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.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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