Can cows save the planet? Book review

Posted by Christine, August 5, 2013

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, May, 2013) $17.95

Cows save the planet coverAnimals are part of the natural landscape. As such, they play a part in the circle of nature that keeps healthy soil, producing vigorous plants that live in balance with insects and the microfauna of the world. Food production systems are so dominated by industrial agriculture that the farmers who grasp the nettle of life and integrate the many players in growing food with an eye to sustaining their operations are the ones who are out of step, the hailed or despised Innovators.

The  idea that sucking every possible nutrient out of the soil is a path to prosperity is so crazy, you’d think that only the most short-sighted would even consider it. Since huge corporations are able to earn huge profits on it, the profit itself becomes the justification.

Dissenting voices have been raised against industrialized agriculture since it began unfolding in America in the 1930s. It got its big boost after World War II, when all that bomb-making nitrogen needed another market. Chemical fertilizers became the route to profit.

Decades later, after watching topsoil wash away, soil fertility decline and with it the nutritional value of food, as excess nitrogen feeds algae blooms in the US and around the world, word is getting out past farmers to the general public. Public awareness of a degraded earth has created support for better farming methods that also produce food that tastes better and is more nutritious.

Cows Save the Planet is certainly a catchy title. Judith Schwartz makes the case that, appropriately managed, large herbivore livestock can restore the soil, create wealth and mitigate climate change. Who Knew?

Schwartz provides a narrative treatment of various farmers who are using different ranch management practices to get better results. Traditional ranching often leaves land overgrazed, depleted, baked dry and subject to soil erosion. She explains the science and history of Holistic Management, championed by pioneers such as Allan Savory. A concise bibliography supports the text. Reporters taking on climate change issues can get up to speed on agricultural aspects with this volume.

Industrial agriculture’s feedlot practices have come under increasing scrutiny for food contamination, humane practices and soil and groundwater pollution, but the greenhouse gas contribution got attention in 2006, when the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published Livestock’s Long Shadow, evaluating the list of environmental problems associated with, mainly, cattle. Detractors challenged the methods used to arrive at figures such as 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but the point was made: a host of environmental problems trace back to cattle.

That fueled arguments for vegetarian and vegan diet changes, or at least Meatless Mondays, but others argued for changing cattle raising practices. Farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture had long argued for better practices.

Schwartz comes to the subject from economic reporting. Her curiosity was piqued as she investigated the nature of money and the meaning of value. Tracing it back, she finds the ultimate source of all wealth: the soil. Her husband is South African, and the work of African researcher Allan Savory, a visionary agricultural advocate for Holistic Management, the use of ungulates in land restoration, caught her attention. His Africa Centre for Holistic Management won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Award for working to solve the world’s most pressing problems. His principles have been put into practice by ranchers around the world, including the U.S. The Savory Institute’s international headquarters are in Boulder, CO. Savory Hubs are being established to help other farmers apply the principles to their land.

Through that connection, she visited with ranchers around the country, learning how they have transformed the land, restored the soil, and integrated agriculture into making positive contributions to the environment, rather than degrading it. They report that desertification, flooding, drought, poor food value, pest infestation and all the other misfortunes that plague farmers are mitigated by Holistic Management.

How will we feed the world? Industrial agriculture’s Holy Grail of increased production, the flag waved to justify GMOs, loses meaning as the food raised from degraded soil, enriched with chemical fertilizer, increases yield at the expense of declining nutritional value. She quotes Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and winner of the 1995 World Food Prize for use of biological methods against an African crop pest, “If you look at crops from before the green revolution, they were nutritious… With high-yielding varieties we have increased crop yield but lowered the nutrition.”

The benefits go beyond better food. Holistically managed cattle can rebuild degraded watersheds, reducing the impact of drought and flooding, support biodiversity by providing habitat for wildlife, absorb carbon into the soil, sequestering it from the atmosphere, and thus mitigate climate change.

All this, and grass-fed beef, too.

Many farmers and ranchers have developed their own systems and built on others’ ideas. Journalists who provide the public with information  have turned their attention to the issues. The Society of Environmental Journalists have focused on the issue at annual conferences. Members have visited sites dedicated to improving the soil. In 2005, a conference tour visited Church’s Chicken millionaire David Bamberger’s Texas Hill Country ranch, Selah. He bought the most degraded piece of overgrazed property he could find and helped it recover, creating a showplace. SEJ members visited Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia during the 2008 annual conference and helped him move his cattle, witnessing the beneficial effects of cattle grazing to improve the soil. In Milwaukee in 2009, at Will Allen’s Growing Power, where red wigglers transform compost into soil to raise food in an urban setting.

Schwartz’ travels and experiences lead her to an appreciation of all the factors that go into creating and maintaining a healthy matrix: soil health, soil biology, plant diversity, resilience to weather fluctuations, fertility, quality and economic vitality. She finds, as an economic reporter, that ignoring the natural cycles and the soil overlooks their crucial role in prosperity.

The cure is as pervasive as, well, dirt itself. Managing for local economic vitality will require political change as well as agricultural management change. “Our subsidy structure is such that farmers and ranchers are essentially rewarded for mucking up the soil rather than building it,” she writes.

The focus on large ungulates overlooks the contributions of poultry, especially chickens, Everyman’s Livestock, mascot of the Local Food movement. Enthusiasts (including myself) have championed small flocks for improving soil where ever they range. Salatin releases his chickens to forage in the fields and do their work of aerating and fertilizing the soil after the cattle have been moved. Vermont Compost Company, located on the state capital’s main street, employs a flock of chickens to turn food waste from local institutions into soil. Chicken tractors, movable shelters, get their name from the action chickens perform on the ground: consuming pests and weed seeds, adding nitrogen-rich manure, and scratching it into the soil. They also serve who only scratch and eat. Integrated agricultural practices make use of all livestock as part of the biological circle of use and renewal.

Getting this background and current resources into one volume is helpful. Its readable style, starting each chapter with her interview with a person who is acting on the land, makes it accessible to the concerned reader who is searching for solutions. As Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma engaged the public in 2006, Cows Save the Planet beckons readers to consider the next steps in changing the system. Focusing on Savory’s contribution brings an international and global perspective to what it will take to restore the soil and feed the world truly sustainably. As firmly as Big Ag holds the landscape, both geographic and political, in its influence, Schwartz documents alternatives ranchers can use to make changes in management that can yet, with their cows, Save the Planet.

Read an interview with Judith Schwartz on NPR here.

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