Cows the climate solution?

sacred cow

In “The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Adam Sacks says well managed cattle grazing could solve all our climate problems by the middle of the century.

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

Wow. That’s an optimistic and bold claim.

The particulars are as follows:

* 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. 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.

Not surprisingly, there are objections to this scenario. George Werthner’s recent Counterpunch article, Why grass-fed beef won’t save the planet attempts to throw a wet blanket over Sacks’ claims, stating that “cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.” That is probably true of the cattle business as currently constituted. But I think Werthner and Sacks might be talking about two different things. One, cattle production as it is, the other cattle production as it might be. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic, given that I am at present one of these holistic managers of my pastures.

There are a lot of competing claims floating around right now. The anti-grassfed argument has many components, but the one that has attracted the most attention is a recent study showing that grass-fed cows actually produce more methane than feedlot cows. It is indeed a counterintuitive finding, but I think it’s incredible that this one factoid gets ripped out of context and paraded around in major media outlets. See? Those crazy grass-fed hippies don’t know what they’re talking about. Leave raising cows to the professionals!

Dare I suggest that PR firms retained by the powerful beef lobby have helped to nudge this story along?

To me, this is another faux-contrarian argument emerging from the FUD-osphere (FUD standing for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), which has been described as a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

Because really, it’s only one part of the big picture. And the big picture, no matter what your perspective, is that the feedlot model of raising cattle is an absolute abomination, and it has to change.

From the Discovery News article I quoted above:

“There’s a lot of range of what the [methane] emissions are from beef, and that is real variability,” agreed Rita Schenck, Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Research & Education in Vashon, Wash., who has also studied this question.

“It is different in different places. It is different in different growing regimes. It’s just different. I think the numbers are really close,” she said, so the scales can tip one way or another depending on the specific circumstances.

“To some extent, all of this bickering about carbon footprint is missing the forest for the trees,” Weber [Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University], is that accurately quantifying how much soil carbon contributes is difficult, and it can vary dramatically from place to place — even in locations just a few feet away said. “”In terms of air pollution, water pollution and odor, concentrated feedlots are a disaster. In terms of other environmental impact, there is no question that grass fed is better. My problem is that people really play on the carbon footprint angle, when it’s really not clear. “


3 Responses to “Cows the climate solution?”

  1. February 1, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Imagine if we had a process to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere safely, quickly and cost-effectively – while at the same time reversing desertification, boosting biodiversity, enhancing global food security and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people in rural and regional areas around our planet?

    We do – it’s called changed grazing management and soil carbon.

    Please take a look at the presentations on http://www.soilcarbon.com.au/ to learn more.

  2. February 2, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Hi Timmuky,

    Thanks for your post which I found because I monitor Google Alerts for “Holistic Management”. Actually, Adam Sacks is a colleague / friend of mine, and we’ve discussed these topics at length. It’s nice to see that the word is getting out.

    You are correct that Adam and George’s comments are not mutually exclusive because they are discussing different things. As Adam states in his follow up, the issue isn’t about “cows” (although that’s the catch – I guess it worked!), the issue is about restoring grassland ecosystems – which are by far the largest stores of terrestrial carbon on the earth. Grasslands co-evolved with grazing mammals that moved in concentrated herds. This herding action was caused by predation (wolves, lions and such). The devastation of the world’s grasslands and is due largely to the removal of large mammals – not over grazing. Too little grazing is as bad as too much. Either way the grass dies. This is the discovery of Alan Savory and the findings of the process of “Holistic Management”. Please see http://www.holisticmanagement.org. The more large animals are removed from their natural grassland ecosystems, the faster the grassland dies. Imagine that? They actually need each other.

    The problem today is that we have no sense of what a natural grassland ecosystem is. When Louis and Clarke traveled across the Midwest they were walking over thousands of square miles of the riches soils on the planet, in many place over 10 feet deep with grasses just as high. Those soils, of course, are organic matter, which is, largely carbon, sequestered by plants that were kept alive by the “pulsed” animal impact. There were billions of tons carbon stored in those soils, most of which has run off into the oceans as topsoil loss. The rest has been oxidized and become CO2 through burning and tilling. At the time, there were 100 million buffalo, 100 million elk, and billions of prairie dogs, all eating, aerating, and recycling nutrients. Gee, how did the grasslands survive with all that chomping? Heaven forbid. To restore those soils requires animal impact of the nature they evolved in – herd action, intense and short spurts or “pulses”. The idyllic grazing that we see of a few cows lounging around in short grass and mud is a modern, unnatural and unsustainable solution. That’s *not* what we’re talking.

    Environmentalist are correct in citing the damage that cattle do in their artificially maintained and poorly managed environments. Of course. No one is arguing for more of that. What Savory, and Adam are talking about is a new method of managing cows in a fashion that simulates the natural herd behavior that the grassland evolved this. This takes the form of tightly packed groups of cows called “paddacks” that are moved frequently. The process is known as Holistic Management. The results are unequivocal. Tens of millions of degraded soils have been restored this way, and small scales herders are viable now because of it. It cost far less than traditional herding and greater “stocking levels” can be sustaining while improving the ecosystem. In fact, as Savory says, this is the only method that will restore grassland soil. No other method will work. Grassland soils will not return without the animal impact that they evolved in. It won’t happen. The grassland will turn to desert and their carbon sequestering potential will be lost. The good news is that this process can be reversed.

    Again, it isn’t about “cows”. It’s about grazing mammals. Cows can be managed in a way that mimics behavior that is beneficial to the soil. We don’t give a flying hoot if it’s cows or bison, or elk, or giraffes, or elephants. The action is similar. Each is a grazing mammal that evolved in a grassland / savanna ecosystem. When the animals are removed, the grassland ecosystem dies. We need millions more grazing animals moving about as natural herds, or in managed paddacks that replicate the herd behavior. Seeing as so many people depend on cows, they may as well be managed in a fashion that is environmentally restorative – doing this sequesters, carbon, replenishes water tables, and creates viable enterprise for small rangers and herders.

    Regarding methane. Here is another case where the anti-cow environmentalists are missing the point. Miracle of miracle, the methane levels were less in the atmosphere when there were 100s of millions more grazing mammals on the earth than there are now – all of them eating grass and flatulating. How was that possible? Because the animals were part of an ecosystem that was sequestering far more methane than they could ever produce. It doesn’t matter how much gas the cows emit. What matter is whether the soil ecosystem is being restored. If it is, then methane is being sequestered at factors that are orders of magnitude greater than what the cow emits. Cows are not an island. We have a fragmented view of the problem. Yes, grass fed cows in a feedlot may fart more than grain fed cows in a feedlot. But, what’s the point of the comparison? Both are unsustainable and deadly.

    The more germane question is if the cows are part of a system that is environmentally restorative. If they are being managed properly, they will be restoring the soil which will be sequestering methane, as well as CO2. Cows (and all grazing mammals), are just a part of the system. Recent studies have shown that a healthy grassland ecosystem will sequester 1000 times the methane produced by a cow on a space of soil adequate for that’s cows sustenance – repeat, 1000 times. This is possible because of the methane eating microbes that are in the soil far outnumber the methane producing microbes in the cows stomach. Methane digestion is an aerobic process. In a healthy soil (i.e. aerated), the methane eating microbes will dominate. Where the soils are many feet deep, you are talking about thousands of cubic meters of methane eating soils compared to a few square feet of a cows stomach that is an anaerobic environment – thus produces methane. In healthy soils, the methane eating potential will always exceed the methane producing potential of the animals on it. Again, it’s not about the cows. It’s about the ecosystem. An aerated ecosystem will sequester methane. Get the cows on the land, moving in a fashion that natures expects them to, and the methane problem will work itself out.

    Restoring grassland soils is one of our most powerful tools in the fight against climate change. Animal impact is essential to this process. We need a deeper understanding of this process and it’s potential. Thank you again for further considering it on your blog.

    Please pardon my log reply.

    Please see

    And please feel free to join our Google group, http://groups.google.com/group/soil-age

    All the best,
    – Seth

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