Want to save the planet? Worry about earthworms, not pandas

These worms are our friends. Image: Getty.

“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 organised creatures.” The Conversation

– Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

Not all wildlife is created equal in our eyes. Take the earthworm, which doesn’t have the widespread appeal of larger, more charismatic animals such as gorillas, tigers or pandas. Worms are never going to get a strong “cute response”, and they won’t ever be the face of a conservation campaign.

But what Darwin rightly recognised is that – panda fans avert your eyes – worm conservation is much more important once we factor in their provision of what we now call “ecosystem services”, which are crucial to human survival. Darwin spent 39 years studying these animals for a good reason. In fact, earthworms have even been ranked the number one most influential species in the history of the planet – above dinosaurs and humans.

Why care about the worm?

Ecologists consider earthworms “keystone species” because of how much they influence the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Here are five reasons why:

1) Earthworms are recyclers. They play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter and fertilising the soil, simply through their constant eating and pooping (about 1.5 times their body weight a day). What comes out the other end – known as a worm cast – is full of nutrients and bacteria that are beneficial for plants. Scientists have measured up to five times the amount of key nutrients in worm casts compared to surrounding soil.

A study in Hawaii found that replacing a portion of standard fertiliser with vermicompost (compost from worm casts) increased yields of crops such as tomatoes and strawberries by 30%. It’s hard to generate industrial amounts of worm cast, of course, and vermicompost remains more expensive than commercial fertiliser. But it’s an intriguing example of how earthworms can help humans.


2) Earthworms are great “soil engineers”. As they move through the soil, earthworms loosen and mix it up, helping to aerate and drain it. This brings nutrients to the surface, making the soil more fertile, and helps prevent flooding and erosion.

3) Earthworms are barometers of soil health and toxicity. They’re very sensitive to soil pollutants such as pesticide residues or unwanted heavy metals (zinc, lead and so on), and they are badly affected by changes in land use such as deforestation to clear the way for intensive farming. This means the health of local worms is proving to be a useful tool to assess the impact of different land usage and pollutants.

4) Juicy earthworms are an important food source. They are protein-rich and feed a number of animals, such as the European badger.

5) Earthworms can help repair damaged soil and may provide solutions to man-made problems. Research suggests that earthworms could help to clean up land contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead.

Other studies show how earthworms can speed up the restoration of degraded land in the tropics, while research in northern Vietnam found that reduced earthworm diversity due to land use change also had a significant knock on effect on soil fertility, water drainage and soil erosion.

So, earthworms are our underground allies – if we treat them right. Earthworms make it possible for us to live on the planet, simply by eating and pooping, and ploughing up, ventilating and fertilising the soil along the way.

I disagree with this article.” ImagE: Harvey Barrison/Flickr/creative commmons.

Climate change and human intervention are fast-tracking the world’s loss of biodiversity. The plight of the tiger in India and the orangutan in Indonesia are well known, but scientists are also becoming concerned about earthworms and other animals that we are less familiar with, but which we can’t afford to lose.

If pandas go extinct, it will be very sad. But, a world without earthworms? Arguably without earthworms in our soils, life could vanish pretty quickly. We would have less food, more pollution, and more flooding.

No matter how cute a panda looks, it is Darwin’s “lowly” earthworms that are doing dirty, but crucial, work in the soil below.

Sarah Johnson is undertaking a PhD in environmental science at King's College London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.


Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.