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3/11/2009
Why we love worms
Why we love worms

MOST OF US grew up thinking of worms as squiggly, wiggly, slimy and grimy, associating them with social punishments as in the playground sing-along, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.”

But as we kicked the soccer ball over lush fields or nibbled sweet corn at the dinner table, did we ever stop to think that perhaps we should, in fact, love worms?

Indeed, worms—specifically earthworms—are essential to a healthy environment, which makes for healthy living. More than 15,000 species of earthworms exist, and for centuries the role of earthworms in agriculture has been studied (a field known as vermiculture—“vermi” meaning “worm” in French). In 1881 naturalist Charles Darwin wrote, “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.”

“Earthworms, which have no teeth, suck in soil and plant waste,” says Hendrik Eksteen, earthworm specialist and managing director for Affmech cc, an engineering company in South Africa specializing in organic agriculture. “Through the process of digestion, all pathogens taken in are destroyed, and the beneficial bacteria are increased up to a thousand times. The earthworm’s manure is casted [deposited] in a form that is not water soluble, so it holds on to the nutrients until a plant can utilize it. All fertile soil on earth has passed through an earthworm.”

Organic matter is therefore present in the soil and made available to plants as a result of the work done by earthworms. “Earthworms make soil. Soil without organic matter is not really soil because soil is a marriage of the living and the dead,” explains Walter Goldstein, research director for the Michael Fields Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of agriculture that sustains the land and its resources. Goldstein also explains that earthworms give the soil structure and allow air to pass through it: “When earthworms eat, they ingest a lot of soil. When they breathe out they make carbonic acid through their respiration. The carbonic acid combines with lime and makes a type of calcium carbonate cement. The cement helps the soil particles and organic particles stick together and stabilize. Worms help give the soil its structure, and if few worms are present in the soil, practice has shown that root diseases often develop.”

Practitioners of conventional agriculture do not look to earthworms to improve soil quality. Instead, synthetic chemicals are used to supplement the soil and vegetation. However, those who engage in organic and biodynamic® agriculture increasingly recognize the essential role played by earthworms. The U.S. division of the international biodynamic® certifying agency Demeter requires that all certified farms take at least three soil samples to measure the presence of invertebrates such as earthworms. If the sample site lacks earthworms, evidence of their existence vis-à-vis castings and worm tunnels must exist. Because they improve soil biology and recycle organic materials, earthworms are highly valued members of a biodynamic® farm. “Earthworms are the only way you can achieve 100 percent disease control,” says Eksteen.

Eksteen and Goldstein can both point to accounts of how earthworms have reformed the land. Eksteen notes that earthworms helped revitalize land in Russia after the nuclear Chernobyl disaster occurred 20 years ago: “Earthworms were used to absorb the heavy and toxic metals in the earth. The earthworms digested the toxins and expelled them through their dorsal pores, making the wastes unavailable to plants so that crops could again be grown free of radioactive materials.”

Goldstein tells another triumphant story. “I have a friend in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine who tried to revitalize the land with worms,” Goldstein says. “He collected different species of worms, along with their natural soil from the land, inserted them into manure compost piles and allowed them to multiply before spreading the compost and the worms onto the pasture. Through this approach, he rejuvenated pastures, achieving amazing effects.”

Given such notable successes and the growing efforts to reverse the curve of conventional, chemically reliant agriculture, earthworms—not to mention farmers—still have a lot of down-and-dirty work ahead. “In the future, I hope to see more methods for cultivating worms and improving the land by such means,” says Goldstein. Lesson learned. Even on the playground, worms are too valuable to be eaten. jb

The international farming practice known as biodynamics®—a holistic method of farming that goes beyond organic—is as forward-thinking as it is age-old. This original form of organic agriculture, developed by Weleda founder Dr. Rudolf Steiner, remains relevant today. This feature is part of an ongoing series. To learn more about biodynamics® visit our archives at weleda.com/we. Still looking for more? Visit weleda.com/biodynamics or contact the Demeter Association at demeter-usa.org.