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Food - behind the scenes - May 9

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The Wonder of the Worm and a Cautionary Tale About Slugs

Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture
... Worms are extraordinary things. Charles Darwin was one of the first people to really study the worm, beginning his research in 1830, and first presenting a paper on the subject to the Geological Society in London in 1837. His painstaking research was summarised in a book he published in 1881 called “The Formation of Vegetable Mould” (not a title guaranteed to have them flying off the shelves nowadays). At its conclusion he wrote;

“The whole of the superficial mould over any expanse (a wordy Victorian way of describing topsoil) has passed and will pass again every few years, through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and valuable of man’s inventions; but long before it existed the land was regularly ploughed, and still continues to be ploughed, by earthworms”.

There are two kinds of worms one encounters when digging the garden. There is the red Lumbricus teyristers, which can grow up to a foot long, and is the splendid beast I occasionally find cavorting in my garden. Then there is the paler, fatter, greyish-blue species that burrow deeper and actually do more good for the soil, bringing up nutrients from deep down and drawing down nutrients from the surface.

Without worms we cannot garden, indeed without worms there would be very little life on this Earth. As Darwin also said, “it may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures”. I wonder whether we might actually define the principal purpose of any gardening as being to maximise the number of worms to which it is host, as it is from this that all productivity and fertility springs.

Some research suggests that there can be as many as 20 million earthworms in a single hectare of land, and that some worms might burrow as deep as 6 feet down. One famous British soil researcher once stated that in a well manured pasture, the weight of the cattle on top of the pasture will equal the weight of the worms below it.

wBlackawton, a village near where I live in Devon, last Saturday held their annual Worm Charming event. People can enter in teams, or as individuals, and each person is allocated a square metre of ground at a location undisclosed until a few hours before the event.

... Rebuilding the humus in our soils is a key part of any national strategy on carbon sequestration, indeed the devastating impact of our oil-based industrial agriculture on soil structure, fertility, worm population and humus levels has contributed significantly to our carbon emissions. So, learn to love the worm, we need them now more than ever and you never know, seeing them on a moonlit night might just take your breath away.
(9 May 2008)
UPDATE (May 9). Contributor MJ points out that Darwin's work on worms is online:
The Formation Of Vegetable Mould


How to Make Fertilizer Appear Out of Thin Air, Part I

Alexis Madrigal, Wired
Combine air and natural gas over an iron oxide catalyst under high pressure and intense heat and what do you get?

The answer, surprisingly, is plant food: ammonia, the chemical precursor to nitrogen fertilizers.

Ammonia gets converted into nitrites and nitrates, which when sprinkled onto plants, allow them to grow larger. This is the basic idea behind the huge increases in agricultural yields, doubling between 1950 and 1990, seen in the 20th century. (Caveats about the "quality" of this growth and the environmental impacts of nitrogen are noted, but left aside for a later post in this continuing series).

Back around 1915, the world produced almost no nitrogen fertilizer, largely because there was no usable nitrogen supply. Now, the world produces about 87 million tons of N-based fertilizers. This increase is primarily due to the Haber-Bosch process for pulling nitrogen out of the air.

... Taken together, there's a lot of natural gas [and energy] going into the production of nitrogen fertilizer. So much so that when I tweeted about my fertilizer investigation, my friend Celeste LeCompte, managing editor at the Sustainable Industries Journal, tweeted back, "Think: natural gas."

In effect, we've been pumping fossil energy into our food supply, and eating it. While diminishing fossil fuel supplies and climate concerns have given us perfect hindsight into why this could be a dubious path for the future, at the time, it must have seemed like an excellent idea, given that the alternative--not producing enough food--was both real and horrific.

... Now teams of scientists across the world from Richard Schrock at MIT to David Tyler at the University of Oregon are racing to find just the right catalyst to recreate the natural nitrogen fixation process. While they wouldn't eliminate the use of natural gas as a feedstock, they would reduce the amount of energy used in the creation of ammonia. How much? Eliminating the Haber-Bosch process, which uses an estimated one percent of the world's total 15 terawatts of energy consumption (xls) would mean 150 gigawatts of energy savings for the world. That's about as much coal generating capacity as the US is planning to add between now and 2030.
(7 May 2008)
Nice explanation.


A protein possibility for the post peak period: the meat beast

Big Gav, Peak Energy (Australia)
Animal rights group PETA recently announced a $1 million reward for the first person to make in-vitro meat (leading Bruce Sterling to dub them "People for the Ethical Treatment of Alien Lumps of Flesh).

While PETA's aim here seems to be to be to publicise their opposition to the consumption of animals (as shown in the quote below), there is another angle to this story which is perhaps more interesting for those interested in energy issues - which comes back to "the oil we eat".

... While there is a lot of debate about which factors are the dominant ones in the price rises that have occurred so far, it seems clear that reducing demand would go some way to keeping prices down, and that finding alternative sources of protein would be one way of achieving this.

... While PETA may or may not just be performing a publicity stunt, there does appear to be some research underway in this area, which is known as "In vitro meat".

There are basically two approaches for producing in vitro meat; loose muscle cells and structured muscle, with the creation of structured muscle being far more challenging than the former.

... Advocates for in vitro meat claim it is safer, healthier, more humane and less polluting to produce - as well as being one way of adapting to rising demand for food and constraints on the supply of inputs to traditional industrial agriculture. But one question remains, should a commercial meat production process ever be put into action - can we get past the "yuck" factor ?
(8 May 2008)
Round-up of articles, photos, commentary on the subject. Also at The Oil Drum.

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