Earthworms contribute to 6.5% of global cereal production

Earthworms contribute to 6.5% of global cereal production

2023-09-26 17:13:04

Earthworms – RAWPIXEL


Earthworms are important drivers of global food productionas they contribute to 6.5% of cereal production and 2.3% of legume production worldwide each year.

These new estimates from a trio of CSU (Colorado State University) researchers mean that Earthworms may be responsible for up to 140 million metric tons of food produced annuallyan amount roughly comparable to the amount of cereal grains (rice, wheat, rye, oats, barley, corn and millet) grown annually by Russia, the world’s fourth largest producer.

“This is the first study I know of that tries to take a piece of soil biodiversity and say, ‘Okay, this is what it’s worth; this is what it’s giving us on a global scale,'” says Steven Fonte, associate professor of agroecosystem ecology in the CSU Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and lead author of the study, which is published in ‘Nature Communications’.

Earthworms help establish healthy soils by promoting plant growth in multiple ways: building good soil structure, contributing to water uptake, and assisting in the beneficial agitation of organic matter that makes nutrients more available. for the plants.

Other research has also shown that worms can facilitate the production of hormones that promote plant growth and help protect plants from common soil pathogens. Some estimates indicate that worms can increase overall plant productivity by 25%.

Fonte and his colleagues Nathan Mueller, an associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Sciences and Sustainability, and Marian Hsieh, a doctoral student in the same department, estimated the contribution of earthworms to global food production by overlaying and analyzing abundance maps. of worms, soil properties, fertilization rate and crop yield.

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The analysis indicated that earthworms had a most significant impact on grain production in the global south, in particular 10% of grain production in sub-Saharan Africa and 8% in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is likely that worms contributed more in those areas, according to Fonte, because farmers often have less access to fertilizers and pesticides.

Instead, they rely more on worm-rich organic matter, such as manure and crop residues, which help stimulate the beneficial effect of worms on plants. ““Earthworms contribute a lot in these areas where we have fewer chemical inputs”he states.

For this study, the team analyzed the impact of earthworms on four cereal crops: rice, corn, wheat and barley; The group examined a set of legumes that included soybeans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and alfalfa, among others.

Fonte believes that soil biodiversity has historically been undervalued and hopes that this work will draw more attention to how healthy soils can have positive, tangible effects on crops.

“If we manage our soils more sustainably, we can take better advantage of this biodiversity and produce more sustainable agroecosystems,” he says. “This work highlights that potential.”

Fonte points out that other recent research has shown that soils contain up to half of the world’s biodiversity, a significant increase from previous estimates of approximately 25%.

“Soils are a very complex habitat, but very few efforts have been made to understand what that biodiversity means for the performance of our crops,” he adds.

This information could also have implications for future efforts to mitigate drought and erosion, Fonte notes. For example, earthworms can improve soil porosity and contribute to water uptake and retention.

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Fonte warns that neither he nor his colleagues advocate that anyone transplant earthworms into places where they do not yet exist. Instead, he hopes this work will show that better management of soil biology in places where earthworms already exist can increase agricultural productivity. and reduce our dependence on agrochemicals.

According to Fonte, this study is an important first step, but he hopes that researchers will continue investigating the benefits that other soil organisms have on crops.

“Soils continue to be a huge black box that we don’t quite understand,” says Fonte. “This work helps show that there are many opportunities that we are ignoring. “There are probably other soil organisms that are even more important, especially microbial communities.”he concludes.

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