Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Munchable Soapbox: The Worm in Your Apple

Happy New Year! My little soapbox has suffered from neglect as of late, but never fear, for I am back. And so on this second day of the month of January in the year 2013, let me take advantage of a clean slate and discuss an issue at the root of all that we eat. 

Let's talk compost. I hope that didn't just scare you away, but it is true that the food we eat is only as good as the soil in which it is grown. OK, so plants do convert sunlight into sugars, but all of those micronutrients, and the building blocks for plant proteins, cells, and the process of photosynthesis itself, come from the soil! In our modern-day, compartmentalized agricultural system, we often provide these nutrients to the plant in the form of synthetic (or conversely, industrial-scale organic) fertilizer. But this baseline practice is sort of like taking your daily vitamin, and then subsisting off of a diet of fries and milkshakes (perhaps I exagerate).

This article yesterday in the Science section of the New York Times illuminates the benefits of vermicompost - or essentially worm-created soil. Earthworms are super-digesters, and turn plant matter into a microbe-rich substrate that can improve a plant's access to nitrogen and decrease disease causing organisms. What the worms are doing is not adding discrete packages of things a plant might need to be healthy, but rather creating a complex ecosystem that serves the essential needs of the inhabitants while also building up resilience in the system to protect again other stresses. It's like like that combination of eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep that your doctor keeps prescribing - all of which are important for a healthy body and strong immune system!
I don't want to sound like an organic agriculture fanatic, but the article does point out that studies have shown how soils exposed to the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in conventional agriculture are devoid of the diverse microbial communities that aid in supplying nutrients and protecting from fungal and bacterial plant diseases. In contrast, vermicomposting offers a way to both improve soil health and deal with waste from livestock, crop production, and household food consumption. Research has even shown they can detoxify soil with cadmium, lead and other heavy metals.
My favorite part of the article was the mention of 'boutique composting.' Yes, there is a niche market for everything these days. More to the point, this is indicative of the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in agriculture...even if the big guys wish there were. Different plants like compost from different combinations of food or livestock waste, which in turn house their own unique microbial communities. So where one type of worm compost may kill of the blight that affect walnuts, another might be superior for apple trees.
With that, let me draw the first soapbox of the year to a close. I hope as you tuck in for a snack today, you contemplate the soil that grew the tree that gave you that apple!

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