Worms, Beetles in Soil
Part of Untapped Trove, UN Says
March 23, 2006 — By Alister Doyle, Reuters
OSLO — Worms, bacteria and beetles
living below ground are part of the largest and least known trove of
life on earth that could have spinoffs from farming to pharmaceuticals,
a U.N. report said on Wednesday.
"We know little of what is living below our feet...yet it is vital to
sustaining life on earth," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of
the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, which is hosting March
20-31 talks in Brazil.
French 19th century chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was right
to say that 'the role of the very small is large', Djoghlaf told
Experiments in promoting natural organisms in soils -- shifting from use
of artificial pesticides and fertilisers -- had helped improve crop
yields in some studies in Brazil, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, India, Kenya,
Mexico and Uganda.
Experts in the project believed that soil-dwellers such as earthworms,
fungi, termites, ants and bacteria were part of "biggest source of
untapped and unknown life on earth", a U.N. statement said.
The life forms could help farming and were "a potential source of
new...pharmaceutical and industrial products," it said. Most bids to
chart life on earth focus on exotic rain forests, coral reefs or
mangroves -- overlooking humble mud.
In India, for instance, re-introduction of local earthworms had improved
tea harvests at some plantations by almost 300 percent, Djoghlaf said.
In the Los Tuxtlas reserve in northern Mexico, bean yields had risen
more than 40 percent after farmers started using a type of
nitrogen-fixing microbe found in local forest soils as a "bio-fertiliser".
Soil-burrowers such as termites -- often dismissed as pests -- can help
aerate soil and ensure that it can absorb water.
The report said the benefits of diverse soils went beyond farming -- the
Los Tuxtlas reserve was a rain forest where 40,000 hectares (98,840
acres) were lost in the past 40 years.
"Boosting yields using naturally occurring soil organisms may reduce the
need to clear more forest for agriculture, thus helping to conserve the
forest and its diversity both above and below ground," it said.
And soils were often richer in life in forests and fallow land than on
farms. A study in Indonesia showed that "the richness and abundance of
ants, beetles and termites decreased with increasing land
intensification," it said.
Researchers in the project, launched in 2002 and coordinated by the
Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute in Nairobi, had also added
15,000 specimens, ranging from worms to fungi, to national collections.
Many were believed to be new to science.
The U.N. talks in Curitiba, Brazil, are seeking ways to achieve a U.N.
goal, set by world leaders in 2002, of slowing the rate of loss of the
diversity of life on earth by 2010.