This question is very debatable. In the end, it depends on the individual vegetarian’s ethical views – do they think all killing of animals for food is unethical, or is it kosher when the humans are not the ones doing the killing?
Yarsagumba takes lives to grow and reproduce, so the question is if you see it as the same or similar thing as the Inuit people and their meat-only diet, or simple circle of life.
So, what’s up with the debate?
As mentioned in the intro, the Inuit population’s diet mostly consists of meat and fish. Their environment doesn’t really allow for growing crops. With all that being said, some vegetarians still consider their eating habits to be unethical and cruel to animals.
So, where does this leave our friend yarsagumba? It still kills animals to survive. One may argue that it has less choice since the gods of evolution made it that way (unlike the Inuit who can “simply move”).
And that’s where we get the other side of the coin. There is no choice in the way yarsagumba exists, just the way there is no choice in the anteater eating ants, or a bird eating a worm, or a lion eating an antelope.
We as humans can operate on a (slightly) higher intellectual level and can consider the ethics, economics, and environmental impact behind all of our choices. Therefore, we are automatically held to a higher standard than other creatures whose instincts and natures don’t allow them to change their behaviors willingly.
There really is nothing else that is comparable to this situation. There is no other veggie-friendly food that kills animals in this manner. So, as the situation is very unique, it’s up to the individual to decide where they stand.
The fact is that yarsagumba is not an animal even though it kills animals. It’s also a fact that it has no control over the evolutionary card it was dealt with, and neither is there a human hand in any of these things.
Where are the vegans in this conversation?<h3?
Probably in the same place, though some on the extreme side of the spectrum may argue that killing is killing, and it doesn’t matter if a “plant” is doing it.
Luckily, yarsagumba is not the only member of the cordyceps family, and it certainly isn’t the only one that has medicinal properties. If they have issues with the ones that grow on ants, they can always switch to the ones that grow on plants.
How does yarsagumba kill animals?
It starts with a single spore. It lands on a humble ant (in this example). The ant starts behaving strangely since they are in obvious pain and distress. The spore is growing and developing a system of roots in its tissue now. It takes only a couple of days for its body to be completely taken over.
Yarsagumba plugs into its brain and floods it with chemicals. Once in the driver’s seat, it leads the ant towards perfect conditions. There it parks itself and starts growing. The ant is dead the second it finished its role as a transportation vehicle.
Within 3 weeks, the yarsagumba is fully grown and ready to release a new batch of spores. Ready to infect more ants.
Can yarsagumba survive without doing all that?
No. Many of its cousins can, but it cannot.
This is just one of those weird quirks of evolution. We don’t even know for sure why it infects insects in the first place.
Some scientists propose that this ability is older than most of the species of insects in the first place, and quite possibly originates in the times before plants and animals branched out from each other.
But then again, there are multiple species of fungi that have no issue feeding off of decomposing animal flesh. It could be that yarsagumba at some point just couldn’t wait for the heartbeat to stop.
The species that kill animals
When you read articles or watch documentaries, the species that is always depicted is cordyceps unilateralis, or better known as yarsagumba, winter worm, or caterpillar fungus. For centuries, it used to be considered to be an actual parasitic worm since it both looks the part and acts like one.
Obviously, it’s not. It’s a parasitic mushroom, just like all other members of the cordyceps genus and numerous other species of fungi.
Yarsagumba is native to the Himalayas, but other species all over the world behave the same. It’s just that this particular one has a spotlight on it because it’s the one humans have known about the longest and have been making use of it. It’s cousins behave the same, just with slight differences in their preferred conditions for growing and releasing spores.
Does yarsagumba only kill ants or does it kill other animals as well?
As far as we know, yarsagumba only goes after worms and insects. To date, there was never a single legitimate case presented that it can infect mammals, birds, or fish.
There is also a possibility that it can’t infect anything larger in size. This conclusion mostly comes from the lack of cases where yarsagumba or any of its siblings have infected crabs or lobsters (which are in essence giant bugs).
All the confusion comes from entertainment and media, primarily the video game The Last of Us. The plot for it is a spin on the very popular zombie/post-apocalyptic genre in which cordyceps infect everything from humans to both wild and domesticated animals.
Believe it or not, several scientists actually had to come out and explain why these types of infections are improbable. It boils down to our central nervous systems being far more complex than the ones that exist in ants. Plus, our tissues are too good at protecting it.
If we get to see cordyceps jump from bugs to larger creatures, it would have to be the ones with a simpler nervous system (i.e., jellyfish).
The species that grow on plants
With about 600 species of cordyceps, you better believe that a vast majority of them grow on plants. The species that is most often farmed is called cordyceps militaries, and it’s probably the stuff you’ll get your hands on if you decide to give it a go yourself.
These species of cordyceps are still parasites and they are still bound to kill their host. However, they do in a very similar manner to any other parasitic mushroom – by slowly draining out the nutrients.
It’s argued that these types are a lot more destructive, considering that they are not as picky to what they like to latch on to. They have an almost identical life span to their ant-eating counterparts, therefore making a few errant spores capable of destroying an entire ecosystem.
So, if you’re dealing with these guys, still practice caution. Otherwise, you may have to say goodbye to your ficus, lawn, or that lavender meadow behind your house.
Know the difference when buying
The price tag is a decent indicator of what you’re getting. Cordyceps that prey on insects can be up to 160+ times more expensive than the stuff that can be cultivated on plants. This means if you see it going for $60, it’s the vegan-friendly stuff. But if the price tag goes into 4 or 5 digits, it may be the ant-killing kind.
There’s a quick visual indicator as well, but it’s not accurate all the time. The stuff that grows on plants tends to be brighter in color. Even when dried, the species that grew by hijacking insects lean more towards brown, while the veggie kind is a bit more orange.
It’s not a 100% clear indicator since there are quite a few plant-growing species that have a duller color, but it’s something to look for when someone is trying to sell you a “genuine article freshly harvested from the Himalayas”.
Finally, there’s the country of origin. All cordyceps that are farmed in the US are (currently) grown on plant-based substrates, The only “animal farmed” specimens could come from China where they grow them on maggots.
The stuff you’ve seen on the Discovery Channel should come from Tibet or Nepal. But note that the cordyceps from the last three countries rarely hits US shores, and when it does, it costs an arm and a leg.
Know the difference when growing
Make sure that you are working with the species called cordyceps militaries. It’s perfectly suited for growing on classic mushroom farming substrates, and most importantly, it won’t kill your friendly neighborhood ant colony.
They also look very different. While yarsagumba has a textured surface and looks like a caterpillar, these guys more resemble bloated orange enoki mushrooms. The outer skin is smooth and often bright tangerine color.
As of now, it’s difficult to get your hands on cordyceps unilateralis spores in the US (the Himalayan species that infects insects), so be very skeptical if someone is offering syringes with it for sale. Especially if they are doing so at a very attractive price.
Is there a difference in nutrition and medical properties between different species of cordyceps?
Yes, but it’s so small it’s irrelevant. It would take hundreds of years of consumption to see a significant difference.
Species of cordyceps are just a smidgen more effective. That may be the case because of their ability to seek out the perfect growing conditions on their own.
Still, considering how much of this mushroom humans consume and how our digestive system works, you can ignore all of that since you’ll get the benefits either way. So, pick the species that aligns well with your ethics and your wallet.