Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Assad regime has used food to wield power over besieged areas and take back rebel-held regions by limiting inhabitants' access to agriculture, food production, and basic staples.
MUNCHIES reported last year on the Syrian government's control of food supplies to certain areas and its bombing of breadlines and bakeries—the backbone of Syrian cuisine. In addition to this, widespread humanitarian aid blockades mean that food has become even more scarce. Nearly one million people are living in 52 blockaded areas of Syria but last year, 90 percent of UN requests for aid deliveries were ignored or denied by the regime.
As a result, many NGOs are implementing schemes in Syria to give citizens more agency over their food supply. One such project comes from humanitarian organisation Ghiras Al Nahda, who want to teach Syrians how to grow mushrooms.
The Turkey-based NGO has been working with groups in the besieged area of Eastern Al Ghouta, a rural part of the Syrian capital of Damascus, since 2011. One of its projects involves finding solutions to the scant availability of fresh fruit and vegetables and sources of protein. In 2014, with the help of scientists at the Nwat Centre for Scientific Studies, Ghiras Al Nahda started developing mushroom growing kits that families could use to plant the vegetable at home and feed themselves.
After spending three years researching how to cultivate mushrooms in the region (the area was not previously known for growing fungi), the NGO has given 3,200 kilograms of mushrooms to 1,200 people in the local community. Now, they're crowdfunding to be able to distribute kits for even more Syrians to grow mushrooms in their own homes.
MUNCHIES spoke to Ghiath Mohamed, CEO of Ghiras Al Nahda, over the phone from Turkey to find out more about the potential long-term benefits of growing mushrooms in Syria.
MUNCHIES: Hi Ghiath, why the decision to teach Syrians to grow mushrooms over other vegetables?
Ghiath Mohamed: The area of eastern Al Ghouta has been under siege since 2013 and supplies of food are limited, with many suffering from malnutrition and starvation. So, we started to look for a cheap solution for protein in people's diet.
We found some mushrooms growing in the area and started to research whether they were edible and whether we could germinate them. Mushrooms are full of protein, which meant if people could grow them themselves, it would be a cheap alternative to meat. They're also quick and easy to grow.
The main challenge were the airstrikes and bombs in the area. Every time you're aware of the strikes, you don't know whether to continue in that centre.
What have been the main challenges to the scientists developing the mushrooms growing kits?
The main challenge were the airstrikes and bombs in the area. Every time you're aware of the strikes, you don't know whether to continue in that centre. The location of the centre that the scientists were using to develop the kits changed three or four times. It involved having to move all the equipment each time. Within the first six months, the centre was hit by an air strike. They had to start again from zero and there were also a lot of failed experiments before the mushroom spawns were produced, but we've now managed to feed 1,200 people.
The second challenge was that people aren't used to growing mushrooms. People plant things like tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and aubergine but there's not a tradition of growing mushrooms. So we had to show families how to plant mushrooms and that they could make many kinds of dishes with them.
How exactly will people be able to start growing the mushrooms in their own home?
We will deliver community workshops where each trainee will be given a mushroom growing toolkit. The kit will include a booklet with detailed information about mushroom growing best practice, along with the potential diseases that may affect mushroom and how to avoid and deal with them.
To enable the trainee to start growing mushroom at home, they'll also receive mushroom spawns which will be produced in the lab. Finally, each trainee will also get one kilogram of edible mushrooms with recipes so they can practice cooking mushrooms in case they're not used to eating them.
What is the overall aim of the project?
We want to teach the local community how to grow mushrooms in their home so families can be more sustainable and help those who are besieged how to overcome the challenges of food shortage. We will be targeting the whole community under siege in the area of eastern Al Ghouta and other besieged and hard to reach areas.
Do you see growing mushrooms in Syria as a long-term prospect?
You don't need a lot of space to make make huge farms and plantations for mushrooms. I hope that if people's circumstances are better in the future, and they are not besieged, they can grow the project to start exporting mushrooms to other cities, and maybe outside of Syria.
Thanks for talking to me, Ghiath.
You can donate to Ghiras Al Nahda's CanDo fundraising page here.