The Role of Worms in Sustainable Development

The organic and sustainable development  movements begin and end with the production of fertile soils! All other projects (windmills, solar heaters, biodigesters etc.) are mere add-ons – good to have. Think a little about it. One can do without electricity, hot water, synthetics etc. but one cannot do without food. Organics predicate the elimination of inorganic products; sustainable development aims for a drastic reduction in the use of inorganic products; as these products are mostly made from oil and as oil supplies are decreasing and becoming more and more expensive their use must be curtailed.

One must be sensible here and state at the beginning that the world could not be fed at the present time without the use of inorganic products such as fertilisers and pesticides BUT at a personal level individuals could aim at reducing THEIR use of inorganic products – every little helps!

On another tack, the world is drowning in its own garbage. Recycling helps but the amount of garbage going into holes in the ground (landfill) is still increasing. And the number of ‘holes in the ground’ available are everywhere becoming less and less. Recycling of recyclable products helps but there still remains an enormous amount of non-recyclable garbage – mostly organic or ‘wet’ waste (fruit and vegetable offcuts, animal manures, garden waste, leaves, sawdust etc – in fact anything that was once alive and is now dead; this includes all animal and vegetable sources!). Think of the kitchen waste from a small household – weigh this over a week and the results will be staggering!

Then think of the waste from a hotel, a large conference centre, a piggery, an abbatoir, and so on: the amounts generated are staggering!

We now have two problems to think about: reduce or eliminate the use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides and reduce or eliminate the amount of wet waste going into holes in the ground. Luckily, there is an answer to both! And the answer is compost. Compost added to the soil increases fertility without the need for inorganic fertilisers and, as compost is made from wet waste, the amount of this going into holes in the ground will decrease. It is not necessary to wait for Governments to ‘do something’ – everybody in their own home can contribute to decreasing the problems just outlined.


Not everybody can have a compost heap in their garden – and, anyway, making good-quality thermophilic (using heat) compost is an art and takes many months of care and attention. For those who cannot make thermophilic compost, the answer is vermicomposting! What is vermicomposting? Basically it is keeping a special species of worm in a closed container, feeding it with wet waste, watering it and collecting its faeces (termed cast) for use as a compost. It is as simple as this.

The container can be so small as to fit under a sink or be extremely large with many millions of worms. Although the system sounds easy it has its pitfalls. The main problem is that it is an extremely slow process and many people give up when they see that months of feeding the worms results in very little compost but for those who persevere the results are astonishing. In the months of feeding a large amount of wet waste has been consumed and has not gone into ‘holes in the ground’. The compost actually produced has been described as 60% more effective than good quality thermophilic compost and good quality thermophilic compost has been described as 60% more effective than non-thermophilic compost. It has also been described as at least 40% more effective than inorganic fertilisers. Two goals have been met; compost has been produced for soil fertility and wet waste has been recycled.

The Wonderful Worm

The worm most used in vermicomposting here in South Africa is named  and is distinctive in its habitat. In the wild, the worm does not burrow into the soil but lives on the surface under a layer of moist organic litter. It has very poor burrowing capabilities and will NOT be found in the soil. However, where a colony of  is busy converting the surface organic litter into compost, the other species of burrowing worms will congregate as there will be an ample food supply for them.

The worm cast will be alive with microorganisms and will also contain most of the inorganic nutrients required by plant roots for optimum growth. It may appear contradictory that we are eliminating using inorganic fertilisers but plant roots feed on inorganic nutrients! It must be noted here that the worms are not consuming the wet waste fed to them; rather they are consuming the microorganisms that are decomposing the wet waste. In fact, some commercial worm farmers add concoctions of microorganisms to their breeding pens in order to increase the supply of food.

The worms are quite happy to breed in captivity! Worms are hermaphrodite (both sexes in one individual) and fertilise each other. After fertilisation, a cocoon is formed which can have as many as ten young. This cocoon is discarded and, when ready, the young worms leave the cocoon and are ready to fend for themselves. Each worm can discard two cocoons per week so the breeding rate is quite impressive.

  is a very versatile little animal. Ground down into meal it is a very valuable source of protein and is extensively used as ‘filler’ for sausages and polonies. Parts of the worm are used as a collagen base for lipsticks! In a so-far unknown process, the worm can ingest pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms and, through its digestive process, kill and eliminate these lethal entities. In a similar vein, the worms can ingest sewage sludge that is often contaminated with heavy metals (such as cadmium, zinc, nickel and selenium) and expel casts that are completely free of these dangerous compounds.

Vermiculture is a very valuable link in the overall ‘crusade’ to cut down the use of inorganic fertilisers and reduce or eliminate the amount of wet waste going into landfill. It is also an important way of returning to the soil that what was removed from the soil.

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