Wonder Worm to the Rescue

Can worms help save the planet? I think so and, before arguing my case, please let me state my position from the start: I am an ecologist. Not just the type of trendy person who faithfully recycles — although I am fashionably green and a semi-vegetarian who tries to recycle as many beer bottles as possible. No, I am also the other, scientific kind.

The science of ecology is generally defined as a study of organisms and their environment, i.e., everything! However, I would be somewhat more categorical and say that it is “The study of organisms, their products whether alive or dead, and their environment” — i.e., even more of everything, including fossil fuels and human endeavour!

An ecologist then, is someone who considers holistic workings of a natural ecosystem in all its complexity and diversity throughout its time-cycle while breaking it down into its component parts and honing in on its few key, controlling entities. Simultaneously practising as a generalist and as a multi-faceted specialist.

Deeds of the dirt

The experience of growing up in rural England alongside my grandfather, the village farrier who was also a bee keeper and gardener, as well as my weekend work with farmers and gamekeepers, immersed me in general natural history. This education was formalized by academic degrees in terrestrial and aquatic biology and, for me the key to life, soil ecology. The main movers and shakers in the soil are the living organisms, paramount amongst which is the humble, hidden earthworm.

Here I must air my strong objections to marine biologists such as Sylvia Earle who pointed out after winning the TED 2009 Prize that the oceans make up 70 percent of the surface of the Earth and the rest is just “dirt”.

Approximately 99.4 percent of our food and fibre is produced on land and only 0.6 percent comes from oceans and other aquatic ecosystems combined, according to FAO. The calorific value obtained from ocean catches, freshwater fishing and aquaculture adds up to just about 10-16 percent of the current human total. (These figures are slightly skewed for maritime countries like Japan and Iceland but still, more than 80 percent of our nutrition is terrestrial in origin).

Leonardo da Vinci’s observed 500 years ago that ‘We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot’ and this still rings true today.

Furthermore, I am sure Dr. Earle accepts that the oceanic ecosystem is wholly dependent upon dissolved nutrients washed down or blown from the soil and is similarly affected by pollution mainly from activity on the land. Her survival depends as much as anyone’s on the “just dirt” part.

Thus it is abysmal that scientific knowledge of the oceans is infinitely deeper than for terrestrial ecosystems. Moreover, Leonardo da Vinci’s observed 500 years ago that “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot” and this still rings true today. The journal Science, realizing that our knowledge is so scant, produced a special 2004 issue entitled Soils — The Final Frontier.

Why waste precious funds and brain resources on the vain discovery of useless planets overhead or new deep-sea species that will still be there tomorrow, while vital unrecognized organisms literally beneath our feet disappear at an increasingly alarming rate and to our peril?

Why are we not concentrating our efforts and valuable resources on protecting and preserving the tangible deeds of our earthly home patch for current and future generations of Earthlings? Where on earth is our Soil Ecology Institute?

Global worming

We talk of greenhouse gasses and global warming yet it is the lithosphere, not the oceans nor trees, that acts as the major global carbon sink. This is especially so following the discovery just over a decade ago of glomalin, a tightly bound organic molecule accounting for an extra 30 percent of stored soil carbon. (The energy crisis too can be cured by simply tapping freely into subterranean geothermal energy, as recounted in an Our World 2.0 article on this ‘red hot power’.)

Atmospheric carbon is entirely recycled via the soil from plants in around 12-20 years — all of this being processed through the intestines of worms.

Proper management of our arable, pastoral and forest soils is the most practically feasible mechanism to sequester atmospheric carbon without any adverse effects. Atmospheric carbon is entirely recycled via the soil from plants in around 12-20 years — all of this being processed through the intestines of worms.

Vermicomposting of organics and encouraging soil biodiversity by rebuilding humus provides a natural closed-system remedy with neither waste nor loss of productivity.

Down-to-Earth soil species

All manner of dirt and disease always ends up in the sod and consequentially its ecology is naturally robust. Yet, the soil suffers the most profound and significant effects from over-exploitation and faces the greatest threat from erosion, destruction and pollution with artificial chemicals and/or transgenes.

Despite its importance, soil biodiversity is so poorly known that even obvious organisms like the relatively large worms are mostly unclassified. On each field trip I find new species and, of the 10,000 that have been given scientific names thus far (perhaps less than a third of the total), we know something of the ecology about a dozen species.

But what we do know doesn’t look good. Unprecedented loss of species abundance and diversity combined with high extinction rates are bringing Earth into new and uncharted territory. We urgently need triage.

Laboratories crammed with scores of ecologists could study just worms for their whole careers and still we would only progress slightly from our current poor state of knowledge, but our gain would be justifiable and have tangible effects on resolving pressing environmental issues. But this is not the current situation.

Despite its importance, soil biodiversity is so poorly known that even obvious organisms like the relatively large worms are mostly unclassified.

Fundamentally we can justify study of soil ecology because it affects all our lives and is a crucially important issue for immediate survival of humans and all other terrestrial organisms. Whereas earthworm specialists are an endangered and rapidly declining breed, some scientists attempt to defend their studies that look at a single crop or pest. In contrast, I would argue that without earthworms there would be no healthy soil in which any healthy crop could develop in the first place.

If we ask “Which group of organisms would cause the most disruption to life support systems on the Earth if lost?” My answer would be that — rather than fish, birds and bees, or humans — it is  the earthworms. They are key links in food chains (not just for fish and fowl), they act as hosts and vectors for diverse symbionts and parasites, and they are the major detritus feeders responsible for soil mineralization and recycling of organic matter. Can other scientists, outside of medicine, claim such importance for their study subject?

Looking forward to the past

One of the main predictions, highly optimistic, in the revolutionary move into our post-industrial era (see Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave for details) was that genetic engineering would provide new production methods and have profound effects on future development. In many ways this has been borne out in medical use and microbial ‘manufacture’ with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that provide some potential benefit and serve some purpose, albeit at huge cost.

But there are equally large risks. Rather obviously, the main characteristic of life is to reproduce and disperse. The architects of the modified corn, cotton, soy, wheat, rice and spuds are often of exactly the same companies (or at least profit-driven mind-sets) that produced the toxic chemicals that they are now telling us their new GMO technology will replace — just as chemical engineers promised solutions to all our problems previously.

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first alerted us to risks of agricultural chemical pollution, exacerbated by bioaccumulation in body tissue (especially of invertebrates such as earthworms) and bioconcentration further up the food-chain. But whatever the problem, these chemicals will eventually disperse and decline once production halts.

Lumbricus terrestris. Earthworm. Pen and watercolours. Illustration: NorArte.

Lumbricus terrestris. Earthworm. Pen and watercolours. Illustration: NorArte.

With biology the reverse is true. Design a plant to be herbicide or insect resistant and it will increase and spread by its own means, by cross-pollination or genetic drift. Case in point is the illegitimate escape in Japan of feral oilseed rape (Brassica napus) genetically modified to resist herbicide that, as with any similar calamity, will continue in an uncontrollable fashion.

Rather than addressing immediate environmental issues per se, much of scientific resources are diverted into molecular studies, mostly for industrial agricultural production, that are inordinately expensive, or into agronomic trials of effective toxic biocide applications. Mostly this is not requested by informed consumers nor by farmers who must rely on the advice of often industry-funded ‘experts’ and extension officers (hopefully not advertisers).

Surprisingly and shamefully, almost zero funding is available for research on organic production ‘alternatives’ that are dismissed as impractical fads. Yet it is their implementation, since the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, that has brought us this far.

Let’s not let topsoil slip through our fingers

Topsoil is the most valuable resource upon which civilizations depend. Its rapid loss combined with soil fertility and soil health decline are of greatest immediate concern.

How important is loss of topsoil? Basically without fertile topsoil there is no plant growth and no life on land. How big an issue is loss of topsoil? The 1991 UN funded Global Survey of Human-Induced Soil Degradation Report showed significant problems in virtually all parts of the world. Just 11 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is cultivated and of the total available, approximately 40 percent of agricultural land is seriously degraded, according to the UN’S 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA).

Loss of topsoil has been due to the combined effects of desertification, salinization, erosion, pollution and urban/road or other development activities. In the United States alone it is estimated to cost about $125 billion per year. The MEA, which despite its scope did not consider ‘Soil Systems’ separately, nevertheless ranked land degradation among the world’s greatest environmental challenges, claiming it risked destabilizing societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty. Among the worst affected regions are Central America, where 75 percent of land is infertile, Africa, where a fifth of soil is degraded, and Asia, where 11 percent is now unsuitable for farming.

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment ranked land degradation among the world’s greatest environmental challenges, claiming it risked destabilizing societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty.

In addition to those pollutants commonly recognized as originating from biocides and fertilizers, there are many other sources — such as antibiotics associated with intensive animal production, plus a ‘cocktail’ of human-processed pollutants like drugs, solvents and synthetic hormones from birth control pills — that all make their way into the environment in an infinite variety of unforeseeable combinations.

Suggested remediation to soil decline and agricultural production are to use GMO crops and other high-tech applications, because there is an assumption that topsoil formation is a centuries-old process that is essentially non-renewable and thus is gone forever. This view is false and there are several examples of methods that can be applied to restore fertile topsoils to farms, and in a time frame as short as a matter of a few years.

Feed the worm

“When the question is asked, ‘Can I build top-soil?’ the answer is ‘Yes’, and when the first question is followed by a second question, ‘How?’ the answer is ‘Feed earthworms’,” so wrote Eve Balfour in the introduction to Thomas J. Barrett’s book, Harnessing the Earthworm.

Indeed there are many instances of organic farms around the world preserving or restoring healthy soils. Organic farming has many approaches, with Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamics being one manifestation. All these solutions comfortably find a home under the wide umbrella of permaculture, as defined by Bill Mollison. This philosophy and approach to designing our natural environment for efficient and effective production and for comfortable living under prevailing conditions is well known and widely adopted by national and local communities and individuals worldwide.

William Blake urged us “[t]o see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower”. Soil survey of  the abundance and diversity of earthworms in a soil will provide a good measure of natural fertility, as these are the monitors and mediators of soil health.  That some of our honourable predecessors appreciated the worm’s role is manifest by one translation of the Chinese characters for ‘earthworms’ being ‘angels of the earth’.

In the Classical world, the ‘father of biology’, Aristotle, called earthworms the ‘soil’s entrails’ and it is reported that Cleopatra decreed them sacred.

Seeing a worm turned up by the plough and eaten by a bird started Prince Siddhartha (Gautama Buddah) on his contemplative path to understanding the Cycle-of-Life. In the Classical world, the ‘father of biology’, Aristotle, called earthworms the “soil’s entrails” and it is reported that Cleopatra decreed them sacred.

Charles Darwin, British naturalist and father of evolution, also had an interest in earthworms. In 1881, the year before he died, his 40 year study culminated in publication The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. As a founder of soil ecology, he was one of the first scientists to give credence to conventional wisdom from earlier civilizations about the beneficial effects of earthworms on soils and plant growth, and thus on human survival.

Believing his worm work one of his most crucial contributions, Darwin
stated:

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures…

“The vegetable mould [humus] which covers, as with a mantle, the surface of the land, has all passed many times through their bodies.”

Hopefully it will continue thus.

In 1981, as a centennial tribute to Darwin’s seminal work, I completed a survey on Lady Eve Balfour’s Haughley experimental farm that showed organic methods encourage healthy soil and an earthworm abundance. Significantly higher maintenance of temperature, moisture and organic matter in the soil equated with double the carbon content. In this way we could readily fix runaway CO2 in the atmosphere. Moreover, crop production was equable between organic and non-organic management regimes, even without factoring in the cost savings in chemicals and environmental degradation. (Details are presented here.)

Look up to the worm

My thesis is that each of the three major interlinked influences on our world – mass extinction of species due mainly to human activity, global warming from excessive anthropogenic generated carbon, and risk of social and political dysfunction from impending resource and food shortages caused by population pressure — can all be redressed by educating people (and politicians!) about restoring soil health and fertility. One way to start is to re-process organic ‘wastes’ via worms, for a natural compost fertilizer.

Sensible and appropriate technological utilization of the soil habitat will secure human resources, ameliorate global warming and, most importantly, help preserve the richness of all ultimately interdependent species.

Society’s increasing reliance on technology offers new risks and opportunities. We need to adopt and adapt the best and beneficial parts of our transition into this bio-cyber-techno age (such as constant satellite monitoring, instantaneous communication, and use of networked computers to analyse and recommend/implement activities for integrated pest management, transportation and logistics), then we can farm and build efficiently and sustainability on a case-by-case basis to comfortably accommodate an increasing human population. If highly crowded Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis with 33 million people can be made liveable, why not elsewhere?

Sensible and appropriate technological utilization of the soil habitat will secure human resources, ameliorate global warming and, most importantly, help preserve the richness of all ultimately interdependent species.

However, there is a concomitant need to block those new technologies and social structures that are hazardous and unnecessary. Thus we can reject, or at least postpone, off-the-planet ideas of space or ocean colonization, along with broad scale GMO farming.

We should only object to a system if we can propose viable and economic alternatives. In this regard I personally have seen little of substance to oppose healthy organic production, especially since industrial agriculture is responsible for so much of the world’s pollution and depletion of natural resources due to its use of both fossil fuels and precious fresh water as well as underemployment of the rural population that crowds into cities. Industrial agriculture is a finite oil-based production system and its days are numbered.

Permanent so(i)lutions

There is a need to accept less than 100 percent exploitation of a resource. Some preservation is needed and one of the concepts of permaculture is to return or donate our excess production. Just like taxes, Nature extracts a tithe whenever insects, birds or mammals eat part of our crops, or when the leech (the darker cousin of the earthworm) sucks our blood.

Although earthworms are not as charismatic as some furred or feathered beasts, and lacking the public relations support of ocean or space agencies, their wonder is of a more subtle and modest kind.

The practical philosophy of permaculture may in due course be replaced by new structures and systems of intelligent organization — hopefully of something similarly more refined than the crude offerings of the failed policies that lie on the extreme ends of the political and economic bell curves.

A solution that I recommend to you personally is to contemplate and re-evaluate the earthworm. Although not as charismatic as some furred or feathered beasts, and lacking the public relations support of ocean or space agencies, their wonder is of a more subtle and modest kind. To test this, become a ‘soilonaut’ and take a backyard safari yourself.

In conclusion, we should consider the humble earthworm who — as Aristotle, Buddha, Cleopatra and Darwin, amongst others, realized — works tirelessly night and day, unseen and almost totally under-appreciated for our benefit. All the more appropriate then that ‘human’ and ‘humus’ have the same word origin, and that this planet, on whose narrow shoulders it is borne, should be named ‘Earth’ after our wonderful Worm.

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Wonder Worm to the Rescue by Rob Blakemore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Dr. Rob Blakemore has studied ‘VermEcology’ for 30 years and holds qualifications in ecology, computing and permaculture. Growing up in Africa and near the Shropshire birthplace of Charles Darwin, Rob’s interests in earthworms commenced in 1980 with a centenary tribute to Darwin’s book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Subsequent surveys from the Australasian tropics to sub-Antarctic and, most recently, in Japan have led to discovery and his naming of 300 taxa new to science.

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  • Duco Delgorge

    Rob

    Thank you very much for this highly illuminating view of the humble earthworm. It is always a pleasure to meet you at Green Mondays. This is an excellent account of the importance of soil and of earthworms specifically.

    I look forward to collaborating with you and others who recognize that humanity is lurching towards the abyss. We have to get off this “cul de sac” as Bill McKibben quaintly refers to our embrace of consumerism, neoliberalism and the rest.

    Some tips for how to move forward can be found in Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy (I am about to read Eaarth as well); also David C. Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy, and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth provide very helpful guidelines for a sustainable future with room for plenty of earth worms.

  • http://vermichester.blogspot.com Vermichester

    Excellent perspective. Consider the success of soil-less indoor agriculture being practiced in urban environments. If this is not familiar to you, ask your neighborhood cannabis grower to show you his basement. Organic nutrients for hydroponics can be derived from the leachate of a worm farm, and the familiar vermicompost goes outdoors to renew the earth for root crops and tall or spreading crops in soil. By the way, earthworms and composting worms are not the same. Tech stuff in my book, “Beyond Compost” on Amazon.

  • Vermichester

    In 2011 the book “Beyond Compost” was translated into Spanish; “Mas Alla del Compost”. At about the same time, I was introduced to “Terra Preta” and “biochar”. It appears that ancient civilizations along the Amazon (no pun intended) mixed organic wastes with the charred remains of kitchen fires into their gardening soils, creating in the infertile rain forests an Eden of fertility that has lasted thousands of years. This “biochar” has the added benefit of carbon sequestration, and the reduction of greenhouse gases.

  • Roy Batty

    Sorry to say “Terra Preta” is just another name for a midden.  And “biochar” is just charcoal marketed to make profits for some without much  science to support it.

    • Vermichester

      There is always a bit of truth in any observation, and snake oil is not limited to medicine wagons, Roy. Take a moment to visit the International Biochar Initiative connected to Cornell University if you are interested in science. They are quite respected when it comes to science.