Can cows save the planet?

Conventional thinking on climate change tells us that increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are a critical driver behind our changing weather patterns. It’s all about that Keeling Curve, which maps the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its inexorable climb upwards.

As the concentration of C02 and other greenhouse gasses increases, the planet gets warmer and increasingly inhospitable to humans and other species. From this perspective, anything that contributes to the gases increases the problem, and the Earth’s abundant livestock are significant culprits, releasing both methane and nitrous oxide in notable levels. But are livestock being maligned a bit unfairly? Is it possible that, instead, they might play an important role in alleviating climate change? Could we be thinking about the problem the wrong way round?

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The title of Judith Schwartz’s book, Cows Save the Planet, may lead you to believe this is a book all about cows, but it’s really about turning our ideas about livestock and climate change on their head, and taking a more holistic perspective that puts the soil and its rich microbial life at the heart of our dynamic global ecosystem. Her book is a ground-up view of how we might address climate change and begin to regenerate the planet.

Schwartz’s book is all about dirt – soil is everything and soil health is the keystone of our environmental ecosystems, from which their delicate balance evolves. Good soil is teeming with organisms; it is literally alive. Poor soil doesn’t have this, or has it in such greatly reduced quantities that it is negligible, and the richness of microbial life, just as with humans, has a lot to do with health and fertility. We’ve been mistreating soils on an industrial level for many decades now and the damage done is emerging in the catalogue of environmental woes facing the Earth in the 21st century. Soil is under siege.

It’s disappearing at an alarming rate. Topsoil is being depleted faster than it can be replenished and something like 83 billion tons of it is lost every year. On top of that over 70% of it is degraded. The term ‘peak soil’ has recently entered our lexicon. It’s a quiet crisis brewing across the globe.

Schwartz does a remarkable job in Cows Save the Planet of explaining why it’s such a critical environmental issue, and not just because agricultural yields are falling. The health and abundance of soil plays an integral role in healthy environmental systems, fostering biodiversity, fighting erosion by absorbing water, providing a fertile base for the growth of plant life, and many other things. ‘Poor land,’ we are reminded in the book’s Forward, ‘leads to poverty, hunger, social unrest, cultural deprivation, inhumanity and war.’

Thankfully, soil is a renewable resource. Further, repairing it has the potential to ‘cure’ climate change – which is a remarkable idea – because of the ability of healthy soil to lock up carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere. Schwartz argues that rebuilding the health of our soils can turn around a wide range of environmental ailments. And building topsoil is easier than you would think. Improving and increasing soil goes hand in hand with locking carbon into it. Soil sits at the centre of the earth’s carbon cycle. If carbon’s not locked up in our soil, it’s being released into our atmosphere. Richer, healthier, better managed soil locks up more carbon and the soil is more fertile and productive. So Schwartz argues, we can address two critical issues facing us in the 21st century by caring for our soil – lowering carbon levels in the atmosphere and feeding an increasing global population.

Healthy soil is fundamentally different from degraded soil. A large part of why this is, has to do with its microbial life and, in particular, a biota called mychorrizal fungi, which supports the root systems of up to 80% of plants that flower, especially grasses. The fungi, along with other microbes, play a really important  role in exchanging plant nutrients for the liquid carbon generated through photosynthesis, locking down the carbon in the soil where it does some good. The fungi also produce something called glomalin, described as ‘soil’s superglue.’ It binds soil and keeps it stable. It creates the texture of good soil that you can feel when it runs through your fingers.

Sequestering carbon into the soil holds huge potential as a means of mitigating climate change and increasing soil fertility, and some bold statements have been made about it. See Professor Whendee Silver discuss this topic at our recent True Cost Conference. (Video 1 at 43.35) However, it’s important to remember that healthy soil holds far more carbon than unhealthy soil. In the last century, half of most of the world’s soils have been depleted of carbon by 50% to 70%. It’s not holding on to nearly as much carbon as it had and a lot of that has to do with land management. One thing about that mychorrizal fungi is that it’s killed off by all the things we’ve been pouring on the land to make it more productive – nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, not to mention fungicides – so in the long term, it’s not doing much for our soil and that’s beginning to show in decreasing productivity. What we need is more healthy soil.

This is where cows come in. Building soil is a top down activity where the myriad microbial life around a plant’s root system in healthy soil feeds the subsoil farther down turning it into topsoil. Cows and livestock can speed up this transformation, if well managed, because they are key contributors to the microbial world (think of all that poop.) There are a number of innovative land management techniques that focus on caring for the content of the soil and working to preserve its innate health, foremost among them the Holistic Management System of Allan Savoury, whom Schwartz champions.

What’s important about Cows Save the Planet is that it reminds us of the potency of holistic thinking, not just in agriculture, but in our broader global ecosystem. Quite literally, our earth is the root of everything, as the Sanskrit proverb that Schwartz quotes in her introduction reflects, ‘Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.’

Cows Save the Planet: and other improbable ways of restoring soil to heal the earth by Judith D. Schwartz is published by Chelsea Green, RRP £12.99. It’s available for £10.99 through Green Shopping.

Photograph by Tord Sollie

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  • HD

    I agree with the topic of the importance of soil, however, the majority of our cattle in the UK are fed a lot of cereals as well as grass, which doesn’t really fit with the theory. I’m sure this must be discussed in the book, but the title will be seen by many who won’t buy & read the book – hence confusing people. It doesn’t help the shared long term goal – of sustainable food systems – when the public are confused by so many mixed messages. The reason we feed (and therefore grow) so much cereals is because everyone is consuming a lot more meat and dairy than historically – and at low prices!

  • goodlookingYetIntelligent

    I have not read the book yet, but cant wait. I agree that farmed livestock will play an important role in feeding our planet. Soil takes thousands of years to build naturally, through the use of fertilizers and higher yields and exponentially more decomposing root mass, thousands of years can be turned into decades. However, I have seen nothing that can compare with livestock manure in terms of building soil quality up quickly, and that quality lasts for decades. There are farmyards that have been abandoned since the 40′s and 50′s that are now being farmed across, invisible to the eye, yet they still show up on satellite imagery and on combine yield monitors, they are still producing significantly higher yields from the manure deposited there half a century ago. With access to significant quantities of livestock manure, there is a lot of unproductive land that can be brought into play, and marginal land that is not financially feasible that can be improved to profitability. Manure is “brown gold” and shouldn’t be treated as a disposal problem, with some campaigning it could become another important revenue stream for livestock farms, and an important piece of the puzzle as the Earth attempts to feed a few billion more humans.