Ministry of Controversy

Sure, Blame the Worms

3_e_fetida2Guess who’s responsible for global warming now?  That’s right –earthworms. The UK-based Materials Recycling Week reports on a series of studies on the nitrous oxide emissions of worms used in composting projects.  We get this bit of good news:


“Worms produce a significant amount of
greenhouse gases. Recent research done by German scientists has found
that worms produced a third of nitrous oxide gases when used for
composting.”

  A third of what?  That’s not clear. the threats, however, seems quite serious:

“Everybody
loves them because they think they can do no harm but they contribute
to global warming. People are looking into alternative waste treatments
but we have to make sure that we are not jumping from the frying pan
into the fire."

Oh, that’s a good idea.  Let’s get all worked up over the contributions that earthworms may be making to global warming, and set aside any silly notions about getting out of our cars.  Yeah, it’s the worms’ fault. Damn those worms for screwing up the environment.

And then there’s the small question of what these studies actually say.  There’s this recent study, which
states that "it remains to be determined how important this effect is on N2O fluxes from agricultural systems under realistic conditions" and "Emissions from earthworms themselves were negligible compared to overall soil fluxes." 

Then there’s this study, which concludes that "The environmental impact from nitrous oxide emissions appears to be comparable to other waste processing operations."

that’s not to say that we shouldn’t gather data and try to quantify what’s happening that might be causing climate change.  It’s just that this is what are earthworms do: they eat decaying organic matter.  The worm castings they leave behind could be used to take the place of chemical fertilizers and increase the overall health of the soil, aiding in carbon sequestration. Yes, we may be feeding this decaying organic matter to earthworms and intentionally increasing their population so that they can eat our garbage, but really, is it even remotely possible that their contribution to global warming rivals ours?  Could we not consider the activities of earthworms to be part of the general background hum of the earth, and let them go about their business in peace?

Just a thought.

Posted by on July 2, 2007 at 5:39 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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11 Responses to “Sure, Blame the Worms”

  1. Jodi DeLong says:

    I seem to remember reading something equally silly a couple of months ago about how earthworms are damaging soil composition and taking over in woodlands or something equally nonsensical. Sure, worms are the environmental equivalent of the taliban….some people have obviously too much time and too much research money on their hands. I’ll try to find this article I half-remember and send it forward to you, Amy, for your comments. I’m on your side–and the worms–in this one.

  2. Jodi DeLong says:

    I guess there’s a lot of literature out there, and you all probably know about it–I fell across it by accident back in March, and there are a number of ‘articles’ by scientists and others out there. This is one that seemed reasonably thought out:
    http://www.bbg.org/gar2/topics/essays/2004su_worms.html

    I still favour the worms, though.

  3. layanee says:

    I agree with Jodi! Isn’t there a better research problem out there! Let the worms live!

  4. margarita says:

    I suppose if you looked at chaos theory, too, then that butterfly that flapped its wings in Des Moines caused that typhoon in Jakarta. Down with butterflies! Oh, if only everything would just behave the way we wanted it to!

  5. Ed Bruske says:

    Not just silly, ridiculous. Earthworms have been around forever. As Darwin postulated, they are an essential part of the soil food web, breaking down dead organic matter in which we’d be over our head were it not for earthworms, bacteria, fungi and the other decomposers. Nitrous oxide is a natural and unavoidable by-product of the decomposition process. It’s the automobiles that are un-natural…

  6. OK… just a small nit…

    You wrote above: “Let’s get all worked up over the contributions that earthworms may be making to global warming, and set aside any silly notions about getting out of our cars.” Yes, you were being facetious. I get it. It’s funny… But… uh… reveals such ghastly ignornance.

    The vast vast vast vast majority of greenhouse gasses pumping into the envirnment is from industry. Our consumable culture demands factories to crank out shipload’s of crap. And we leave our airconditioners on high. And we wear T-Shirts in winter and complain that we are cold and so crank up the heat.

    Cars are important to our economies and culture. Like ‘em or not, cars are important. Want to talk about a mess? Let’s all ride horses again.

    YES cars produce greenhouse gasses. YES we should have cleaner cars. But this whole mentallity that cars are the problem is just RIDICULOUS. And cars today are EXPONENTIALLY cleaner than than they were, 20 years ago. They need to get cleaner. Yes. But well maintained and modern cars are LIGHT YEARS ahead of what was around in the early 80′s even. The late 80′s even.

    I am rather tired of poorly informed people (not neccesarily you) ranting about people and their cars.

    Now, not to be too much of an ass (sorry) some weeks back you posted about antique garden books “Collecting the Canon:”

    http://tinyurl.com/3xeu6l

    You wrote:

    “A first edition Gertrude Jekyll? Thirteen hundred bucks. Vita Sackville-West? A couple hundred. Frederick Law Olmsted? Twelve hundred, and there’s only one. I don’t long for these things. Being around a book that costs more than my car makes me nervous.”

    My unstated reaction at the time is my reaction now: Thirteen hundred bucks. A couple hundred (bucks). Twelve hundred (bucks) … and these are more than your car costs?

    I’d bet big money that a $1200 car is not effecient or clean in ANY WAY (relative to available choices).

    Maybe if we want to complain about people and their cars, we ought to first insist that people spend some money and buy modern, well maintained, more effecient vehichles and then recycle them when they wear to lower efficiencies (and thefore cleanliness). We should get the bad tech off the roads. We are only a century into the car game. And we are only NOW learning how to build ‘em. So, most of what is out there should be scrapped.

    Sorry. It means spending more money. But “spedning more money” is the way this problem will be solved.

    It also sucks for me as I have some very old cars which I love… but will not drive.

    As for the worms, the more we learn about these gasses, the better.

  7. Gloria says:

    Hey Clerk, cars may come in third behind industry and energy production but don’t you even try to tell me they are not a problem.

    I have been to Japan just a year ago. Many, many, many still ride bikes or small scooters to get about. The bike parking lots were very cool. Getting our butts out and walking or pedaling will not kill any of us.
    My husband is a truck driver to make a living so I understand we can not return to horse and buggy but altenatives are available.
    I never use a car to get about. Don’t give up your car if you don’t want to,until it is sitting with no fuel available, but don’t kid yourself as to its culpability.
    uh…Love ya babe!!!

  8. Gloria, you are right of course.

    My point was (supposed to be) more along the lines of: Cars are getting better… this combined with less driving for stupid things is good.

    But I hate to break this to you: you can pedal your bike from now until the end of time. Hell, your whole town can pedal bikes. (AND YOU SHOULD.) But until we solve some other issues, it just doesn’t matter. Rather, it is more SYMBOLIC than EFFECTIVE (Symbols can MEANINGFUL though).

    And let’s not confuse EXCERCISE and ENVIRONMENTALISM.

    I suspect we actually agree.

    I’m just sensitive to the knee-jerk “cars are the problem” reaction. It is, as you know, a complex issue. We need to start thinking about it in complex terms.

  9. Curtis says:

    Well if thats true. My yard is making some serious impact on global warming. It is filled with earthworms.

  10. bright says:

    go county clerk! i don’t think you’re an ass… i think that we have a really hard time not being humancentric when we problem solve. yes, cars are a problem. however, we all know that cows are a problem too because we suddenly having so freaking many of them around. i know my vegetarian friends aren’t making that one up. i don’t think the problem is the earthworms; the problem is as ever, the ridiculous scales we work on that might result in billions more earthworms in all our kitchens on top of the ones already in the ground. a balance has to be struck somehow that doesn’t exclude some the things that are/may be contributing. if we want to understand the problem we can’t leave the gloves on like that, and climatology is a relatively young science. maybe they’re completely wrong, but i’m glad someone is looking. it’s the only way to know.

  11. Pat Leuchtman says:

    Scientific studies are often fascinating. I wonder who thought up the question of “I wonder how much earthworms are affecting global warming?” This is just another weird, if nto wonderful or useful fact. Not to mention another instance of the weakness of our ability to measure risk.

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