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.
“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.
“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.”