Ahhh, the Pacific Northwest. Endless acres of moist organic soil on 51 Organic Valley farms, and a rainy day on the banks of the Grand Ronde River... What more could an earthworm ask for? I'll tell you what it could ask for...a good friend. And it's a good thing I have one, too, because just as I was thinking about dropping my anterior into the drink, I heard a voice shouting from up a few feet downstream...
Guy on the Bank: OVIE! STOP! DON'T JUMP!!!
Me: Huh? What? I just want to take a little swim. Who're you...and why do you care?
Guy: Ovie, it's me, Chuck...Chuck Benbrook from the Organic Center.
Me: Dr. Chuck Benbrook the SCIENTIST!? WOW! What the soil are you doing here?
Dr. B: I live and work here, Ovie...in that house over there. I was just coming down to the river to toss a line in the water to see if I could catch some dinner...This river's loaded with crazy, wild steelhead trout, you know...and they'd like nothing better than to eat you for dinner!
Me: Yikes! Eat me? No, thanks! I don't want to get eaten, that's for sure.
Dr. B: Well, of course not. Who does? But we all like to eat, don't we, Ovie?
Me: Sure do, Chuck! I love to eat all the organic compost I can squirm into. Hey, that reminds me...the other day, I got into some soil that didn't appeal to me at all. In fact, it made me sick. Why do some soils make me sick, Doc?
Dr. B: Chemicals, Ovie. There are a LOT of different chemicals stored up in the soil that's used to grow food in our country.
Me: Yeah, I know...I try to squirm away from those kinds of farms, but sometimes those chemicals just seem to show up where I least expect them.
Dr. B: Chemicals unfortunately have become just another part of our environment, Ovie. Many of them hang around for decades in the soil after their last use.
Me: You mean there are dangerous chemicals everywhere?
Dr. B: Unfortunately, Ovie, that's true. Chemicals have been moving around the globe in blowing soil, in rainfall, in the atmosphere, and have even reached the North and South Poles! The good news is that since organic farmers don't spray their fields with chemicals, all their fields and crops are no longer adding to the chemical load in our environment—and your living room. Sadly though Ovie, many farmers still do use dangerous chemicals on their fields to kill the creepy-crawly insects that can munch on, or suck the life out of their crops. Some of those chemicals can last up to ten, twenty or more years in the soil! Once they're in the soil, they also get into the water, and then they go up into the sky...you know how it works... Those same pesticides applied to a farm field in Wisconsin in the springtime can fall to the ground in Alaska ten years later, where they might become part of one of your brother earthworm meals, and wind up in a fish that eats the worm, and then in eagle or a bear that eats the fish.
Me: That's not good.
Dr. B: No, it's not. And it gets worse! Did you know, Ovie, that you're a bio-accumulator?
Me: A Bioaccumu-whater?
Dr. B: A Bio-ACCUMULATOR, Ovie. When you eat those chemicals, they accumulate in your body. Then when a bird or fish eats you—
Me: I DON'T WANT TO GET EATEN!
Dr. B: I know, I know...but let me illustrate... The levels of chemicals go up in birds or fish that eat worms or other insects with chemicals in their bodies... and when the bird or fish gets eaten by another predator, the levels can rise again. That is why toxic chemicals in the environment have done so much damage to top-of-the-food-chain predators, like eagles and bears. You Ovie, live right near the bottom of that food chain. Did you know, Ovie, that we almost lost the bald eagles back in the 70s?
Me: Sure I did, but I thought the bald eagles were being poached...
Dr. B: The bald eagles weren't being poached, Ovie, they were being—
Me: NO WAY!
Dr. B: Yes way, Ovie. Yes, way.
Me: WHY, Doc? WHY do they spray those chemicals on the fields?
Dr. B: Because pesticides make managing pests easier, or so it seems for awhile. But when farmers stop paying attention to avoiding pests in the first place, they put too much faith in the "power of chemistry" and pay too little attention to the power of Mother Nature. All critters including bugs and plant diseases are just like you and me—they are determined to do everything they can to survive. And after all, you can't blame them.
Me: Haven't farmers and those people making decisions about what pesticides can be used, and where learned a lesson from the eagles? Are they still spraying all the same chemicals?
Dr. B: Another good question, Ovie. This is why it's important to study history—so we don't keep repeating the same mistakes. It was an insecticide called DDT that did so much damage in the 60s and 70s. They don't use DDT anymore, which is good, and they don't spray as many pounds of chemicals as they did back then.
Me: That's good.
Dr. B: Sort of. Now they're spraying MORE KINDS of chemicals—and some of the chemicals are way more potent that the chemicals used back in the 60s and 70s. We have reduced risks to farm workers and people, but have increased risks impacting bees, and many small critters, like you. And we just talked about how impacts from chemicals can move up the food chain.
Me: Don't remind me. Yeesh. How can I help, Doc? What can I do?
Dr. B: Organic farming is a great place to start...or squirm. Stick with organic farms. Instead of spraying chemicals on the soil, organic farmers feed their fields compost, which is basically partially decomposed food waste and food scraps...the parts of plants and animals that we don't eat...and when it gets all mixed up with the dirt in a farmer's field, it's called humus.
Me: And everyone knows I LOVE a good humus!
Dr. B: Right! And that humus is what supports healthy biological life in the soil, which can actually help break down chemicals hanging out in the soil. All those microbes in healthy soil actually clean soils up, and they also help farmers grow better, healthier food for people to eat.
Me: Squirmarific! A happy ending!
Dr. B: That's right, Ovie. The good news is that we're figuring it out. We're beginning to understand how to grow good healthy food for everyone without spraying chemicals all over our fields.
Me: Great. We just need to keep converting more farms to organic. That shouldn't be too hard to do...I mean...it makes sense and it seems to be working.
Dr. B: It's working, Ovie. Thanks to worms like you, it's working.
Me: Thanks, Doc. Time for me to get back underground and improve this soil.
Dr. B: And time for me to catch some dinner!
You can learn more about the most recent organic research at The Organic Center!