Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere drive climate warming, so we are told to eat less meat in order to save the planet. However, in The Soil Will Save Us, Kirstin Ohlson uncovers evidence that conventional crop agriculture exerts a far greater assault on the environment than grazing animals, and then outrageously claims that grazing animals and the soil will save us all.
WE NEED TO TEND TO THE SOIL
When it comes to climate change we mostly hear about man’s use of fossil fuels, but agriculture contributes almost 1/3 of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Most pictures frame bucolic farms will neat rows of crops, sometimes plowed by oxen and horses and in industrialized countries with combines and tractors. Yet all that tilling translates to a loss of precious top soil, compromising both carbon content and soil moisture.
Depleted soils don’t effectively absorb or filter water, contributing to excessive runoff and water pollution, flooding, and soil erosion. Today “no till” agriculture by both conventional and organic stewards of the land helps to minimize that loss, but we need to do more to regenerate our soil.
PLANTS: THE MOST VISIBLE PART THE PROCESS
Remember learning about photosynthesis in grade school biology? Scientists celebrate the phenomena for good reason. Photosynthesis collects solar energy which plants use to synthesize sugars from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, basically supporting life as we know it. In addition, every plant actively transports nutrients from roots to stalk and stem and back again to support plant growth.
That same action also supports a complex but often under appreciated ecosystem underground. Micro-organisms from microbes to myrrhizal fungi and nematodes actively perform vital functions that fix nitrogen near plant roots, contribute to water retention in the soil, and ultimately increase carbon content in the soil, but they benefit from very special help when animals graze the land.
SEND IN THE COWS
Vegans and vegetarians, along with movements like Meatless Monday, like to point to methane emissions from cows and other ruminant animals as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, but neglect to mention that grazing animals also play a significant role in getting carbon back into the soil.
When herbivores graze effectively they stimulate plant and root growth in a variety of ways which feeds and increases the activity of mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria. These microorganisms feed off of organic matter in decaying plants and manure as well as from sugars exuded from plants and ultimately sequester carbon into the soil–a lot of carbon.
Scientists now estimate that grazing animals on farm land can effectively mitigate carbon emissions and favorably impact climate change.
INTENSIVE GRAZING HELPS THE SOIL
Grazing also breaks up the soil surface, especially when mobs of animals strategically feed enough but not too much, allowing more nutrients and water to percolate into the soil structure. In addition, the symbiotic action between microbes and organic matter creates spaces known as aggregates in the soil. Aggregate spaces hold water, effectively allowing soil to function like a sponge, soaking up rainfall and purifying the water before it seeps out into streams and wetlands.
Allan Savory recognizes the critical role of soil especially in times of drought. When rainfall is limited, “effective rainfall”–rainfall that actually filters into the ground as opposed to running off the land–allows soils to withstand the environmental stress. For those of us living in California and other drought-prone regions, we need the animals–whether we eat them or not.
THE HIGH COST OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
First, industrial farming can compromise soil, leeching out the carbon, compromising both root systems and microbial functions that help build healthy soil. As a result farmers rely on more artificial fertilizers, experience more runoff which contributes to greater risk of flooding and water toxicity, and the unhealthy plants require more pesticide support.
Crossing over to the ranching side of the equation, animals primarily feed on crops of corn and soy and contribute to more water pollution as lagoons of manure accumulate. In addition, fattening cattle in CAFOs reinforces a dependence on industrial farming’s monoculture crops.
Dispersing all that waste only adds to ecological insult. According to Dawn Gifford of Small Footprint Family, “By taking farm animals off pasture, we have taken a perfect, natural solution to nutrient cycling and divided it neatly into two problems.”
What a mess.
FEEDING THE MASSES
Too often apologists for industrial agriculture leverage the need to feed the masses to justify intensive agricultural practices. Kristin offers another solution: “Let’s begin by feeding our microbes.”
Soil microbes shuttle nutrients to plants in exchange for the carbon rich sugars that feed them. Mycorrhizal fungi in the soil spin webs of filament around the roots of plants to carry carbon rich juices back to the microbes.
The upshot of all this underground activity results in dynamic growth of plant roots, the most visible source of carbon sequestration. Add in decaying plant material, bustling bacteria and other life forms and farmers can measure the impact: greater crop yields, less reliance on artificial fertilizers and industrial pesticides, less costly inputs, and more profit.
As I read The Soil Will Save Us I learned of scientists, environmentalists and agriculturalists alike banding together as they never have before to discuss common problems and find mutually beneficial solutions. The new mantra embraces working with nature to heal the damage we have created. For the first time in a long time I felt hope for our planet’s future.
While farmers and ranchers will play an important role in saving our planet, every consumer and landowner can help or hinder the process. Kristin Ohlson tapped a raft of experts for advice:
1. Add organic matter like compost or manure to the soil to support microbes and other microorganisms
2. Cover bare ground with wood chips or other plant material to enhance soil moisture
3. Allow grasses, even the diminishing lawns in California, to go dormant rather than tear them out. Lawns also support a diverse soil ecology underground. (Lawns represent the largest irrigated crop in America; how we manage the plant life and soil matters!)
4. Rethink the mix of grasses and plants. Consider adding leguminous plants to help fix nitrogen. In The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin features a botanical garden lawn seeded with clover in order to stop using fertilizer.
5. Don’t mow lower than 2 1/2 inches to protect turf grass and discourage weeds
6. Install drip irrigation, rain barrels and other mechanisms to use water effectively
7. Plant densely to protect the soil from erosion and carbon loss as well as increase the flow of nutrients to microbes. Kristin calls her garden “a box of nutrient jungle” that supports a vibrant soil ecology
Everything we do to increase carbon in the soil increases soil fertility, improves water retention, and reduces climate change. Each of us, from farmer and rancher to homeowner and apartment dweller, can participate in this process. I’m calculating how much mulch to add to my garden beds and letting the grass go dormant. How will you make a difference?