The Climate Solution: Got Cows?
Now that official leadership in Copenhagen has predictably failed us, for no agreement ever on the table was anywhere near close to what we need to salve the savage climate, what do we do?
Here, finally, is some good reason for optimism. With proper care of ruined grasslands, variously called managed grazing, holistic management, or carbon farming, we can restore billions of acres of the world’s soils. Along the way we can pull all the excess carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground where it belongs — in forty years or less. We can return to our long-gone preindustrial atmospheric concentrations of 280 ppm, the atmosphere that made the climate that made the planet very friendly to humans and many other creatures. It’s a climate strategy where we have the world to benefit, at minimal cost and very low risk:
- We can begin doing it right away (in fact, we already are), with or without government and/or corporate support.
- It costs nothing or less in the scheme of things.(i) For your local third-world family farmer, for your 100,000-acre rancher, and for everyone in between it will probably turn a profit.
- It requires no expensive and toxic fossil fuel inputs – fertilizers, pesticides – in fact, they will ruin it.
- It is so low-tech that it is mostly pre-tech (but a little bit of low tech can make it easier in some circumstances). As a result, the risks of unintended consequences are minimal.
- While there’s still a lot to learn, as always, we already know how to do this very well.
- Children will love it (they love animals and nature).
- It will feed millions or more people on sustainably harvested animal protein, animals that have been treated humanely throughout their lives, and it will maybe even put an end to the despicable practice of factory farming.
- It will heal billions of acres of land that industrial humans have ravaged and destroyed, restoring vital soil flora and fauna, and re-establish plant and animal diversity as well crucial hydrological cycles including groundwater replenishment, flood control, and patterns of rainfall.
- We don’t have to waste resources on nonsensical and dangerous geo-engineering schemes, nor do we have to keep hoping for miracles.
And all you need is a cow.
The Soil Story
But let’s back up a bit.
To state the obvious: soils, energized by the sun, are the source of all life on land. According to Australian soils scientist Christine Jones,
“The world’s soils hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and over four times as much carbon as the vegetation. With 82% of terrestrial carbon in soil (compared to only 18% in vegetation), soil represents the largest carbon sink over which we have control. Soil is also the world’s largest store of terrestrial diversity, with over 95% of life forms being underground (that is, only 5% of biodiversity is above ground).”[ii]
and because of the complex water-absorbing carbon compounds formed by living soil, every pound of soil carbon enables the storage of ten pounds of water. Clearly, as a carbon sink soils also play a major role in hydrological cycles, which thereby also regulate local climate.
Healthy soils are abundant and miraculous collections of life: green plants, fungi, worms, insects, bacteria, small animals, all of which work together in extraordinarily complex relationships to keep their life support systems supporting them. Ruined soils do little or none of the above.
From a scientific perspective, we have only begun to understand how soils work, although on a practical and spiritual level many indigenous cultures have understood the importance of the earth and its symbiotic relationships far better than we do.[iii] But we don’t need to understand all the interactions and synergies to get started. Nature has been building soils for eons, all we have to do is watch, listen and learn. Some people have already done that, with stunning results.[iv]
Restoring the World’s Soils, Restoring the World’s Atmosphere
Here’s the short version of how it works. I encourage you to dig deeper; the brief annotated bibliography below is a good place to start.
Grasslands and grazing animals co-evolved – they need each other. Long-lived, deep-rooted perennial grasses, essential for pulling carbon into the ground, need to be eaten in moderation by animals in order to be healthy and make room for new growth. So the grasses feed the animals, the animals feed the soils, the soils feed the grasses, in an iterative cycle all made possible by the sun.
In the wild, ruminants graze in close herds for protection against predators, and while they graze they loosen the soil with their hooves and fertilize it with their urine and dung. Then, not wanting to tarry in their own wastes, they move on to fresh pasture before they’ve had a chance to overgraze. After the browsing and fertilizing, eager dung beetles, nematodes, fungi and bacteria work synergistically with green plants and pull carbon deep into the soils, where it can remain indefinitely. Soils are far more stable carbon sinks than forests, where most of the carbon is stored aboveground and is returned to the atmosphere as plants die.
When we farm with the earth as a complex system, we manage animals and pastures/grasslands the way nature does. Current practice is to fence out predators and let ruminants wander everywhere, overgrazing, compacting and ruining the soil. Using managed grazing we keep the animals in tight gr
oups and move them on a roughly daily schedule (the precise frequency will depend on climate and other local conditions). This approach works well even with high animal densities. Furthermore, the resulting soil recovery in as little as one year’s time can appear miraculous.
In this process, soil health and fertility is restored and maintained. Biodiversity returns, teeming with complex life and relationships. Healthy soils in healthy ecosystems remain moist, even during dry spells, improve rainfall patterns, and prevent flooding by readily absorbing water.
For carbon sequestration, we can capture around 0.5 – 1.0 tons of carbon per acre per year, possibly more, and soil-building is cumulative. We have ten billion or more ruined acres across the planet that we could revive, with all manner of local benefits in addition to carbon sequestration, not the least of which is that soil restoration is very inexpensive thanks to the bounteous gifts of nature.
If we utilize available lands worldwide, estimating sequestration on the conservative side at 0.5 tons per acre, we are capturing an additional 5 gigatons of carbon per year from the atmosphere, or the equivalent of 2.5 parts per million. If we were to stop pushing carbon upwards, in roughly forty years we would be back to preindustrial levels of 280 ppm. But this likely underestimates soil capacity, and it may be possible to accomplish sequestration even faster as we improve our understanding of the way soils work as carbon sinks.
There are already thirty million acres under this kind of management in Africa, Australia and North America. NGOs such as Heifer International are promoting agroecology and managed grazing as they provide third-world farmers with animals.[v] Of course forest restoration efforts, especially in tropical and sub-tropical regions, will also help, as will newly evolving approaches to growing food.[vi] And we can all participate in carbon farming, by turning our lawns into carbon sinks[vii], by supporting local farming, by partnering with farmers and ranchers (perhaps along the lines of sister city efforts), among a variety of possibilities (please share some of your ideas along these lines).
Since grazing animals are essential to this process, invariably the methane question is raised. The current orthodoxy tells us that because of digestive methane emissions, raising animals for food is a global warming problem, not solution. This is true given current practice: crowded feedlots with grain-fed, drugged cattle and manure lagoons on devastated lands, shipped long distances. But this is clearly not how grazers evolved. We are drawing conclusions from a very skewed sample, as large as that sample may currently be. In contrast, one cow’s worth of healthy land actually absorbs one hundred times the methane emitted by that cow in any given year. And the methane-eating bacteria, which need healthy aerated soils to thrive, will continue to remove methane from the atmosphere as well.
What’s Stopping Us?
Here are the obvious birds-eye questions about carbon farming: “Why don’t we know this?” “Why aren’t we doing it full speed ahead?”
For farmers and ranchers, it likely has much to do with custom, habit and pressure from agribusiness and the educational and commercial institutions it supports. Even when the soil tells us in no uncertain terms that what we’re doing isn’t working very well it can be hard for us to change, and the prevailing wisdom is to apply ever more fossil-fuel based synthetics. Some of today’s most avid practitioners of holistic management were at the end of their lassos before they gave it a try. It requires more complex thinking about interpersonal relationships as well as earth systems, and sometimes this is not an easy transition to make. But once undertaken, it turns farms and lives around, economically as well as interpersonally and ecologically.
With climate activists, here’s what my surprising experience has been: they can’t hear it. The obsession with chasing green and profitable technofixes and/or reducing emissions drowns out other thinking – they smile, say it sounds interesting, look quizzical and change the subject, e.g., what about Lackner’s proposed carbon eating machines?[viii] It’s as if we can’t imagine that nature could ever be so clever without human invention. I must say, though, that as climate disruption accelerates, activists and others are slowly opening to the possibilities of soil sequestration of carbon.
Enter the big “If”: We still have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, as close to zero as possible as soon as possible. But we also have to understand that only reducing emissions is not nearly enough, given already active positive feedback loops such as melting ice, non-linear phenomena in the wings, and the unpleasant time lag surprises lurking in the thermal mass of the oceans.[ix] Even though sequestering carbon in soils can help blunt the effects of emissions along the way, while providing all the above-mentioned benefits of restoring soil health, we must stop spewing carbon into the atmosphere.
Here’s a bigger “If”: Will we grow up? I am not the first to observe that our globalized Euro-American culture is a world of two-year olds – we want what we want when we want it and throw tantrums (e.g., war, structural adjustment, etc.) when we don’t get it. Even real children grow up fast in the face of emergency, so surely those of us with adult faculties can do the same.
Part of growing up is ending a culture of exploitation, destructive resource extraction, futile exponential growth, and cruel treatment of all the denizens of earth, flora and fauna.&n
bsp; Time to pledge allegiance to the new mantra of local, sustainable, self-sufficient. As Richard Heinberg so pointedly wrote, the party’s over.[x] Time to kick the hangover and get to work.
Finally, to address a frequent utterance of disbelief: is growing animals and restoring the land while stopping global warming too good to be true?
The answer: only like sunsets and flowers and fish and trees – only like the inexpressible miracle of life on earth – is it too good to be true.
Soil Age Google group. Some of us who are working on holistic management/carbon farming solutions have started this list, currently low volume, to further our understandings and activism (we have begun to plan a climate/soils conference in the Boston area in 2010). All are welcome to join us! http://groups.google.com/group/soil-age
Dan Dagget, Gardeners of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance To Nature, Thatcher Charitable Trust/EcoResults! Press, Santa Barbara, 2005. A great place to start reading, Dagget tells the stories of Tony and Jerrie Tipton and others who have brought all but dead soils miraculously back to bounteous life, along with insightful discussions of the fascinating relationships in the natural world and the obstacles created by cultural assumptions and dogmatic environmentalism.
Christine Jones is an internationally known Australian groundcover and soils ecologist. Her website is Amazing Carbon, http://www.amazingcarbon.com. Several informative papers are available on the site. You can also listen to her keynote at the 2008 Queensland, Australia Landcare conference: http://www.qldlandcareconference.com/2008-conference/dr-christine-jones-soil-carbon-keynote/
Holistic Management International (HMI) was founded by Allan Savory, a pioneer in the management of grasslands, using his experience as a research biologist, game manager, rancher, farmer in Africa, and decades of experience in the United States. http://www.holisticmanagement.org/ Savory also maintains his own website at http://www.savoryinstitute.com/. These sites have a wealth of downloadable articles, including archives of HMI’s journal for farmers and ranchers, “In Practice,” http://www.holisticmanagement.org/n7/Info_07/in17B_In_Practice_archive_07.html. HMI has also produced a video, “The First Millimeter: Healing the Earth,” and will work with you if you’d like to host house parties, show it on local television, or hold other educational events, http://www.holisticmanagement.org/n9/PBS_announcement/pbs_announcement.php.
Carbon Farmers of America is an organization founded by a group of Vermont and Massachusetts farmers that works to support farmers in building high carbon soils. CFA “trains, equips and provides ongoing consultation and support to member farmers across America to rapidly create new, high organic-matter topsoil. With our member farmers, we carefully record the process of soil building on each farm, and scientifically monitor the carbon levels in their soils each year http://www.carbonfarmersofamerica.com/.
The Rodale Institute has been conducting scientific soils and farming research for almost thirty years, the longest running trial comparing organic and conventional farming methods, and have documented agricultural solutions to climate change and the developing “green revolution” collapse in food production, http://rodaleinstitute.org/global_warming.
A couple of articles from non-profit organizations addressing soil sequestration of carbon: Sara J. Scherr and Sajal Sthapit, “Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use,” Worldwatch, 2008, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6126; and Ronnie Cummins, “The Organic Revolution: How We Can Stop Global Warming,” Organic Consumers Association, October 19, 2009, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_19404.cfm.
Copyright 2010 by Adam D. Sacks
(i) “EU Meets to Discuss €6 Billion Fund For Developing Nations,” Der Spiegel, December 10, 2009 http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,663858-2,00.html. “Climate change is expensive. But somebody’s got to pay for it.” Well, at least in significant part, it needn’t be so expensive after all.
[ii] Christine Jones, “Our Soils, Our Future,” July 2008, http://grist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/jones-oursoilsourfuture%288july08%29.pdf
[iii] Dan Dagget, Gardeners of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance To Nature, Thatcher Charitable Trust/EcoResults! Press, Santa Barbara, 2005.
[iv] Pioneers such as Allan Savory, Christine Jones, and Tony and Jerrie Tipton (whose work is reviewed by Dagget, above) have shown that you can take desertified and even badly polluted grasslands and turn them into vital soils once again. For example, Allan Savory, “A Global Strategy for Addressing Climate Change,” 2008
http://www.savoryinstitute.com/storage/articles/A Global Strategy for Addressing Climate Change 2 _1_.pdf, and Christine Jones, “Our Soils, Our Future,” http://grist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/jones-oursoilsourfuture%288july08%29.pdf. See Annotated References at end of text for more information.
[vi] See, for example, Eric Marx, “Going Beyond Organic: Analog Forestry,” Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 2009, http://features.csmonitor.com/economyrebuild/2009/10/19/going-beyond-organic-analog-forestry/
[vii] See Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway for a superb introduction to permaculture, an approach to gardening in full cooperation with nature. Alternatively, if you must have a lawn, there are ways of doing it with no fossil inputs, in the form of pesticides/herbicides, fertilizers or fuel, and, with deep-rooted perennial grasses, no additional water – and store carbon while you’re at it. See, for example, http://pearlspremium.com/. And you can always start a business, such as Rent-a-Ruminant, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/16/goatscaping-goats-a-green_n_158642.html
[viii] Klaus Lackner has pioneered the development of “synthetic trees,” which don’t do a fraction of what trees do, let alone soils, and at a much higher price with untested technology and unintended consequences. But hey, it’s high tech! Lindsey Meisel, “From Synthetic Trees to Carbon Sponges: An interview with Scientist Klaus Lackner,” The Breakthrough Blog, March 18, 2008, http://www.thebreakthrough.org/blog/2008/03/from_synthetic_trees_to_carbon.shtml.
[ix] See my earlier piece, “The Fallacy of Climate Activism,” Grist, August 23, 2009, https://grist.org/article/2009-08-23-the-fallacy-of-climate-activism.
[x] Richard Heinberg, “The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,” New Society Publishers, British Columbia, 2005, http://richardheinberg.live.postcarbon.org/partys-over.html