Cows Save the Planet. How can you resist a book with a title like that? I couldn’t. The subtitle is Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to Our Food, and the author is Judith D. Schwartz, a freelance writer who lives in Bennington, Vermont, and a colleague of mine through the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). The book looks at our many environmental challenges from the perspective of soil–an under-appreciated resource, and one that could be a key to addressing the climate crisis. Surprisingly, one way to improve soil on a large scale is through cattle ranching.
I’ve written just a bit about this myself. (See my March post, Meat lovers, rejoice! Cattle could be a climate-change solution). Jim Howell, a rancher and entrepreneur who appears in Judith’s book, spoke in May at Fortune Brainstorm Green. While the science of what is known, awkwardly, as Holistic Planned Grazing, remains controversial, I’m convinced that the idea deserves more attention. So Judith kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about her book.
Marc: Judith, in your introduction, you write about the issue of carbon emissions:
The trouble isn’t the carbon itself; it’s that there’s too much of it in the air rather than in the ground, where it lends fertility to the soil. Soil, it turns out, is the natural and most cost-effective carbon sink.
Can soil store enough carbon to matter?
Judith: Yes, returning carbon to the soil can draw down CO2 levels significantly. Over time, soil carbon lost to the atmosphere accounts for tens or even hundreds of gigatons. I’ve seen numerous estimates of how bringing carbon back to soil could affect CO2 concentrations. Here’s one that recently found its way to my inbox:
If 20% of global agricultural land was managed to build carbon in soil at the achievable healthy rate of 5 tonnes per hectare per year, current global annual CO2 emissions would be offset.
This is from Walter Jehne, a microbial ecologist in Australia. I’ve also heard estimates in which increasing soil carbon by a given percentage at a specified scale would bring concentrations down to pre-industrial levels. While this may sound almost insanely optimistic, the potential is vast. It’s also greater than earlier estimates would suggest because while soil carbon is typically measured down to, say, 30 cm, carbon in the lower profile, at depths of 2 meters or greater, is much more stable. So if you consider a swath of soil a couple of meters thick, and imagine carbon levels increasing by 2 or 3 percent, that’s an awful lot of carbon.
Q: Okay, then, how do we get the CO2 out of the air and into the soil?
A: The way to bring carbon back into the soil is through various regenerative agricultural practices, Holistic Planned Grazing being one of them. One way to think about it is this: building soil and increasing soil carbon are essentially the same process, just as soil carbon depletion can be seen as the flip-side of our CO2 problem.
Holistic Planned Grazing is the livestock management technique developed by Allan Savory, whose recent TED Talk, How to fight desertification and reverse climate change, went viral. With this model, the animals serve as “tools” for land restoration.
Basically, the animals act upon the land in a way that kickstarts numerous biological cycles, processes that may have stalled on degraded or degrading land. Here’s how it works: the animals–cattle, sheep, goats, really any domestic grazing herbivore–nibble on the grasses, stimulating their growth, and are moved before plants are overgrazed; their waste adds nutrients to the soil; their trampling when moved aerates the soil, presses in seeds that might not otherwise get into the soil profile, and pushes down dying plant matter so it’s in contact with soil microorganisms. All of this builds carbon, especially as carbon moves through plant roots down into the soil. The co-benefits include greater plant diversity and thus better forage, and increased water retention. This scenario–the cattle choreography, if you will–mimics what would naturally occur when herds of ungulates move across native grasslands, alternately grazing and fleeing to avoid predators.
Q: I love that phrase–”cattle choreography.” Much better than Holistic Planned Grazing. You write that about 10,000 ranchers around the world are practicing this form of ranching, What’s your confidence level in that estimate and, broadly speaking, where are they?
A: This is an old estimate and I’m sure more are doing Holistic Planned Grazing. It’s being practiced all over the world. There are many proponents in Australia, where the term “soil carbon” regularly appears in the news. And South Africa and Zimbabwe, home of the African Centre for Holistic Management and the Dimbangombe demonstration site, and Canada and the U.S., particularly in the West and Southwest. I know of people doing this in Sweden, Spain and Turkey. It’s becoming more prevalent in Mexico and South America. In Patagonia, for example, there are ranches that do this with sheep. I’ve seen videos, and it’s amazing to watch vast numbers of sheep move together as one unit.
Q: But this remains an unconventional approach to ranching, correct?
A: It’s somewhat unconventional but not as much as one might think. On any cattle operation beyond a certain size, the animals are being moved around. What makes Holistic Planned Grazing unique is the decision-making framework that calls attention to the condition of the land and other contextual factors.
What’s happening now is that the practice is moving beyond the ranching community. There are now partnerships with investors pursuing triple-bottom-line businesses. For example, Grasslands LLC–Jim Howell, who you mentioned, is the CEO–now owns four ranches in the Northern Great Plains. They combines for-profit custom grazing with the goals of improving the land and revitalizing rural communities. Last spring I visited two Grasslands ranches, one in Montana and one in South Dakota.
Also, the Savory Institute is working with NGOs around the world. Land degradation is a serious global problem–many millions of acres are lost to land degradation every year–with huge economic, social and political implications, and governments and other organizations are looking for solutions. The word is getting around that this approach works.
Q: So what will it take to get this to scale?
A: That’s the challenge the Savory Institute (SI) is grappling with right now. This coming week, at SI’s first international conference, will see the launch of the Savory Hub Network. The intent is to step up training, support, and a shift toward more a more holistic approach to agriculture. The goal is to establish 100 Hubs by 2025, informing the management of 1 billion hectares (almost 2.5 billion acres) of grasslands around the world. I’ll be at the conference, and will have the chance to meet the first round of candidates.
Judith’s coverage of the Savory Institute conference will appear in Guardian Sustainable Business, and I can enthusiastically recommend her very readable book if you want to learn more. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker calls it “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.” And Michael Pollan tweeted: “Cows Save the Planet is the most hopeful and surprising book on the enviro crisis I’ve read this year.” The book is published by Chelsea Green.