In sixth grade, our science teacher decided that our class would eat earthworms. On the appointed day, students brought in toppings they thought would make the wriggly creatures go down more smoothly — whip cream, chocolate sauce, guacamole — and opted to have theirs fried or raw, er, alive. While we don’t remember what the exact science lesson consisted of, the experience did instill in us a profound appreciation for earthworms (we’re not claiming everyone had this reaction — Jenny Smith to this day turns a little green when you mention them).
So, imagine our delight when we saw Steve Jones’ article in the Daily Telegraph on the value of earthworms — not as culinary delights, but as fertilizers: 
As the animals chew through the soil they churn it up. Worms, together with insects and mites, represent 15 tons of flesh in a hectare (2.5 acres) of English earth. And they are voracious beasts: in an orchard, worms eat almost every leaf that falls (two tons per hectare), while in a pasture of the same size, they will munch their way through 30 tons of cow dung each year.
 
Nowhere is the power of Nature's ploughmen better seen than when they invade virgin soil. In New Zealand, farmers found a century ago that what had been thin pasture was slowly transformed into lush agricultural land. Wormy immigrants were at work, breaking down harsh soil into compost. In North America, too, worms helped win the West. The prairies were almost wormless, for nearly all the native species had been wiped out in the last Ice Age. When Europeans arrived with their underground allies, productivity soared, although now the exhausted soil needs fertiliser and gigantic tractors.

Here’s where the sad twist comes in.

There are more troubles beneath our feet. A New Zealand flatworm accidentally introduced to Belfast in the Sixties has run wild. It kills earthworms by turning them liquid. The pest has spread through Scotland, northern England and Ireland and in some places, earthworm populations have collapsed.

The invasive flatworm liquefies earthworms. We’re torn between “ew” and “wow.” Either way, we’ll stick to more sustainable snacks.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008