(Beyond Pesticides, September 29, 2017) Protect polar bears and “big charismatic wildlife!” But do not ignore the microscopic organisms essential to ecological sustainability. That is the take from a new study at University of California Berkeley, which, for the first time, links global climate change to the loss of a “shockingly high” number of critical microbial species essential to ecological systems, biodiversity, and organic land management.
Other studies link chemical-intensive agriculture, and its reliance on petroleum-based substances, to adverse effects on soil organisms and insects and birds essential to ecological balance, while indicating the importance of organic management practices in protecting biodiversity and curtailing global climate change.
As stated in the study, “Models predict that up to 30% of parasitic worms are committed to extinction, driven by a combination of direct and indirect pressures.” Furthermore, for those species “successfully tracking climate change,” the search for food and water, in once unavailable habitat, will cause them to “invade” and to “replace” native plants and animals with “unpredictable ecological consequences.”
Lead author of the study, Ph.D. candidate Colin Carlson, states that for symbiotic parasites, those with numerous beneficial roles, “a loss of suitable habitat” comes as a result of “host-driven coextinctions.” In an interview with Democracy Now, Mr. Carlson spells it out plainly, saying, “For parasitic species, because they’re dependent on wildlife and because wildlife are already threatened at such a high rate, what we think is going to happen is a pretty high across-the-board extinction rate.” The implications of such ecological disturbances could be truly catastrophic for the human and other species which rely on thriving soils for survival.
“How could the scope of these coexstinctions go unnoticed?”
Quite simply: Among humanity’s increasingly sanitized and suburbanized existence, many beneficial insects are still only viewed as pests and eradicated as such. As stated in the study, “Climate change is a well-documented driver of both wildlife extinction and disease emergence, but the negative impacts of climate change on parasite diversity are undocumented.” As Mr. Carlson discloses, “Previous [extinction research] has focused nearly exclusively on free-living biodiversity (especially vertebrates),” while “many important functional… [parasitic] groups remain undescribed or are only now being included.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” explains in her writing that in a mass extinction event, “[We] would expect very elevated extinction rates, [ ] across [ ] virtually all groups, including our friends, the parasites.” Ms. Kolbert continues, “When [we’re] messing around with the very tiny world that we’re not really paying a lot of attention to” – the microbial world beneath our feet, streets and tractors –“[we] can get some really, really big impacts that [we] didn’t anticipate…in part because [we] didn’t even know what was going on.”
Throughout the history of chemical-intensive agriculture, factory farms have failed to recognize the soil as the living superorganism, supporting plant life as part of an ecological community. To quote Jenny Hopkinson, author of the article Can American soil be brought back to life? – “For generations, soil has been treated almost as a backdrop —not much more than a medium for holding plants while fertilizer and herbicides help them grow. The result, over the years, has been poorer and drier topsoil that doesn’t hold on to nutrients or water.” Consequently, these microbial species “facing extinction and redistribution” have been living under stress as a result of the human species’ relentless disregard for their wellbeing.
“Why are all these microbes and parasites so important?”
Geologist David Montgomery,Ph.D. explains how microbial life is in fact “very nutrient rich—rich in nitrogen, rich in phosphorus, and rich in the micronutrients that all life forms need.” Citing “a biological bazaar,” Dr. Montgomery states that farmland without a vibrant microbial network does not have soil. It has “dead dirt.”
To achieve “incredibly rich, dark, fertile soil,” in which microbes, bacteria, and fungi thrive, Dr. Montgomery recommends that farmers and gardeners actively accrue and apply “organic matter” –what used to be living matter (e.g., leaves, mulch, compost) – in whatever form they can find. This process of soil restoration, says Dr. Montgomery, nourishes the rhizosphere, or “that zone around the root system of a plant that is incredibly rich with life,” and is, he concludes: “one of the most life-dense zones on the planet.”
Describing the significance of Earth’s microbial-motherboard, Dr. Montgomery states, “When nematodes and microarthropods can graze on and consume these smaller creatures, which [are] then being consumed by larger creatures,” what results is the depositing of soil nutrients “that can be fairly good fertilizer.” Moreover, says Dr. Montgomery, these microbes, or “tiny grazing animals,” if fed and cultivated, are in every sense “manuring the soil from the inside out.”
However, as was mentioned in Climate Change Consequences and the Organic Response for those committed to chemical intensive practices, “problems which are rooted in the soil are now being attributed to lack of synthetic fertilizer, insufficient genetically modified food crop varieties, and lack of pesticide availability.”
Due to increased reliance on chemical cure-alls, conventionally farmed topsoil in the U.S. is experiencing a grave reduction in organic matter and, more broadly, therefore, losing its ability to retain water and the essential nutrients which sustain the broad range of parasitic partners.
Increasing soil organic matter for the soil’s carbon bank is a principle goal of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture relies on the carbon bank and stimulated soil microbial communities to increase soil fertility, improve plant health, and support competitive crop yields. This approach utilizes the natural carbon cycle to eliminate “the use of purchased synthetic inputs, increase energy resource efficiency, improve economic returns for farmers, and reduce toxic effects of fertilizers and pesticides on human health and the environment.”
Buying local-organic is the best approach to eliminate the application of toxic chemicals because their direct affect on soil biology and because of the contribution that the toxic chemical use makes to climate change. (Talk to the farmers in your neck of the woods!) To restore soil health and preserve the microbes and parasites under threat, talk to your neighbors and elected officials about stopping toxic pesticide use, the importance of organic land management, restoration of riparian buffers along your nearby lakes and streams, and the use of hedgerows as integral to land management. All of this contributes significantly to carbon sequestration and ultimately is critical to stopping the escalating rate of climate change. Start a community garden, or food scrap compost station. See what you can do to nurture the soil in your own backyard. In the words of author and nature writer Barry Lopez, “Go local. Go deep.”
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.