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Composting with worms-- another sustainability lesson from Cuba

The English Green Party's Derek Wall dug up (so apt!) this piece by Matthew Werner on worm farming in Cuba for compost week.Worms as Charles Darwin insisted are important critters.

"Food for worms..." can be almost anything as the medieval Church and Shakespeare's Hamlet have pointed out. Food like...very dead human beings.

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten:
a certain
convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that's the end.
Worms are also highly efficient carbon sequestors. By taking organic matter underground, the worms reduce carbon release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and worm farming is akin, in my estimation, to such practices as Agri Char (aka Terra Preta) in the role it could play -- rather quickly -- to ameliorate global warming.But no major Vermicompost project has been initiated with that thesis in mind.

David Murphy's book , Organic Growing With Worms addresses that possibility in its pages with great verve such that the irrepressible Peter Cundall writes in regard to it:
"This is an amazing, inspiring book..it should be on the bookshelf of every farmer, gardener, conservationist, scientist or anyone who comprehends the environmental dangers now threatening all life forms on earth."
Murphy writes that "...if [the world's agricultural soil] were raised to 5 per cent [organic matter] to a depth of 25 cm, 150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide would be sequestered into the soil ".
Healthy soil could sequester up to 350 tonnes of carbon per hectare (Jones 2007), this being equivalent to about 1,285 tonne of carbon dioxide per hectare removed from atmosphere....This exceeds the estimated 15 billion tonnes per annum global emissions of carbon dioxide from all sources (Murphy 2005) 10 times over.

Hence soil represents the largest potential sink (storage capacity) for carbon - if natural soil quality is restored and maintained -- Sunnyside Projects.

*Yep. Worms are really something to get excited about -- not only as a means to bed down waste (3% of national carbon emissions) but also as a means to invigorate the extremely poor nature of Australian soils while helping to reduce the share agriculture plays in our total carbon emissions. -- 16% from Agriculture (larger than transport-- 13%-- and second only to stationary energy ).

Trends in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from the agricultural sector, 1990-2004

Sixty percent of emissions from the agricultural sector come from enteric fermentation in livestock. These are emissions associated with microbial fermentation during digestion of feed by ruminant (mostly cattle and sheep) and some non-ruminant domestic livestock. Emissions associated with agricultural soils (e.g. disturbance of land by cropping, improved pastures and the application of fertilisers and animal wastes) and prescribed burning of savannas also account for a significant proportion of net emissions.
While enteric fermentation is the main driver of emissions from agriculture, to replace that caloric output with plant foods behooves a major shift in soil management .

--Dave Riley

Cuba's Composting!

by Matthew Werner

Caught in a vice of economic sanctions, political pressures and faltering production, Cuba has been forced to find alternatives to its reliance on imported fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed and the like. Agricultural imports have been cut by as much as 80%. Consequently, the Cuban government has established new soil management programs and has made earthworms a key agent in the drive for agricultural sustainability. Cuban scientists are finding that vermicompost performs better than regular compost. With select earthworm species, they have developed a technological package for the production of vermicompost.

Cuba's verimcomposting program started in 1986 with two small boxes of red worms, Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus. By 1992, 172 vermicompost centers were producing 93,000 tons of worm humus annually. Several different institutions and companies are involved in vermiculture, but research is primarily conducted by the Institute of Soils and Fertilizers and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences.

Compost Production

Vermicompost production requires a mixture of worm castings, organic material and bedding in various stages of decomposition. Most vermicomposting operations in Cuba use cow manure as the primary source of organic material. Other sources include pig and sheep manure, filter press cake from sugarcane, coffee pulp, plantains and municipal garbage.

First, manure is aerobically composted for approximately 30 days then transferred to open vermicompost beds. The beds are approximately 1.5m wide and vary in length. The compost is mixed with soil and "seeded" with earthworms. At certain sites, the beds are in the shade of large mango trees that benefit from nutrients leached from the piles.

Vermicompost beds are watered to maintain optimum moisture and temperature levels. The worms feed on the freshly applied compost at the top of the beds and deposit their castings in the lower levels. Compost is continually applied until the beds reach a height of approximately 0.9m, after about 90 days. The worms are concentrated in the top 10cm of the pile and are either scraped off or separated from the vermicompost in a screening process. The humus is sold in bulk or used on-site as a soil amendment and fertilizer.

The Benefits

The humus produced in vermicomposting provides binding sites for plant nutrients, helps control plant diseases and stimulates plant growth. Humus also increases water permeability and water retention, contributing to better plant health and more efficient use of soil moisture. Cuban researchers have found that nitrogen concentrations are higher in vermicompost than in aerobic compost piles. Earthworm castings are 1.5 - 2.2% nitrogen, 1.8 - 2.2% phosphorous and 1.0 - 1.5% potassium, and remain in the soil for up to five years. Worm populations under vermiculture can double in 60-90 days.

Worms not used to seed new compost piles are dried and used as a supplemental protein for animals. Earthworms are high in protein and contain the amino acid methionine (4%), which is absent from feed grains. Cuba's future plans include production of earthworm excrement to be used as substrate for bacteria, which in turn will be used as biofertilizer.

Extension and Expansion

Five experimental stations located in different parts of the country are training worm growers. An annual national conference on vermicomposting provides a forum for growers to acquire and exchange information. National television programs and newspaper articles help educate farmers, school children and the general public about vermiculture.

The Soil Institute is presently spearheading efforts to market and sell worm humus in 40 kg, 1 kg and 1/2 kg bags under the trade name Midas. However, humus production in Cuba has not reached levels that permit significant export. Income generating schemes have focused on joint production ventures and the sale of technical assistance for start-up vermiculture programs outside Cuba. Altogether, Cuban vermiculture is proving to be a promising substitute for imported goods.

Gersper et al., Summer 1993, Agriculture and Human Values, Vol. X, number 3, pp.16-23. Werner, Matthew, Summer 1994, Cuban Agriculture Looks to Vermiculture, The Cultivar, Vol. 12, No. 2.


Matthew Werner
Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
University of California
E-mail: werner@zzyx.ucsc.edu

Video on large scale vermiculture in India


7 Com:

Worm Man | May 07, 2008

CO2 Science -- the Worm Digest..But the good news doesn't end there. As Jongmans et al. (2003) point out, "the rate of organic matter decomposition can be decreased in worm casts compared to bulk soil aggregates (Martin, 1991; Haynes and Fraser, 1998)." Hence, on the basis of these studies and their own micro-morphological investigation of structural development and organic matter distribution in two calcareous marine loam soils on which pear trees had been grown for 45 years (one of which soils exhibited little to no earthworm activity and one of which exhibited high earthworm activity, due to different levels of heavy metal contamination of the soils as a consequence of the prior use of different amounts of fungicides), they concluded that "earthworms play an important role in the intimate mixing of organic residues and fine mineral soil particles and the formation of organic matter-rich micro-aggregates and can, therefore, contribute to physical protection of organic matter, thereby slowing down organic matter turnover and increasing the soil's potential for carbon sequestration." Put more simply, atmospheric CO2 enrichment that stimulates the activity of earthworms also leads to more -- and more secure -- sequestration of carbon in earth's soils, thereby reducing the potential for CO2-induced global warming.

But there's still more to the story of CO2 and worms. In an intriguing research paper published in Soil Biology & Biochemsitry, Cole et al. (2002) report that "in the peatlands of northern England, which are classified as blanket peat, it has been suggested that the potential effects of global warming on carbon and nutrient dynamics will be related to the activities of dominant soil fauna, and especially enchytraeid worms." In harmony with these ideas, Cole et al. say they "hypothesized" that warming would lead to increased enchytraeid worm activity, which would lead to higher grazing pressure on microbes in the soil; and since enchytraeid grazing has been observed to enhance microbial activity (Cole et al., 2000), they further hypothesized that more carbon would be liberated in dissolved organic form, "supporting the view that global warming will increase carbon loss from blanket peat ecosystems."

....In summary, it would appear that the lowly earthworm and still lowlier soil nematodes respond to increases in the air's CO2 content, via a number of plant-mediated phenomena, in ways that further enhance the positive effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment on plant growth and development, while at the same time helping to sequester more carbon more securely in the soil and thereby reducing the potential for CO2-induced global warming.

Not a bad day's work for something some of us only use as bait for catching fish!

Ben Courtice | May 07, 2008

If you want to "invigorate the extremely poor nature of Australian soils" be warned that on a broad enough scale this would threaten to really disrupt the native ecosystems which are highly specialised in dealing with said poor soils. I know of a place on the East coast of Tasmania where scrub forest grows on soil that is so barren virtually nothing farm-like would take root. Defined agricultural areas, sure, but Australian soils have already been irreparably damaged in at least two ways since European invasion: firstly, massive topsoil loss caused by the introduction of hooved livestock; and secondly, massive invasion of green, leafy foreign weeds which already change the soil composition as they grow and take over from natives. I read not long ago that in native re-vegetation projects landcare workers have even used heavy sugar application on the soil. This stimulates soil bacteria growth, which bacteria use up a lot of the available nitrogen, starving the introduced species for a period of a couple of months until some natives can be established in the friendlier nitrogen-depleted soil.

Dave Riley | May 07, 2008

Soil ecology is complex I agree and I'm not about to know much about it. But the problem is being driven by the reality of climate change and how that relates to agricultural production and soil sequestration.

Technically you could convert "soil" to any thing -- offering various attributes-- by the addition of any amount of biological material and fiddling with the local ecology.

The introduction of cloved hoofed animals has had a major, and disastrous, impact on Australian soils and it seems to me that even there if we are to farm them it "may" be preferable to change the soil (and pasture)to suit their impact and 'weight' otherwise you have to consider banning them from the landscape altogether (ESP with more droughts likely).

Weeds are a massive problem and I'm amazed how much effort is required to weed, say, one river valley using any number of tactics as part of full time eradication programs.

While I'm all for a sort of Land Care emergency program with a mobilisation of huge numbers of workers in the effort, to some degree we have to accept that we're stuck with the changes that have already happened and "perch" our new soil attributes and requirements on top of that.

Mark Diesendorf has some interesting commentary for instance about sustainable bio-energy production in regard to already existing soils and tandem with food production (eg: Western Australian malee) using local flora and agricultural biomass..

I'm not sure that we can harness the flora and fauna for food consumption as broadly as some have suggested. Acacia seeds -- yes. More kangaroo perhaps.And its preferable to eat macedonian nuts to the demanding almond... But the reality is that the sort of farming we need for sustainability won't require all the space that is now utilised.

Inasmuch as this relates to worms -- Australian worms aren't very useful in agriculture in the same way as they have limited capacity to help grow the larder. So the worms you know (in your backyard or on the vegey farm)are in fact, European or African in origin in the same way that the many grasses and weeds are exotic.

So it's a bit of a false god to talk about returning all the landscape to an absolute native eco-systems.

So if you wanted to use the soil to sequest carbon and foster sustainable production then you are talking about the soil that is being intensely farmed for food or fibre and weigh that up with the gains you can attain even though the end product ecosystem won't be indigenous.

Ben Courtice | May 09, 2008

Of course we must use vermiculture etc to build up the soils in farmland. And in some areas (e.g. New England tableland perhaps) that may have had rich and deep humus before European invasion we could consider programs to re-enrich soils maybe (I'm no expert either, I'm just guessing). The organic farming model has far less impact than chemical industrial farming.

However, my only point is that weed eradication and native re-vegetation projects are required on a large scale, and it is desirable to reclaim some existing farmland for this just to re-establish sufficient habitat for the growing number of threatened species (and threatened ecosystems, in fact).

Dave Riley | May 09, 2008

I agree. There has to be ecological logic to the landscape RE-design.

As well as protecting habitat we need to enlarge the native flora corridors. But in , I guess most,intensely farmed districts soil degradation & exotic invasion is such that a lot of that aspiration will be almost utopian.

You just have to fly over the East Coast of Australia to get a sense of the massive loss. As for the Murray Darling Basin....!

My view -- at least for the moment -- is that if farmers are going to farm the land then we have to establish certain parameters that protect them and their income as well as the environment. We also have to take great swathes of land out of food and fibre production for the regrowth of natural habitat.

The problem is that to do that we have to ask farmers to produce differently with less land and, to some significantly degree, more productively while being more sustainable.

Tall order.

I think that is sure to be a massive economic and social headache as in effect we have to completely redesign the rural landscape and its utilisation. And do that with the cooperation of farmers.

If you check out The Carbon Coalition -- assuming the science is correct -- you can see the problem with such a shift. There has to be financial return -- otherwise it won't happen.

And these farmers are calling for a carbon trading scheme!

While it may be practicable to take degraded rural land out of production, reforest riparian ecosystems, and guarantee produce prices -- the contradiction is likely to be that we have to repopulate the countryside and make farming more labour intensive.

So in region after region there would need to be a range of experimental model projects to prove that such a shift is viable.We'd also have to deal with the challenge of a buy back or land nationalisation (of the big corps) scheme -- while guaranteeing working farmers land tenure.

As for the live stock industry -- if we cannot establish a viable anti-fart campaign for ruminants then we'd need to massively cut stock numbers. Thats' what? An industry farming something like 100 million sheep and 80 million cattle.

So the concept of the 'free range' herd/flock may have to be dropped as livestock are more actively integrated with mixed farming approaches as we shave back their numbers.

Reducing beef consumption may be one key element for instance. Do that and the economies of the outback begin to collapse...

If you take a sample such as the Murray Darling basin -- obviously an emergency situation already exists there -- we'd have to consider a massive almost militarised program of aggressive reforestation born up by thousands of people recruited to plant trees.

We could mobilise school students and the like and make it a national focus. It could be a marker of the changes more generally to come. But we'd need to do it that way to protect future food supplies and save the river systems which are dying.

But planting trees may not be the panacea it's cracked up to be especially in areas of salination. We may have to remodel the land somewhat to drain salt away as well as look to other sources of water catchment than by draining the main tributaries. If we decide that a sustainable flow down the Darling or whatever is so many percentiles more than is currently the case that water has to come from somewhere. The irony is , I guess, that because of run off, deforestration and erosion maybe more water runs into the river systems after good rain than previously despite the fact that the ecology is under so much duress.

So I imagine that "carbon farming" makes a lot of sense in that context as part of the landscape. And in all areas any reforestration program has to proceed , I guess, by a staged process of planting first colonizer species(eg: local wattles) before fostering in other natives.

Worm Man | May 12, 2008

Havana, Mar 18 (Prensa Latina) Cuba has more than 100,000 ecological farms to produce food without harming human beings or the environment, said an official of this sector on Tuesday.

National Small Farmers Association (ANAP) official Deborah la O Calana told Prensa Latina that the current goal is to increase and reinforce that initiative in the grass-roots organizations of that institution.

Calana recalled that the project began in 1997 to counteract the use and abuse of agro-chemicals, which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Pro ecology Cuban farmers produced and used more than 100,000 tons of worm humus across the country last year.Central Villa Clara province and eastern Holguin province are the top provinces in the agroecology sector, whose experiences will be presented at a national workshop scheduled for May.

In Cuba, the From Farmer to Farmer Movement is in charge of promoting organic agriculture.

subir | September 27, 2008

this shows that instead of investing in fertilser plants that produce chemical fertilisers (that contaminate our food) along with chemical pollution and carbon emissions we should be investing in vermi-compost based waste processing
Tis leads to changing our mode of development as advocated by mahatma gandhi - the great visionary of past century

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