of La Rioja (CTICH), Martínez manages a Europe-wide project to tackle the environmental challenges faced by the industry.

Many people know very little about how mushrooms are grown. While it's easy to buy a starter kit online to have a go at home, growing on a commercial scale is very different – managing humidity, temperature and light to produce a regular, quality crop while contending with pest control. 

Cultivated mushrooms can double in size in a day, and consumer demand for them is mushrooming too.

Read the entire article at Horizon