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Worms Produce Another Kind of Gold for Farmers

Red Worms

Story at-a-glance -

  • A small but growing group of worm farmers are creating a natural fertilizer product known as “vermicompost,” which is said to improve plant growth and make plants more resistant to disease and insects than plants grown with other composts and fertilizers
  • Worms’ digestive process naturally excretes beneficial microbes into the soil, which drastically alter the soil’s composition
  • Whereas conventional farming and the use of synthetic fertilizers rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients, vermicompost helps restore microbial diversity -- and the worms can even transform manure waste from industrial farms into this valuable compost

By Dr. Mercola

We’re living in an era where the largest food producers in the United States operate more like factories than farms, complete with industrial farming practices that produce obscene amounts of waste and threaten to completely deplete what was once rich and fertile soil.

With each harvest, the land is stripped of vital nutrients plants need to grow, and so synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals are added back into the land out of necessity.

The Problem with Synthetic and Other Toxic Fertilizers

There are problems with trying to synthetically fertilize the land, as restoring soil to its original grandeur – a complex ecosystem teeming with microbes and nutrients – is not as simple as adding back in various concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK, a common synthetic fertilizer).

Aside from often leading to imbalances in the soil that can harm plant growth, synthetic fertilizers contribute to environmental contamination, and there is even concern that the natural deposits of phosphorus and potassium – two elements necessary for plants to grow – are being rapidly depleted.1

Sewage sludge, or “biosolids” – as they’re referred to with a PR spin – is another type of fertilizer that began being “recycled” into food crops when, ironically, it was realized that dumping them into rivers, lakes and bays was an environmental disaster. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that about 50 percent of all biosolids are recycled to land.2 This sludge is what’s leftover after sewage is treated and processed.

Your first thought may be the “yuck factor” of human waste being used to fertilize your food, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time a paintbrush gets rinsed, an old bottle of medications flushed, or solvents are hosed off a factory floor, it ends up in the sewage system. So it’s not surprising that a past analysis of sewage sludge by the Environmental Working Group found:3

  • Over 100 synthetic organic compounds including phthalates, toluene, and chlorobenzene
  • Dioxins in sludge from 179 out of 208 systems (80%)
  • 42 different pesticides – at least one in almost every sample, with an average of almost 2 pesticides per survey sample
  • Nine heavy metals, often at high concentrations

Worm Farms May Hold the Secret to Restoring Soil Health, Naturally

A small but growing group of farmers are tending not to corn or cattle, but to worms. These intriguing creatures’ digestive process naturally excretes beneficial microbes into the soil, which drastically alter the soil’s composition. These worm farmers are creating a natural product known as “vermicompost,” which is said to improve plant growth and make plants more resistant to disease and insects than plants grown with other composts and fertilizers.4, 5 As the New York Times reported, Dr. Norman Arancon, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said:6

“…soil that has been heavily exposed to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides lacks microbial richness and diversity, qualities that can be restored naturally by adding the microbes from worms.”

What makes vermicompost so exciting is not only its ability to help plants thrive naturally, it’s also showing promise as a solution for the millions of pounds of manure waste put out by industrial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). At one worm farm, worms are able to transform 10 million pounds of manure from a dairy farm into 2.5 million pounds of beneficial vermicompost.7

In addition to helping create a valuable compost to help plants grow, worms have also been singled out for their ability to break down toxins like cadmium, lead and other heavy metals, helping to detoxify soil. They do this by optimizing the bacterial content of the soil. Worms also can even break down cardboard waste fibers, making them a potential recycling tool.

Natural 'Worm' Composts May Help Protect the Future Food Supply

Many are not aware that one of the reasons why the conventional agribusiness food system has emerged as a major threat to your health is because it is contributing to the destruction of the world's topsoil. According to an article in Time World,8 soil erosion and degradation rates suggest we have only about 60 remaining years of topsoil. Forty percent of the world's agricultural soil is now classified as either degraded or seriously degraded; the latter means that 70 percent of the topsoil is gone.

Our soil is being lost at 10 to 40 times the rate it can be replenished, and our food production systems are to blame, which epitomizes the term "unsustainable." It takes decades or even centuries to regenerate significant levels of soil.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our fresh water use. When the soil is unfit, water is wasted – it washes right through the soil and past the plant's root system. We already have a global water shortage that's projected to worsen over the next 20 to 30 years, so this is the last thing we need. Soil degradation is projected to cause a 30 percent loss in food production over the next 20 to 50 years – while our global food demands are expected to increase by 50 percent over this span of time.

Many don't realize that soil is alive and has an incredible diversity of microorganisms. One handful of soil contains more microbes than the number of people who have ever lived on our planet. Just as we are beginning to more fully appreciate the importance of beneficial bacteria in our gut in our own health, there is emerging evidence that beneficial bacteria in the soil are crucial to break down nutrients and make them available to the plants so they can be optimally healthy and resist disease and pests.

These organisms create a powerful synergy with the plants and recycle organic material, making the soil more resilient and better at holding water and nutrients, and better at nurturing plants. Microbes need carbon for food, and we're depleting our soil of this element by using chemical fertilizers, overgrazing, over-ploughing, and burning stubble in fields to accelerate crop turnover.

Genetically Modified Crops Further Depleting the Soil

Add to this genetically modified (GM) crops, and our soil (and future food supply) is dealt another deathblow, as the latest science seems to suggest GM plant cultivation may seriously disrupt soil ecology by reducing microbial diversity, which decreases soil fertility over time – possibly irreversibly.9 Until the industrial farming complex reverts back to a traditional model that works with the laws of nature instead of against them, more natural solutions for soil restoration, like vermicompost, are urgently needed.

Yet Another Reason for Buying Organic…

Organic agricultural practices promote ideal soil conditions, while conventional farming methods threaten to completely deplete our soils worldwide, which will only worsen nutrition as time goes on. This is vital, since the continued destruction of our soils will ultimately lead to the demise of the entire food system.

In order to qualify as certified organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Eating organically and supporting farms whose practices are sustainable is currently one of the best ways to protect your health, the environment and the very future of our food supply.

As an aside, if you do decide to give vermicompost a try, either in your own garden or by purchasing products grown with it, be sure it is from a reputable company. The market is currently unregulated and no industry standards exist, so product quality varies widely.