Setting cows free to graze like bison can actually help save the planet by reversing desertification, ecologist says
While many environmentalists are eager to blame cow farts for global warming, one ecologist says cows are among the few animals left that can save us all from extinction.
Methane gas from grazing livestock represents about 20% of all U.S. emissions, according to the Society for Range Management.
While statistics like these have PETA calling on people to go vegan to stop climate change, world-renowned ecologist Allan Savory says that could make the problem even worse.
“What is consistently ignored is the fact that what is actually being condemned by the research is industrial agriculture with its factory model of animal production,” he writes in a policy paper on his website.
“Because mainstream institutional researchers and others are not distinguishing between animals in factory settings, overfed grains they did not evolve to eat, and animals grazing on ranges as they evolved to do, they are doing untold damage by causing unnecessary confusion.”
The reason “grazing” animals like cows are emitting more greenhouse gasses than they sink is that they are not grazing, or at least not the way they did in the wild.
Prairies and desertification
“If you take grazers off the land and lock them away in vast feedlots, the land dies,” said Prince Charles, summarizing Savory’s research in a 2012 address to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Before they were domesticated, cows, goats, sheep and other grazing animals roamed like buffalo, packed together in giant herds to protect themselves from predators. After the herd had sufficiently grazed, urinated and defecated on a piece of land, it moved on to the next, trampling and fertilizing the area it left behind.
Since the dawn of agriculture, these animals have been fenced in to smaller and smaller pastures, leaving them no choice but to over-graze. This may be why industrial agriculturalists opted for locking them up in factory farms and feeding them synthetically fertilized corn instead.
Unfortunately, corn fields do not sink carbon the way prairies do… and they require petroleum byproducts to keep them fertile.
Prairies are one of our best tools for fighting global warming, as they can store a ton of carbon per acre in their massive root systems.
The prairies and grasslands of the world need grazing animals — millions of them — to stay alive and healthy, Savory says.
Without grazing animals, prairies rot and die, and when prairies die, or are replaced by corn fields, massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere.
Savory believes dying prairies, aka desertification, is the biggest contributor to global warming there is, even though no one is talking about it.
One third of the Earth’s land is already desert, and, according to the United Nations, another third (mostly grasslands) is in danger of becoming desert.
If you’ve ever been to a desert, you know that temperature changes are very extreme and erratic. With no vegetation or humidity to hold onto the heat, temperatures can swing from over 100 degrees during the day to below freezing at night.
Savory says something similar is happening on a global scale now as more and more land turns to desert.
Burning uneaten grass
Because humans have eradicated large grazing animals from much of the world’s grasslands, for various reasons, the uneaten grass is dying and decaying. To try to keep it alive, many countries are resorting to burning it to make room for fresh grass next year.
A land area half the size of Africa is burned around the globe every year, accounting for 40 percent of global CO2 emmissions. Most of this land is grassland.
Grassland fires release more carbon dioxide per acre per second than nearly 4000 cars, as well as other harmful gasses.
The remaining exposed soil heats up in the sun, releasing water and more carbon, reducing soil life and organic matter.
Prairie restoration = carbon sequestration
Croplands around the world have also lost much of their organic matter and soil life, resulting in more rapid soil erosion than at any time in history—about 21 gigatons per year.
Independent scientists estimate that the entire legacy carbon load could be absorbed in the world’s croplands, were they converted to organic agriculture.
But Savory doesn’t believe organic agriculture alone can feed a population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, even if croplands could be converted fast enough.
Once restored, rangelands can store even more carbon than croplands can for two reasons, he says:
1. Rangelands of the world dwarf croplands in size.
2. Most croplands support annual plants with lesser root volume and depth than the perennial plants of rangelands.
The dry grasslands alone constitute over 12 billion acres. Even a small improvement in soil organic matter over this area would remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, he says.
Savory claims his model of nature-mimicking grazing can do much more than that. His organization’s holistic grazing methods have already been put to work on nearly 30 million acres around the world with almost unbelievable results.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management has restored desertified grasslands by running 400% more livestock than it originally did.
“Through two recent serious droughts they have increased livestock further and the river that had gone dry in most years is once more flowing perennially in most years supporting a great increase in animal life,” Savory writes. “New permanent water pools, complete with water lilies and fish have appeared where not previously known in living memory.”
To reverse desertification worldwide will require many millions more cattle, goats, donkeys, sheep and camels than we have today, Savory says.
“In fact, only large herbivores, wild and domestic, can restore grasslands to their former health and productivity on the scale needed and with the speed required,” he writes. “Since we generally aim to keep wild animals wild, the large herbivores most easily harnessed for this task are livestock.”
RELATED: How Cows Can Turn Desert Back Into Grassland and Save the Planet
9 responses to “Cows Aren’t Causing Climate Change, Factory Farms Are”
Cowshit may help storing carbon in the soil ….. but bullshit will not help – quite the opposite.
Great article. Just makes sense
I’ll 2nd what Michael Murphy just said. It’s all an input/output equation. The minute you carry food to animals and carry shit away from them, you are burning calories.
Godspeed, there within the problem lies the answer.
Thinkng back 40-50 years
ago my grandpa and relatives ran cows on about 100 acres of land in Arkansas. I could walk home from church and fill a basket with ripe yellow and red plums and blackberries along the road. Could walk across the pastures and pick buckets of red and yellow plums and muscadines. Cows no longer runs in those pastures, they are overgrown with brush, wild plums have nearly disappearred. Blackberries still produce but very hard to get too. The grazing cows kept fence rows clear and brush under control. Didn’t realize until recently how good they were for the land. I’m bringing them back to the mountain land asap.
As a vegan, who by the way does not advocate that everyone else ought to be vegan, too, I would far rather see cattle being raised free range than any other outcome for them I can think of. From my perspective it is kind of a straw man to set vegans up as people who would be *against* a move back toward grass-fed, open range cattle and away from factory farming. Different people do better with different diets for different reasons. The problems with how cows are treated now and what is in the meat and how it all impacts the watershed and arguably worst of all, the deforestation of the Amazon for beef, are not all addressed here. I encourage you to look into those aspects as well. In the meantime, anything that moves the market away from factory industrial farming is a plus as far as I am concerned.
Problem is that this is not a profitable business model in most countries. The carrying capacity of land that is well cared for is much lower than what cattlemen need/want to make. Acreage costs too much, especially in North America. there were also a lot pig other factors that go into natural grasslands that are not conducive to modern business of burgers. It’s a nice thought, but not much more practical application with current demand and container preference. (Which still dictates that grass fed beef ous finished on grain at the feedlot.)
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