zondag, februari 7, 2021

The red earthworm

‘Only together will we get corona under control' is the slogan of the Dutch government. Together, yes. Why not also with the red earthworm, I wondered? I came to this thought after seeing on television the investigative report 'The excuse of the Boerenleenbank'(Zembla, January 28, 2021).

A scene: we are in the region Gaasterland in Friesland at the farm of organic farmer Deinum, who proudly points to his grazing cows in a meadow with herbs, flowers and different kinds of grasses. Visitor Theunis Piersma, professor of migratory bird ecology at Groningen university, looks with admiration at the huge colony of swallows nesting under the roof, now a rarity. Visitor Jeroen Onrust, from the same university, puts a shovel in the ground and raises a shovel of earth. Crouched and enthralled, the three sit around the clod with programmer and investigative journalist Ton van der Ham. What a teeming liveliness. Onrust speaks about the importance of this soil life. Everything that grows above ground is dependent on what happens below ground. There the worms do the necessary (ploughing) work. Champion is the red earthworm. Onrust, who has been researching this worm for ten years, carefully picks one out of the clod and places it in his palm. 'Look at this, this is a beauty, with its dark purple head.' Farmer Deinum sits there, beaming.

With this image still fresh in my mind, it hurts to see how an enormous machine with knives starts ploughing the neighbor's land in order to apply slurry. You hope there isn't a stray red earthworm in there, because it would have been cut to pieces. According to Onrust, they are no longer there, because fertilizer, slurry and pesticides have eradicated soil life. Moreover, he calls this method of plowing destructive because the top layer where all the life is, comes on the bottom, and the essential corridors made by the worms are destroyed. So what about that corn field over there, asks Van der Ham? Unrest takes a shovel of earth and finds only a very small gray worm. Bad, in other words.

Van der Ham's subsequent conversation with the neighbor reveals the enormous dilemma facing Dutch farmers today. The neighbor is well aware that spreading slurry is not good for the soil, just as it is not good to grow corn on the same land year after year. He would like to make the switch but does not have the money to do so. The bank he approached doesn't want to help. All the organic farmers featured in this program have made the switch on their own, with the help of friends and family. The banks, the two mentioned are the Rabobank and the ABN AMRO, did not give them any help, because the transition would not be profitable.

Nor did the government help, despite the fact that the Minister of Agriculture frequently uses the term 'circular'. Apparently the government and these banks are suffering from short-term vision. Boer Beinum shows that it pays off in the long run. He was what he calls a turbo farmer until he discovered the downsides in the mid-1990s. He noticed that both the soil and his cows were becoming less and less healthy. Now he earns more with fewer cows, also because he has fewer costs. No expensive tractors, no concentrated feed, no fertilizer, but healthy soil with healthy cows, who because they only eat grass also produce good manure.

The thing that stays with me most from this program is the red earthworm. I remember a statement by well-known Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans in a review of the lessons of corona-year 2020, that viruses are caused by changes in the balance of our ecosystems. I understand that the red earthworm can restore the balance in the earth, in the foundation of our existence. At least if it gets the chance, because there are fewer and fewer of them, as Onrust notes. Isn't it time for a ‘save the red earthworm action’?  If only because we want to save ourselves. 

Hennie de Pous-de Jonge