This post is part of the Blog Action Day for Climate Change!
150 years ago, much of the Great Midwest was still covered with prairie grassland, providing valuable grazing land and habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, including millions of elk, bison and deer. These lands also supported natural environmental processes like carbon sequestration and seasonal flood control.
When Americans first settled the Midwestern prairies, they killed off the natural ruminants that lived there and began to farm highly fertile, virgin soil that was 10 percent organic matter. However 150 years of converting our grasslands to farms has cut that vital organic matter by more than half and released more carbon dioxide—the leading driver of global warming—into the air than any other source, including transportation or coal-fired power plants.
In the spring of 2008, the upper Midwest experienced catastrophic flooding which caused dislocations, massive erosion of precious topsoil, and billions of dollars in property damage. This is mostly due to the fact that plowed fields shed rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can only absorb, at most, about 1 1/2 inches of rain in an hour. A permanent pasture however can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain in an hour.
Today nearly all of America’s original grasslands have been converted to genetically engineered corn and soybeans, two crops that are enormously destructive to the environment because they require massive amounts of fresh water, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers to grow. And sadly, these crops are mostly used to feed livestock; it takes 15 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef.
Most U.S. beef is produced from cows living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where grain-fed cows become sick from eating a diet unnatural to them, and emit large amounts of toxic methane into the air—further contributing to global warming. The concentrated lagoons of manure that these feedlots produce pollute rivers, streams and other fresh water sources, not to mention the horrid stench destroying quality of life for every person who lives near them. Additionally, the conditions in these feedlots are so poor that cows have to be treated with antibiotics and hormones simply in order to survive, which inadvertently creates the conditions whereby E. coli outbreaks, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and other health problems more easily emerge.
Vegetarians have their environmental argument against today’s beef right: the highly industrialized way in which we raise cattle is both unhealthy and extremely unsustainable. The irony of all of this is that the very prairie we destroyed to grow grains to feed cattle was already the perfect, natural habitat for raising healthy, happy cows.
A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a major source of greenhouse gases, but a permanent pasture is a pump that pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility and builds topsoil. According to a recent Scientific American article “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?” production of high-input, annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rate. Therefore, converting half the U.S. corn and soy acreage to pasture might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds —and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enhancing the natural processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere is thought to be the most cost-effective means of reducing atmospheric levels of CO2. Scientists agree that organic matter in topsoil is on average 50 percent carbon up to one foot in depth, and bumping that upward by as little as 1.6 percent across all the world’s agricultural land could potentially reverse the problem of global warming.
The central idea of carbon farming is to move the animals frequently—as once happened with wild herds chased by predators—so grasses are not gnawed beyond the point of natural recovery and plant cover remains to fertilize the land and sequester carbon. The sequestration process works like this: The grasses, forbs and herbs in a field take in carbon from the atmosphere; the animals fertilize and trample them into the soil, where the carbon is absorbed, feeding the roots of the plants; new plants sprout, and the process is repeated over and over again, absorbing more and more carbon.
Carbon farming is an attempt to recreate the natural conditions of a commons even under the structure of private property in order to reverse the effects of global climate disruption.
But what about the argument that meat-eating is a major cause of global warming due to massive emissions of nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from livestock operations? What may be true of feedlots is absolutely wrong about grass-fed livestock. Raising cattle (or other ruminants) on polycultural, permanent pasture mimics a natural system wherein the methane and other gas emissions are mitigated by the carbon sequestration in the soil, just as occurred across grasslands and savannahs for thousands of years before human interference.
Scientists and ranchers alike, including the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), see carbon farming through managed intensive grazing as a way to phase out feedlots and all of the environmental and health problems they cause.
Crafting Carbon Sinks
It’s very simple: If we convert from grain-fed back to grass-fed cattle, and use managed intensive rotational grazing methods to maintain healthy, high-quality prairie, we can turn millions of acres of genetically engineered, heavily sprayed row crops into carbon sinks, and use permanent pasture to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as conserve water.
By converting corn and soybean fields to permanent pasture—permaculture modeled on the tallgrass prairie species that were the native cover a century ago, grassfed beef producers have found they can make more profit than the corn and soybeans yielded before. Part of this is a result of lower or no costs for inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, GMO seeds, pesticides, tractors and machinery. Additionally, farmers that create successful carbon sinks through their grazing operations can also qualify for payments under “cap and trade” programs and other offset and conservation subsidies.
And on properly recovered land, most graziers can finish about two steers per acre. That is almost precisely the acreage it takes to grow the grain to finish those same steers in a feedlot. This whole system makes economic sense, acre by acre. More than half of our total grain crop goes to feed livestock, so it follows that we can convert the same percentage of the 150 million acres used to grow corn and soy back into permanent pasture and lose not one ounce of meat production. At the same time, we can produce healthier meat and shift the massive federal subsidies for corn and soybean production to a better use.
Humans Working With Nature
Sequestration is not a marginal idea but rather a central effort keep the planet from tipping over into ecological uncertainty. One reason why carbon farming and other sequestration methods have gotten little attention in the fight against global warming is because they represent a new idea in environmental policy—the idea that solving our ecological crisis means not just stopping human interference with nature, but also on humans taking positive steps to undo the damage already here.
We are slowly learning that human enterprises work best when they imitate and participate in enhancing Nature’s diversity—a basic tenet of Permaculture. Early in the rise of organic farming, we mistakenly assumed we could sustain ecological diversity by raising a dozen or so different tilled crops on a small farm—forgetting that an acre of prairie contains hundreds of species of plants and animals that work cooperatively to sustain the local ecosystem. Many organic farmers learned from these early mistakes and brought animals back into the equation. Managed properly, ruminants and fowl help control weeds and insects, cycle nutrients, build soil, and provide a use for waste and failed crops. Healthy ecosystems—both wild and cultivated— must include these animals.
We now understand that honoring this principle is vital to the very life of our planet. Humans are part of nature, we are part of ecosystems. We can be part of the solution. If the solution to global warming involves large herds of hoofed animals moving through landscape in natural ways that take carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, then it would behoove us to start right away.
Models and Markets Can Move Us Forward
The good news is that many pioneering farmers and ranchers (like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms or African environmentalist Allan Savory ) are already healing the earth by successfully raising bison, cattle and dairy cows on polycultural grassland—an enterprise that can scale up quickly because the prototypes prove the model works. According to Mother Earth News, “…it is not unrealistic to think that we could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the process.”
Doing so would give us:
The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. Their label certifies that their beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots, received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed, and were humanely raised and handled. This emerging marketing network has already placed grass-fed animal products in co-ops, health food stores and supermarkets across the nation.
This quiet revolution against industrial farming practices has been fueled by growing consumer demand. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef, dairy and poultry simply because we know it’s significantly healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart, and because we don’t like the pollution, cruelty and antibiotics inherent in the concentrated feedlots that dominate the industry currently.
A Return to Roots
It is no coincidence that in the past 75 years as our diets modulated to include large quantities of industrial meat and refined carbohydrates, diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer have reached epidemic levels. Pasture-raised animal products are substantially cleaner, leaner and lower in the omega-6 fats that are linked to obesity and heart disease. Pasture-raised animal products also are much higher in Vitamins A, E and D as well as beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), both of which reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and promote weight loss. And, perhaps most importantly, grass-fed beef just tastes better.
While it is true that a lot of environmental good would come from reducing the world’s consumption of industrially produced meat, the reality is that the number of people who eat meat is only growing. When living on grasslands and savannahs as they were meant to, animal foods are healthful and traditional parts of the human diet that we have relied on and enjoyed for tens of thousands of years. So if we hope to avert climate change and enjoy a good hamburger in the future, it is incumbent upon us to restore our prairies and raise our animals in the most humane and environmentally beneficial way possible, which, it turns out, is they way nature had designed all along.
For more information on solving global warming through restoring grassland ecosystems:
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