Vermiculture: a sustainable circular alternative to chemical fertiliser?

A low-tech solution that offers a sustainable circular alternative to chemical fertiliser by converting organic waste? Anna de la Vega, founder of The Urban Worm, explains to Phil Lattimore why vermiculture could be the answer.

As far as sustainable agriculture is concerned, could the humble earthworm be the, literally, groundbreaking circular solution we should all be looking at?

While high-tech innovation often grabs the headlines when we talk about addressing environmental challenges, Anna de la Vega believes worm farming – or vermiculture – offers an ecological, economical solution for organic waste management and organic agriculture.

She is founder and managing director of The Urban Worm Community Interest Company (CIC), a social enterprise, based in Nottinghamshire, that was founded in 2013 and is committed to raising the profile of worm farming.

We provide education for schools, businesses and communities, as well as workshops and consultation services, and we make worm farms

It aims to increase awareness of the value of sustainable vermiculture – which can turn organic waste into high-grade fertiliser for agriculture – by supporting schools, communities, businesses and farmers through workshops and consultations. It also makes and sells the basics needed to establish a worm farm, such as recycled plastic bins and DIY kits.

With worm farms applicable at any scale – from small units under kitchen sinks to large commercial operations – The Urban Worm works with individuals, as well as large organisations such as local authorities, schools and businesses (including a Michelin-starred restaurant) to encourage the take up of vermiculture in the UK.

We talk to De la Vega about her motivations, the benefits of vermiculture and why the world should #wormup.

Circular (C): How did you come to establish The Urban Worm?

Anna de la Vega (AdlV): I trained as a photojournalist, and have always been very interested in ecology and low-impact communities. I spent a lot of time travelling while I was studying, visiting alternative, low-impact communities.

When I graduated, I had an internship with the Kathmandu Post in Nepal, and volunteered with a charity called Practical Action, which was founded by pioneer of the green movement Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, author of Small is beautiful – a study of economics as if people mattered.

That really inspired me to look at the world in a different way. I returned to the UK in 2013, wanting to work in ‘sustainable development’.

I studied for an MA in human security and environmental change, specialising in food security. My eyes were really opened to the injustice in the global food system, and the impact that industrial agriculture was having on the health of the soil and biodiversity, the health and livelihoods of farmers, and their dependency on chemicals.

So, after I graduated, I set up The Urban Worm, which enabled me to access grants for educational purposes, which is so important in the UK, where worm farming isn’t well understood.

In 2016, I was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, researching vermiculture in the US and Cuba. Research in the US primarily focused on the role of vermiculture as an integral component of mainstream institutional organic waste management and the opportunities for enterprise.

Cuba was recognised as a global leader in vermiculture, driven by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 that left the nation without 80 per cent of its synthetic fertilisers.

My research in Cuba looked at vermiculture as an integrated model in sustainable agriculture – for example, one tonne of worm manure replaced the need for eight tonnes of cow manure, reducing labour and other inputs. So that was of real interest to me as a more sustainable solution.

This research enabled me to see how vermiculture was working on an industrial scale, as well as on a small scale. It really got The Urban Worm moving and, from there, it has just grown.

(C): What worm-farming projects did you come across in the US?

(AdlV): It was very varied. I visited prisons, a zoo, universities, colleges, as well as industrial worm farms – including the biggest one in the world, Worm Power, in Rochester upstate New York, which was established by former waste consultant Tom Hurley.

It was processing the waste from 8,000 cows a day, which is the equivalent to the waste from 40,000 human residents. They were working symbiotically with a nearby dairy farm, enabling the farm to get rid of its waste while Worm Power would sell its manure all around the country and to buyers across the world.

(C): What are the aims of The Urban Worm project and how do you pursue them?

(AdlV): The Urban Worm was set up as a CIC in 2016, and it’s about raising awareness of the value and importance of healthy soil and healthy microbiome [the microorganisms in a particular environment], and educating people about how worm farming can provide a sustainable solution as an alternative to chemical fertiliser.

It is also about showing people how small changes can have a huge impact, and that we can do this at home as well. Although we now work with larger organisations too, The Urban Worm’s ethos is very much based around households and how people can make small changes that help.

We provide education for schools, businesses and communities, as well as workshops and consultation services, and we make worm farms. We have designed components to convert wheelie bins into worm farms, which are made locally from recycled plastic.

We also use old ‘for sale’ signs that would otherwise go to landfill for our inserts. The concept with the wheelie bin worm farm was to start changing people’s idea about waste – if you put it in the bin, it can have an added value.

Worms eat whatever passes through their body and can consume up to half their body weight every day, so you scale up the number of worms to take care of the volume of waste you need to process. Worms can double their population every 60 days, so there’s also huge opportunity for start-up worm farmers. It’s a completely sustainable model.

(C): What does worm farming produce?

(AdlV): It produces worm manure, which is a very high-value product. It contains all 14 nutrients that plants need to thrive, and it retains 50 per cent moisture.

If we are using this product in our planters and in agriculture, we’re also creating resilience against the extreme weather conditions we’re experiencing – it stops plants drying out. And we can produce it for free.

One tonne of worm manure will fertilise an acre of land. So not only do we have a high-value product, but it’s also a low-tech input; there is the initial cost of worms, but it is then self-sustaining – no additional inputs are required.

It’s a way for farmers to reduce their reliance on chemical fertilisers, working together in a circular way, with symbiotic relationships reducing inputs and costs, as well as helping the environment.

It’s a way for farmers to reduce their reliance on chemical fertilisers, working together in a circular way, with symbiotic relationships reducing inputs and costs, as well as helping the environment.

Top-soil depletion is also a grave concern; 33 per cent of global soils are already degraded and, by 2050, we will see a loss of 90 per cent, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

In terms of climate change, some gases emitted from rotting food waste – such as methane and nitrous oxide – are more potent than carbon dioxide. Vermiculture provides a climate-friendly alternative – worms can deal with all organic waste and break down whatever passes through their bodies. They are the earth’s cleansers. So, worm farms can significantly reduce such greenhouse gas emissions from organic waste, compared with the alternative of landfill.

The Urban Worm is also about people dealing with their waste on site, so we’re reducing the number of fossil fuel-driven vehicles that are on the roads to deal with this waste. That’s improving our air, and we’re using this resource in our community. Keeping it small – small is beautiful.

(C): What other types of projects have you done?

(AdlV): Recently, we’ve had some funding from the National Lottery Reaching Communities Fund for our ‘1,000 Worm Farmers’ project, to make videos and ship 1,000 packs of 100g of worms to people.

This was supposed to be a two-year project that was due to end in 2023, but by the end of January 2022 we already had more than 860 applications. It just goes to show there’s real interest. Even if you live in a fifth-floor flat, you can do something.

People can often feel overwhelmed, helpless and powerless about the great challenges of climate change and sustainability, but something such as this gives people an opportunity to make a small, positive change – and that makes us feel good.

We have also established a number of local ‘love and compost’ community composting projects, including working with a social eating kitchen called Pulp Friction.

We did a similar thing with trial projects involving the Baitul Hafeez Mosque and The Iona School, in Nottingham, which are next to each other. People from the mosque and parents from the school were bringing their food waste, and then they use the fertiliser to grow a harvest, which then gets distributed to the community. It helps bring people together.

We are also working with McArthurGlen shopping outlet in Cannock, Staffordshire. They have six, 1,000-litre worm farms, with the Wagamama and Slim Chickens restaurants based there feeding their waste to their worms. They will be using the vermicompost on the grounds.

We are also going to be working with Newark and Sherwood Council to deliver worm farms to 43 schools in the area. That initiative came from the council itself, which shows, again, how people are clocking on to this now.

(C): How would you like to see The Urban Worm developing or expanding over the next few years?

(AdlV): My ambition is for governments to recognise this vermiculture process as being valuable, because it’s very underdeveloped and produces a high-value, sustainable product. Nobody knows about it – even most farmers – which is crazy. I would like to see it promoted through government policy and introduced in education.

Having these systems in our schools and in our workplaces would automatically educate people, which is vital. It could be adopted across many different industries, reducing waste and saving money.

That’s the main thing – it reduces our inputs and it creates added value from this obscene amount of waste that we’re sending to landfill. That’s what the circular economy is all about.

(C): What have been the main challenges you have faced in establishing and developing The Urban Worm?

(AdlV): Education and awareness. It is something that is very niche in the UK compared with the rest of the world. People aren’t always up for something new, but I’ve overcome that by setting up as a CIC and being able to access grants; that’s given me the opportunity to invest in education.

We’re not dependent on grants any more, but it was a great model for us initially. It’s been a big change from when I was standing on a market stall in 2015 with my worms, to now, when I’m invited to speak at conferences and organisations in places such as the US at the international vermiculture conference.

(C): Is the introduction of mandatory food-waste collections a major opportunity?

(AdlV): It is a huge opportunity, but there needs to be support there. It’s all very well saying to organisations ‘you have to do this and pay for it’, but there needs to be support – financial support and help for start-up organisations to be able to deal with this waste, rather than it all going to huge anaerobic digesters. It’s a great step, but that support is vital.

I would like to see funding for start-up composting and vermicomposting, funding for localised organisations, so we then can keep this waste in our own region, to support healthy soil in the area. There also needs to be support for education around this.

(C): Do you see this being an important part of a shift to a circular economy?

(AdlV): Absolutely. It has to be this way if we want to meet our climate change and emissions targets. We can’t carry on like this. It creates opportunities for business too – there are huge enterprise opportunities for people as awareness of vermiculture grows.

There will be plenty of room for budding worm farmers out there as its value is recognised and it becomes more widely adopted.

This article first appeared in the March / April issue of Circular. 

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