Dr Sultan, the founder of Ecoscience Research Foundation, speaks to TNM on why native breeds of earthworms need to be brought back into the soil.

Native breed earthworms are disappearing and heres why its worrisomeImage for Representation Only | Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dodo-Bird
Features Human Interest Friday, July 13, 2018 - 16:19

“If someone were to tell me that I have only clay in my head (a common insult), it’d take it as a compliment,” laughs Dr Sultan Ahmed Ismail, founder of Ecoscience Research Foundation and a well-known soil biologist and ecologist from the city.

It’s a compliment, he says. 

“Soil can distinguish between what is alive and what can be decomposed. If you were to put degradable objects like kitchen waste in it, it’d know that this can become compost. Whereas if it’s a seed, it’ll know that it has to germinate. Soil is very intelligent,”

Dr Sultan was recently honoured at the World’s First Earthworm Industry Forum held at Shanghai in June this year with a special contribution award for his work and study on earthworms. 

His research in the field, however, dates back to several years. In 1980, after having completed his MPhil in Marine Ecology, Dr Sultan shares that it was indeed chance that nudged him to work with the earthworms. 

“A student approached me asking for help with his research when I was a professor at New College. That’s when I found a pamphlet from Ecological Society regarding a seminar in Behavioural Sciences. This was in 1980 January. When I asked the lab assistant to bring whatever live animal he had, he brought earthworms. That’s how it started. It was not planned. In fact, I had done fish biology and marine ecology in my MSc and MPhil. If I had insisted on a marine animal, ERF would not have happened,” he says.

Dr Sultan is Involved in ecological research since the late 70s and was also a part of Agricultural Renewal in India for Sustainable Environment (ARISE), pioneering it along with Bernard deClerk of Auroville, activist Vandhana Shiva and Claude Alvares, who authored the very famous Great Gene Robbery. 

“And Nammalvar enrolled for the first workshop conducted by ARISE between 1980 and 1981,” he chuckles.

G Nammalvar, an organic farming scientist from Tamil Nadu, was later nominated as the Tamil Nadu State coordinator for ARISE in 1995. 

“We were pretty close, we used to call each other annachi. In fact, it was an advantage for Tamil Nadu farmers that he joined. His mode of communication has been accepted by many and his reach is far and wide,” adds Dr Sultan.

Significance of earthworms

While for many of us earthworms may seem like the least of our concerns, Dr Sultan has great affection for the creatures. 

“They are like the pulse of the soil and the friends of farmers. It is perhaps why poet Manonmaniam Sundaranar has extolled the earthworms as ‘those who can remediate any type of difficult soil’,” he says. Dr Sultan goes on to talk about the benefits of vermicomposting (using earthworms for composting) and is also known for Vermitech. 

Dr Sultan, who holds DSc in soil ecology, explains that earthworms are of three types - epigeic (surface worms), anecic (sub-surface) and endogeic (deep inside). 

“Of these, those found in the sub-surface are the most important. You can tell if a soil is healthy or not by seeing if it has worms,” he says. Local species that are generally used in composting units in India are Perionyx excavatus and Lampito mauritii and are species that can coexist. 

But the disturbing decrease of native breed earthworms is a reason for concern he says. 

“A few years ago, during the Mumbai Agriculture Convention, a few people from Bangalore Agriculture University insisted that foreign-breed earthworms are the best. But what about the native breed that knows the soil better? Such ideas could be misleading,” says Dr Sultan.

He goes on to add that conventions such as the Earthworm Industry Forum that took place in Shanghai should also be done in the country to raise awareness. "But I did ask them why name it 'Industry'? It's because they feel more importance is given to Industries rather than normal conventions," he says.  

Dr Sultan rues the use of genetically modified, chemicals infused seeds, the use of excessive pesticides and the advent of big corporates in farming. 

“We’ve been dumping waste to the point of no return. It is now difficult to go back,” he adds.

“The moment we moved from being farmer-centric to crop-centric, we’ve lost it as a civilisation. We had 22 varieties of brinjal but now there’s only one imported variety. Farmers who have been cultivation jowar have been forced to grow soya. What use is soya for a farmer in Madhya Pradesh? He’d end up in ration shops to fill his stomach. There’s a saying that goes - the top part of the crop is for the farmer (and others), the mid portion is for cattle and the remaining is for the soil. This entire equation has now collapsed with the entry of corporate farming,” he explains.

As an environmentalist, he also appreciates the increase in interest amongst people for organic produce. 

“It is a good change. Buying directly from farmers will be a boon for the society as a whole. We also have OFAI (Organic Farming Association of India) that grades the organic markets so people will know whom to trust,” he says. 

Dr Sultan regularly interacts with farmers to educate them on soil ecosystem. He also conducts workshops in schools for children.