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Are the benefits of cordyceps worth a harvester's life?

Are the benefits of cordyceps worth a harvester's life?

The sex drive is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. Men in particular are willing to pay any price, and to bear any burden, to be better in the bedroom. This durable demand is the big reason why the erectile dysfunction category is so profitable, and so rife with abuse.

One ingredient that still occupies a niche in North America is the fungus cordyceps sinensis, known in the Himalayan regions where it is harvested as yarsagumba. The mushroom has been associated with a wide range of health benefits including boosts to male virility.

The extraction and marketing of any botanical starts with either growing the feedstock, if that is possible, or gathering it in the wild. This ‘wildcrafting,’ as it’s called, is hard work, done in many cases under challenging conditions.

But few wildcrafting conditions are extreme as those borne by the yarsagumba harvesters in Tibet and southwestern China. The mushroom grows as a parasite on the bodies of subterranean caterpillars in the alpine tundra. Spores invade the caterpillars—the larvae of a moth species—digest them and mummify the corpses before sending up the tiniest of fruiting bodies. These caterpillars live only at high altitude, where cold, winds and sudden snowstorms take their toll on the pickers, who might live for weeks on end with only a piece of plastic to call home.

But the natural threats are nothing compared to the threats from the pickers’ peers. The trade can be profitable; a successful picker can in a couple of months earn multiples of the typical local yearly income. Conflict over harvesting areas has escalated in the last couple of years to confrontations including beatings and murder.

Is a boost in the bedroom worth a harvester’s life? Apparently in the traditional Asian markets for cordyceps, consumers are willing to pay that price. As far as I know, there is no outside organization certifying the living and working conditions of the harvesters. But the mushroom can apparently be successfully cultured in a medium. Whether the cultured varieties contain the same suite of bioactives as their wildcrafted counterparts is unclear. But one thing these cultured varieties don’t have is blood on their hands. If you want to try cordyceps, consider going with one of the manufacturers who are upfront about how they are culturing the fungus in a controlled setting. 

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