There is a point in time when I really need to caution people about scientific studies, or even meta-analyses, in that you absolutely must dig deep, deeper than what the paper is even telling you, to find where the truth actually lies. A lot of scientific studies and peer-reviewed papers don’t tell the whole story.
Blame my own personal experiences with perusing various papers as part of my university studies, as well as experience developed from the debates I had over the years with those of opposing opinions.
After getting through all 127 pages of Food Climate Research Network’s paper, by lead author Dr. Tara Garnett et. al., called Grazed and Confused, I found out exactly this aforementioned fact.
I noticed a particularly disturbing number of fundamental flaws and discrepancies, not to mention unsubstantiated claims and outdated information, that made me seriously question the validity and accountability of that report. To me, it seemed more a manifestation of a subtle political agenda passed off as “scientific evidence.” But that’s just my opinion.
It was also very difficult to ignore the significant reductionist and mechanistic thinking that made up the whole premise and context of this report. While this may sound like an ad hominem fallacy, it’s rather an acknowledgement of the type of contextual paradigm that has been the result of the creation of this paper.
This report is not a study in itself. It’s a meta-analysis compiling about 300 studies that primarily focus on the statistics and numerical results about greenhouse gas emissions from grazing livestock. The paper goes from looking at carbon sequestration to analyzing methane and nitrous oxide emissions, to land use changes.
The conclusions drawn can be summarized this way: Industrial agriculture is bad (obviously), and grazing livestock is somewhat better; however, because there are still major problems with methane, nitrous oxide, and land use changes with respect to grazing livestock, the very practice of grazing must be limited. Additionally livestock numbers must not increase; preferably they must be reduced substantially.
I could not disagree more with those conclusions. There are a wide variety of reasons why I so strongly disagree, but these reasons can be summed up into two main categories, if you will:
1) The soil has not been thoroughly acknowledged, especially its biological and ecological components. Relying on old, out-dated soil science that treats soil as nothing more than a growing medium, and a geological and physical manifestation of the Earth is a serious error and oversight to make when attempting to discuss complex, intricate things such as the relationship between grazing livestock and the carbon cycle.
2) The management, the way we see and interpret things, including how things are managed, have also been largely ignored, perhaps unintentionally. It is much easier to pick out certain quantitative data to point out how bad livestock are than it is to look more into the management scheme (the qualitative analyses) of livestock production. It is also easier to stick with current paradigms that conform to one’s beliefs than it is to change them entirely to see things differently in a more biological and holistic context.
Basically, though, we need more livestock, more land under well-managed grazing (including more pastures and/or native grasslands, savannahs, and less monoculture cropland), and even more importantly, more minds changed to the fact that it’s not the livestock that are the problem, but rather the management itself.
Stop Ignoring (and Abusing) The Soil
Perhaps the most outstanding weakness of the the report was the oversight of the ecology and biology of the soil itself, especially the aspect of the soil microbiology. Grazing livestock and the management behind grazing livestock play an enormous role with soil ecology, much more than most think.
To be more specific, most people don’t really think about the soil at all. That needs to change, today.
When the soil (and its complex ecological functions) is accounted for, and not just in its capacity to only be a carbon (or methane or nitrous oxide) sink or source and nothing more, we start to look at things much more differently. Our context for using grazing livestock becomes far more than just to utilize them on non-arable land, or to raise animals for meat. It’s a context that becomes inherently holistic, which precedes the concept–which is often misunderstood–of Holistic Management. That is something I will talk about later.
It really all starts with the soil. We simply cannot have a discussion about anything to do with grazing, greenhouse gases, land management, without also–and first–acknowledging the soil.
Soil: Beautiful, Perfect Soil
The skin of the Earth, the most crucial part of Life itself. This is soil. Soil (no, not dirt) is that layer that bridges the gap between the biotic realm (plants, animals, protozoa, fungi) and the abiotic realm (sunlight, rocks, water). It is actually made up of a combination of both of these realms, with the top most layers (the organic layer and topsoil layer) comprising of the highest organic material component, and decreasing in an inverse relation to the mineral component as we go deeper into the soil profile (A, B, C layers right down to bedrock). The mineral component especially is brought up by both erosion and something called “uplift”, which is a geological phenomenon that essentially pushes rocks up to the surface in relation to soil that is eroded. The organic component is made up of living and dead plant roots, decomposing plant and animal matter, and most importantly, soil biota from earthworms to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.
Plants are, for the most part, the soil builders of all living organisms, mostly because of their roots. Graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes) in particular are the best soil-building plants in existence. Of course they can’t do it nearly as well without animals, protozoa and fungi. Plants have formed an intricate and complex relationship with these other organisms, from the grazing and browsing animals and their predators, to the network of bacteria, fungi, archaea and other micro-organisms at or beneath the soil surface. We still have much to learn from these relationships, but without a doubt we humans, as part of the animal kingdom, are certainly not excluded from these complex relationships.
Just what does this relationship with soil biota and these microbes involve with plants? In a word, it’s a form of bartering system. Plants exchange liquid carbon (also called “root exudates”) for minerals and nutrients that only these microbes can obtain and synthesize from both the soil and the soil organic matter. Essentially, plants are feeding microbes sugar so that they can get important plant-available nutrients they need for growth, reproduction and maintenance from those same microbes. The microbes need the sugars to survive and live, and will keep some of the nutrients they synthesize for themselves, but because there’s this mutually beneficial relationship between them and the plants, they are willing to give excess to the plant through its roots. It’s a win-win situation.
Plants, of course, don’t live forever. When they die, their “bodies,” for lack of better terms, are decomposed back into the soil, to feed the soil micro-organisms and the new plants that replace the old and dead. This is no different for soil organisms. The prey-predator relationship that also exists (for example, nematodes feeding on bacteria) contributes to this life and death cycle. Dead microbes, and the wastes from their predators, are also added to the nutrients of the soil, further feeding microbes and plants. In a phrase: Death feeds Life. This is a cycle that has no end.
Animals primarily contribute to this system by eating plants, depositing manure where they go, and in doing so prune plants and fertilize the soil. The pruning stimulates regrowth both above and below-ground (some root biomass sloughs off and regrows anew) and removes extra leaf material that may shade out new plants trying to come up underneath. Some of these new plants may get nipped too, and that also helps in weeding out extra plants so that even more new ones can come in. Animals’ wastes from feces and urine provide nutrients that both plants and microbes need to help break down decomposed material, build organic matter (and maybe some soil), that can’t be obtained from the decomposing plants themselves. Of course, animals do much more than this, such as digging, rooting, scratching, trampling, and other actions that disturbs the plants and the soil surface, stimulating more growth, more life…
This sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. It’s the most complex, organic, beautiful, perfect, natural cycle that has been in existence for millions of years. It is the perfect balance between light (Life) and dark (Death), and is self-sustaining.
This really is all thanks to micro-organisms. This world wouldn’t be what it is (or has been even before we humans took over and made some profound changes) without them. The sad thing is, we haven’t really recognized their substantial contributions to plants and other organisms (including us) until now, and even then few of us actually recognize and acknowledge their activities. The scientific community, especially those who follow the same paradigm like Garnett et. al. (2017), really have a lot to catch up on. Regardless, we really do need to understand more and acknowledge the importance of micro-organisms in the soil.
Soil Micro-Organisms & Soil Ecology: The Root of it All
Did you know that, in just one teaspoon of healthy soil there are as many micro-organisms as there are people on Earth? And in that one teaspoon, there are thousands of species of micro-organisms–bacteria, fungi, archaea and protists–that exist; many of which haven’t even been identified by scientists yet.
Many of these organisms and other larger soil-dwelling fauna, as mentioned above, have some form of relationship with plants, be it direct or indirect, mutually beneficial or herbivorous or parasitic–the latter which are a function of organisms feeding on living tissue of plants, whether it’s roots, stems, or leaves, and can be disease-causing. For the purpose of this post however, I would like to keep it to those organisms that are beneficial for plants and in how they contribute to building soil organic matter and to the carbon (including methane), water, and nitrogen cycles.
Perhaps the most popular and well-known of the micro-organisms is mycorrhizal fungi, specifically arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. They are one of the most wonderful examples of this relationship between plants, microbes, and the soil. Mycorrhizae is basically science-speak that literally means “fungi + roots”, and are actually specialized compound structures that are able to form connections with plant roots. Fungi can basically “knit” themselves into plant roots so that it may be difficult to distinguish where the plant roots end and the fungi begin. There are actually two different types of mycorrhizal fungi: Ectotrophic mycorrhizae and its fungal mycelium form a dense mantle that covers the surface of the root, with many tiny hair-like projections called hyphae that extending out into the soil, and other projections that force themselves between the cells of the epidermis (“skin” lining) and cortex of the root. Endotrophic mycorrhizae are the most common, where some hyphae inhabit the protoplasts of parenchymatous tissues, and extend outward into the soil.
This fungi basically extends the plants’ rooting network beyond what the plant can form itself, and acts as a type of “highway” that brings water and nutrients back to the plant, in exchange for sugars provided by the plant. These hyphae secrete a sticky substance (a type of glycoprotein) called glomalin that sticks soil particles together forming soil aggregates. This is not deliberate, though, because the true purpose of glomalin is to specifically protect the hyphae itself from losing any water and nutrients that are being transported to and from the plant. Thus the formation of soil aggregates via glomalin is much more of an indirect result of this relationship and exchange between mycorrhizae and plants’ roots. Because glomalin acts to protect hyphae, so it also makes soil aggregates resistant to breaking apart during heavy rainfall events. Of course, glomalin is not the only substrate that helps with forming soil aggregates. Earthworms also help form soil aggregates with their channelling and slime they excrete from their skin. We will naturally need to have a separate blog post on this topic (and that relating to soil biology and ecology) in the future.
Soil fungi also help in breaking down dead plant matter, and are particularly adept at breaking down lignin, which is the most difficult plant tissue, besides hemi-cellulose and cellulose, for micro-fauna to be able to break down. Other types of fungi, called saprotrophs, consume simple sugars from cellulose decomposition.
There are a huge variety of soil bacteria that exist in a variety of environments, many of which are the first living organisms that appeared when Earth first began to host life. Some notable types of bacteria are those that get their energy from the oxidation of organic matter and soil mineral matter, and others need external substrates like plant and animal residues instead; the latter types are the most common types of bacteria that are found in soils. These types of aerobic bacteria include methanotrophs, which are best known for their ability to break down methane and use it as their sole energy source. Still others, like cyanobacteria, are photosynthetic bacteria that produce oxygen into sediments and to the atmosphere, and fix nitrogen and sequester carbon. They are especially important in biomes that are too dry for vascular plants to survive in, because they form biological crusts over the soil surface protecting it from erosion.
Then there’s Rhizobium, which are particularly famous nitrogen-fixing symbiotic bacteria that form a rather mutually beneficial, albeit “parasitic” relationship with plants–legumes in particular. These bacteria invade the roots of the host plant and create “infections” that result in the formation of nodules where the Rhizobia live, fixing nitrogen gas from the atmosphere for the host plant to use. In exchange, Rhizobia receive sugars (energy) from that host plant. Therefore, it’s not the alfalfa or clover that is the nitrogen-fixing plant, rather it’s the Rhizobia bacteria that are the true nitrogen fixers.
Actinomycetes are a form of bacteria that are special in and of themselves. They were historically thought of as related to fungi due to their mycelial morphology (some may have thought of them as bacteria-fungi hybrids), but recent studies have found them to be fungi-like Gram-positive bacteria, possessing prokaryotic cells compared with the typical eukaryotic cell structure of fungi. They are filamentous bacteria with extensively branched pseudo-mycelia, and hyphae that are much smaller than fungi hyphae. Actinomycetes are primarily saprophytes that are capable of breaking down recalcitrant organic compounds in aerobic conditions. They are also the decomposers that give off that earthy smell (in the form of substances called geosmins) that soil is known for. Some actinomycetes possess broad metabolic capabilities making them able to degrade a diverse class of hydrocarbons and man-made organic compounds including organophosphates and carbamates. The genus Frankia are known to form nitrogen-fixing symbiotic associations with trees and shrubs, sequestering atmospheric nitrogen that is comparable with Rhizobium bacteria.
Other Soil Organisms Contributing to Soil Ecology
Naturally there is much more to the biological activity of the soil than those micro-organisms listed above (including archaea, as methanogens and protists most noted for existing in a huge variety of environments, from those inhospitable to most life, to temperate zones host to a wide diverse array of organisms). We must not also forget about other larger organisms such as nematodes, protozoa, earthworms, ants, centipedes, and other micro-, meso-, and macrofauna.
Truly, the interactions between all organisms listed here (and many more not listed) are complex. Basically, all help decompose organic matter, in some way shape or form. There is much interaction in the way of competition, predatory-prey interactions, parasitic interactions, saprophytic interactions, and everything else in between. We’ve already acknowledged the mutualist relationship between plants and some fungi and bacteria. But then we get to the other predators in the system!
Protozoa (currently known as protists) and nematodes are in particular known to prey on bacteria and fungi. Protists are also detritivores, consuming microscopic amounts of detritus and digesting them in food vacoules. Nematodes will even feed on each other. Not only that, but some fungi will actively trap and kill nematodes and some protists; others may invade as parasites (bacteria will do this too) and digest the nematodes and protists from the inside. Other nematodes act as parasites to plants, puncturing the roots to suck out cytoplasm of root cells, causing damage to the plants; and some will not cause such damage even though they too feed off of roots’ exudates and cytoplasm.
Soil mesofauna from springtails to water bears will consume everything from dead plant matter and other detritus to protists, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, plant and algal tissues and cell contents, to each other (such as water bears sometimes feeding on rotifera). There are also a number of macrofauna that will feed on detritus, and both mesofauna and other macrofauna. Macrofauna that are detritivorous only include millipedes and earthworms, omnivores such as ants, harvestmen and termites, and “carnivorous” (or purely predatory) organisms such as spiders, centipedes and scorpions.
All of this activity, with all these organisms eating each other, eating dead matter, pooping, and when dying adding their own bodies to the mix, adds to the building of organic matter. Microbes truly are the driving force of soil organic matter, but most importantly they are the driving force of carbon capture. Plants, as mentioned above, certainly are the most noticed for doing their part, but in the end it’s all due to those tiny creatures, most which are only visible under a microscope.
You may be asking what all of that has to do with the Grazed and Confused paper. If you’re still asking this, stop here and go back to the beginning again. No, I’m serious. The fact is Garnett et. al. (2017) missed a crucial element of the soil that leads right into the talk about carbon, nitrogen, and water. When I talk of carbon I mean both the aspects of carbon sequestration and methane. Water, another aspect that was overlooked, plays an enormous role with carbon as well. Then there’s nitrous oxide.
You see, what happens when plants exude carbon from their roots for microbes to consume is that they are putting carbon they have taken in from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, back into the ground. This is a very loose definition of carbon sequestration. It’s truly more than that, though. Carbon sequestration also encompasses and contributes to increased water retention, building soil organic matter (SOM), increasing soil fertility with better nutrient holding capacity, and consequently increasing the nutrient density of plants. It also, as will be discussed later, contributes to better capture of methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
Carbon Sequestering (and Water Retaining) in the Holistic Context
Do soils really have a finite “cap” of the amount of carbon they can sequester? Does it actually become stable to a certain extent, or is it always building, and always in flux? These are important questions to ask, because the ultimately depends on whether you’ve considered the biology of the soil, or whether you consider soil as nothing more than a growing medium; just dirt of only chemical and geological significance, and nothing more. In the case of the Garnett et. al. (2017) report, the latter is most certainly the most true. The latter is also certainly true if you are only looking at old soil scientific research with only a basic understanding of soil ecology that has not yet accounted for the microbial activity of the soil, even if it’s in a degraded system, and then use only those results to arrive at a conclusion as to how much carbon a soil can capture and what average carbon sequestration rate is for most soils. The latter then, it should be noted, is rather an impetuous and mindlessly pedantic approach to determine carbon sequestration rates.
The thing is, acknowledging the microbiology content of the soil really changes the way we see carbon sequestration. Dr. David Johnson from New Mexico State University is among those setting new standards to show how the restoration of soil microbiology of a soil to one that is fungal dominant creates a system that is much more robust and albeit eager to commit to greater carbon capture, versus the old practice of not striving for this microbiological restoration. When failing to account for microbe activity, there is no way of knowing whether or not the carbon sequestration rates surmised in the older research papers accurately depict the true amount of carbon that a soil can capture. From what I understand about soil, and reading about the historical records of soils that have had much higher organic matter contents than most do today, and very deep topsoils (especially grassland and savannah soils), much of science today cannot tell us just how much soil organic carbon (SOC) a soil can capture before it cannot capture anymore.
What about soil carbon sequestration, then? The better question to ask perhaps, is what about the carbon cycle? When we start looking at carbon sequestration, we should begin to realize that we’re actually looking also at the carbon cycle. The reasoning is that carbon sequestration has as much to do with the carbon cycle as the carbon cycle has to do with methane (to be discussed later).
The Carbon Cycle, For Sequestration
You have already read about how microbes, with the help of plants, get their carbon. These microbes help keep the carbon in the soil and build up more soil organic carbon, as well as topsoil, with their eating, pooping and dying and being eaten by other microbes. They are a part of the decomposition process of the carbon cycle. It’s worth acknowledging that some soil carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, does get released to the atmosphere. This is normal. Plants take in that carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and convert it to energy for themselves and the microbes at their roots. Plants and roots that die are decomposed into organic material. Roots in particular contribute greater biomass to the soil organic matter than above-ground biomass. The most profoundly observed example of this is in grasslands, where many native grasses contain between 60 t0 80% of their total biomass below ground. This, of course, is due in part to their nature, but it also has much to do with grazing herbivores.
Herbivores, including cows, are a part of the carbon cycle, and carbon sequestration, by the fact that they graze, trample and “dungify” and urinate the soil. Naturally they also contribute to the cycle by the fact that they respire carbon dioxide when they breathe, and some is also released from their dung and burps. Their biggest achievement to help with carbon sequestration is, however, when managed correctly, they graze an area for a short period of time in a large, dense mob, before being moved on to allow that area to rest. With wild herbivores of the same kind of herding dynamic that regenerative and holistic graziers practice with their cattle, sheep, goats, and equines, their reasoning for moving on is two-fold: Insufficient forage left to eat, and pressure from predators. Indirectly, this behaviour achieves the same outcome that the human graziers strive for in their management: Carbon sequestration, increase soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, all by allowing for sufficient regrowth before putting the animals on those plants on that piece of ground again.
This “disturbance” by grazing herbivores creates a flux of carbon into the soil by encouraging plants to regrow both above and below-ground. The main goal of a grass-plant is to have enough energy in the roots to withstand dormant periods, as well as reach maturity where seed is produced and dispersed. Grazing animals push grass plants back to their growing stages, which encourages this regrowth of leaf material, and decomposition of more mature leaves that have been bitten, and/or trampled on. It also encourages some root sloughing (or some die-off) and root regrowth beneath the surface. Growing plants actively put in more carbon to themselves and the soil than plants that have reached maturity. This makes sense when you think of what happens to plants when they mature: They stop growing, or senesce, then turn brown, shrivel up and, particularly with the mature plants, die; the growth points at the base of the plant remains alive, where daughter tillers emerge when growing conditions are right. A mature, dead plant cannot take up and put down as much carbon like a growing, green, photosynthesizing plant can.
It’s worth making a plug for perennial forages, native or tame, at this point because they are the best tools for carbon sequestration well over and above annuals. Annuals do help with carbon sequestration and building of soil organic matter, but only if they are in a regenerative cropping system where cover crops are used, the ground is very rarely tilled (if at all), and livestock are included as part of the long-term crop rotation plan. However, annuals do not have as deep and vigorous a rooting system as perennials do, nor do they have the regrowth potential like perennials do, year after year, without needing mechanical seeding. But I’m getting off track here.
At this point, you may be asking, “Well, what about trees and forests?? Don’t they remove carbon, if not more, than grasslands do, aren’t they as important??” Sure trees and forests are important, there’s no doubt about that, and no I’m not implying that all forests should be replaced with grasslands, if you’re thinking of that too. But no, forests don’t sequester as much carbon as well as grasslands do. A significant amount (probably around 50%) of carbon stored in forests is in the trees themselves, and the rest in the ground and in roots. This carbon storage is only good as long as the trees are alive and actively growing. Mature forests and dead trees aren’t going to be putting as much carbon away as young and growing trees are; These mature forests become more of a carbon source than a sink. Also, much of the carbon that is taken up by trees happens over a much, much longer period of time than with grasses. Trees have a far slower metabolic rate than grasses do, and don’t take up as much carbon in the same amount of time. Because grasses grow and reach maturity in a matter of months rather than years, and have the distinct advantage of recovering vigorously after some of its tissues are eaten by animals, carbon sequestration rates are greater and superior to that of forests. One way to look at this is by comparing the soils of forests versus grasslands. Forest soils tend to be poorer, with a thin topsoil and organic matter layer. Grassland soils are much richer, with very deep topsoil, humus, and organic matter layers. Open forests and savannahs aren’t much different, mainly because they have these grasslands with trees interspersed throughout the landscape.
Again, of course forests are important and we can’t do without them. But it’s time to realize that grasslands play as important a role and are needed as much as forests.
Carbon sequestration has gained significant importance because of concerns with climate change. While it’s certainly important to increase soil organic carbon in soils as a means to offset the carbon given off from fossil fuel emissions, soil losses through erosion, and other environmentally problems, we need to think about another influencing factor that is also a driver with climate change and is closely linked with carbon sequestration: Water.
Water, Water, Everywhere: In the Air, and In the Soil
Very few think about the hydrology cycle, and how it has much to do with carbon sequestration. The reason I mention it at this point with carbon sequestration is because the building of organic matter and increasing soil organic carbon leads to the fact that water is also going to be, in a word, “sequestered” more effectively.
Organic matter acts like a sponge, encouraging water from heavy rain events to quickly soak into the ground instead of running off. The water infiltration rates with healthy soil, as encouraged by proper management that encourage active soil eco-microbiology, are amazing, with several inches of water (as done in a water infiltration test) soaking away in mere seconds. Roots that have penetrated down into the soil depths, both grasses and forbs (broad-leafed plants to most of you), help with the infiltration process so that the moisture percolates down into the depths of the soil. Of course, soil type as far as its physical make-up is concerned certainly does influence infiltration, such as water trickling down faster than clay soils, but when there’s a loamy layer on top that traps a lot of moisture and can hold it there for quite some time, making it readily available for plants throughout the season, that is a great thing indeed.
The great advantage of having such awesome water infiltration rates and a great organic matter content is that it makes things more drought-and flood-tolerant. That is one very important thing that Garnett et. al. (2017) failed to acknowledge with regard to carbon sequestration and management to do many things including increase organic matter of the soil. The rather linear analysis where it was only that agro-ecological factors influenced soil carbon, and that it couldn’t possibly be a two-way street, ignores this important relationship between soil ecosystems and the ability to mitigate climate change.
Let’s Talk about Water Vapour as a Greenhouse Gas
Many people don’t really think of something like water vapour as a greenhouse gas in addition to carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Water vapour is the most abundant of the greenhouse gases, more so than carbon dioxide. It is also one of the “best” greenhouse gases for being able to trap heat in the atmosphere. It’s existence is not because of industrial processes, but rather because of climate feedbacks that relate to the warming of the atmosphere, which operates in a positive feedback loop. NASA has confirmed that water vapour is the most concerning GHG, over and above the others:
Water vapor feedback can also amplify the warming effect of other greenhouse gases, such that the warming brought about by increased carbon dioxide allows more water vapor to enter the atmosphere.
“The difference in an atmosphere with a strong water vapor feedback and one with a weak feedback is enormous,” [Andrew Dessler and colleagues from Texas A&M University in College Station] said.
Climate models have estimated the strength of water vapor feedback, but until now the record of water vapor data was not sophisticated enough to provide a comprehensive view of at how water vapor responds to changes in Earth’s surface temperature. That’s because instruments on the ground and previous space-based could not measure water vapor at all altitudes in Earth’s troposphere — the layer of the atmosphere that extends from Earth’s surface to about 10 miles in altitude.
AIRS is the first instrument to distinguish differences in the amount of water vapor at all altitudes within the troposphere. Using data from AIRS, the team observed how atmospheric water vapor reacted to shifts in surface temperatures between 2003 and 2008. By determining how humidity changed with surface temperature, the team could compute the average global strength of the water vapor feedback.
“This new data set shows that as surface temperature increases, so does atmospheric humidity,” Dessler said. “Dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere makes the atmosphere more humid. And since water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, the increase in humidity amplifies the warming from carbon dioxide.”
Specifically, the team found that if Earth warms 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the associated increase in water vapor will trap an extra 2 Watts of energy per square meter (about 11 square feet).
“That number may not sound like much, but add up all of that energy over the entire Earth surface and you find that water vapor is trapping a lot of energy,” Dessler said. “We now think the water vapor feedback is extraordinarily strong, capable of doubling the warming due to carbon dioxide alone.”
You can read more here: NASA – Water Vapor Confirmed as Major Player in Climate Change
A powerful argument to make in light of this is in the manner we’re currently treating our soil like dirt. Improper management practices that lead to surface and plough-layer compaction, as well as bare soil with tillage of arable lands, and under-utilization and over-grazing of our “protected” brittle rangelands, should directly show us that our current management that is degenerative may play a significant role to this issue of water vapour being the biggest elephant in the room yet compared with carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Let me explain.
Why the Soil Must Be Protected: This is What Happens When You Don’t
Bare soil is naked, hungry, thirsty, and running a fever, as Ray Archuleta of the Soil Health Academy so famously puts it. Bare soil does not readily nor quickly soak in water when it gets rained on; much of the moisture will either run off, or quickly evaporate; most of the time, from my experience, the latter is certainly more true. Evaporation is made fast and possible also by the ability of bare soil to radiate a lot of heat. If you don’t believe me, go out on a hot summer’s day to a patch of bare soil in your garden with your bare feet and see how long you can stand there without getting burned. As a matter of fact, I’ll give you $100 if you can stand there for more than a minute when it’s 32ºC outside. Bare soil can get very hot, up to around 50ºC (120ºF), and bare soil that radiates heat will have any moisture on or in it evaporated away in a jiffy. Soil that emits such heat from the sun has an impact on the climate, even on the weather.
That’s right. Bare soil discourages rainfall How? Answer these trivia questions with me:
- What are clouds made of?
- Answer: Water vapour.
- What do plants give off as part of their photosynthetic activities?
- Answer: Oxygen and water vapour.
- Why does it almost never rain in a desert?
- Answer: Because it’s so hot and dry.
- Why does it always rain in the rainforest?
- Answer: Because of the plant life giving off so much humidity…
Bare soil interrupts the hydrology cycle. Bare soil emits heat that discourages rainfall from occurring. Rainfall comes when there is a green layer of biologically active green layer covering the soil surface, no matter if it’s ugly weeds or beautiful tall trees.
I know it’s not that simple, but if you think about it long and hard enough, it really makes a lot of sense.
What about land that still has some plant cover, but is overgrazed and has poor water infiltration rates? To be blunt, I say that is still better than having bare ground. But yes, it still does mean that more water is going to run off or evaporate instead of infiltrating into the soil like it should. There is going to be some bare ground present, which means that the ground will be giving off a lot of heat–not as much as bare soil, mind you–compared with ground that has a higher amount of green material (and mulch) covering the soil.
What does this mean? It means that the land is much more drought-prone. It also means that there is potential for irregular rainfall events and distribution, (such as rain not coming in the spring when it should, instead arriving later in the season when there’s more green cover emerging) possibly more severe storms (a wild theory, sure), as well as more significant flooding events.
On the other hand, having water vapour coming from plants, from that necessary green cover protecting the soil, is also important because water vapour forms clouds which may bear rainfall, and rain follows plant cover. I cannot say that water vapour as a greenhouse gas is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that there’s a lot of moving parts that contribute to current issues like drought and flooding… and it depends on which context you’re coming from.
All in all, though, this is why management to not only sequester carbon and encourage more soil biological activity, but encourage water infiltration and retention of the soil, is so bloody important.
Here’s the thing: According to the USDA/NRCS, for every 1% increase in soil organic carbon, there is a retention of around 20,000 gallons of water in the top six inches of an acre of soil. That is a lot of water. An article back in 2015 explains the math behind this HERE.
The water holding potential of soil certainly is a great thing. But what about soil that becomes saturated? Certainly in extreme weather events, such as when there is an abnormally high amount of rainfall (which is extremely rare), soil that is covered at all times, not tilled, and has a healthy amount of organic matter is going to be able to withstand this event and is not as likely to reach saturation potential as bare, tilled soil will.
Bare soil is very likely to become saturated in a heavy rainfall event due to the fact that tillage has broken up much of the aggregate structure of the soil, and large farm machinery creates compaction. Any aggregate structure that is present is more likely to be broken up by the impact of rain drops to the soil surface. Also, pore spacing for air and water movement is much more restricted, such that very little to no oxygen can get into the soil at all. Soils that remain wet for a long period of time (and which are already bacterial-dominant) can become anaerobic. Anaerobic soils tend to give off more in the way of methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulphide as well as nitrous oxide (primarily due to anaerobic bacteria obtaining their oxygen from nitrite and nitrates in the soil), simply due to the microbes (as well as the plants in the existing system) quickly deplete soil oxygen reserves, and can create a toxic environment for plants.
All the more reason to keep the soil covered at all times using cover crops, and not to till.
Methane, as we have known, is a greenhouse gas that bears important consideration. However, methane emissions have not been thought so much as coming from anaerobic soil conditions as they have from ruminant animals. Quite frankly, the attention that ruminants have been getting for their enteric methane emissions–and that being purported by some of the scientific community that haven’t yet caught up with more current research findings, let alone let not their biases and beliefs cloud their judgement of the facts–as being a “problem,” is rather tiresome and irksome. It’s especially frustrating when a report like that of Grazed and Confused cannot get their facts right and uses old data to support their position that methane from ruminants is a big problem, and their only solution is to have less (or even no more) ruminants.
We can’t have that now, can we? No, we can’t. We need more ruminants. And we have a lot of evidence that points to the fact that ruminants, as part of a well-managed ecology with an intact carbon and hydrological cycle, are a part of the solution; In fact, we strongly believe that the methane argument is nothing more than a red-herring.
Methane Emissions from Ruminants: A Red Herring
I’m sure you’ve heard the old methane statistic from time to time; That 37% of methane emissions come from livestock, according to the infamous FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow. No doubt you’ve also heard the rather amusing and outlandish claim that, “cow farts are destroying the climate.” However, I would bet that most haven’t even considered the fact that ruminant animals may be the only things that can help with the mitigation of greenhouse gases including methane; I’m sure many have scoffed at the notion.
Truth be told, cattle are always looked at out of context especially in regards to methane: Cows (as well as sheep, bison, goats, deer, moose, caribou, antelope, buffalo, yaks, muskox, and elk, to name a few) are ruminant fore-gut fermentors, and the fermentation (anaerobic) process that occurs in the rumen produces gaseous by-products including methane that are belched out by the animal. Because emissions are so easy to measure, and cows are so easy to count, it’s equally easy to blame the cow as the “problem” for climate change. It’s much harder to look at the bigger picture; to measure methane sinks and oxidizing potential in the atmosphere, to count the number of old leaky natural gas piping and infrastructure, or to count termites…
What many also don’t realize is that the increase in methane over the past several decades do not match with the number of ruminant livestock animals that have been tracked over the same period of time. It makes no sense, just by going from those graphs alone, to blame cows for being the biggest problem for methane emissions.
The other thing to consider is that ruminant animals have been around for many, many years, and have numbered in the millions on pretty well all continents except Antarctica, that have no doubt been emitting substantial amounts of methane as they poop and graze and belch and fart and poop some more. And yet, has nobody actually asked WHY methane levels have increased so much as they have over the past 60 years (from 1960s onward, not included in the graph above), when there’s no bloody doubt that ruminant populations have remained stable??
Without a doubt, there is a much, much larger context here than what we’re being lead to believe.
Let’s not forget that there are other significant sources of methane: Rainforests, rice paddies, landfills, natural gas exploration (including shale gas fracturing) and failing infrastructure, wetlands, peat bogs, burning biomass, volcanoes, methanogenic archaea, fossil fuels, manure lagoons, and enteric methane from insects (termites, cockroaches, and other arthropods). The natural sources of methane like rainforests, peat bogs and wetlands are counteracted by the photosynthesis of plants, even though plants themselves will give off methane. These ecosystems store a lot of carbon, which also offsets their emissions. Man-made sources, however, don’t have as significant of offsets, making them an environmentally worrisome construct into the future.
So, if ruminants really are being wrongfully blamed for methane emissions, how are they being wronged, and how do they make things right? Context, dear people, context.
Cows are basically measured for methane emissions by masks, tracers, or in chambers. These eliminate the influence of outside sources that may affect methane output to be measured, and make measurements more attainable for later calculations. Essentially, cattle are treated like tail pipes. Also, emissions seem to be the only part of the equation that is accounted for, but not sinks or any other ecosystem benefits that offset and mitigate methane emissions. Of course, emissions are much easier to calculate than sinks because there isn’t the high variability involved that make them more difficult to measure. Also, since a lot of reductionist reasoning is behind these scientific inquiries (at least in the past), folks haven’t thought to bother with measuring sinks for methane, because it was (and still is) just too difficult.
The arithmetic that comes from these measurements supports the CAFO (confinement animal feeding operation) intensification whereby an animal that is on a high-energy ration, implanted with growth promotants and fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics (including ionophores) produces less methane because those animals are finished at a larger weight in a shorter period of time than their grass-fed counterparts. That argument is often used against grass-fed beef because it seems so nicely packaged and simple, but it still misses the big picture and truly doesn’t account for other negating factors such as fossil fuel usage, monoculture annual cropping, manure management (cleaning pens and spreading manure), and others.
We have to remember, though, that all beef cattle are grass-fed, most are not grass-finished (yet). That means that most beef cattle spend the last four months of their lives in the feedlot. That in itself leaves room for a huge advantage with those same cattle as the ones that go the route of grass-finishing, for some solid pasture management that exists within the holistic context. What I mean is that all cattle, regardless of what label that gets slapped on their carcasses post-slaughter, are capable of contributing to methane mitigation strategies that starts right in the pasture.
This is where we need to start thinking holistically. Doing so helps us look at all the moving parts to help us understand how methane can certainly be mitigated… using livestock.
Methane Mitigation Begins in the Pasture (and the Land)
Good grazing practices makes for good soil. Good soil sequesters carbon and is host to a wide diversity of soil life. Good soil also encourages more vigorous plant growth that quickly recovers after grazing. We need all of these moving parts in order to be able to actively partake in the process of methane mitigation.
Let me just say that, by the way the media and many institutions talk about methane it’s all too easy for a person to get the misinterpretation that methane from various sources just rises unabated up into the atmosphere and continues to accumulate there in some invisible massive heat-trapping cloud. However, many haven’t realized that there is far more to this methane issue than what these sources have told us.
Methane has a short half-life of only ~8 years. A large portion of emitted methane is oxidized in the soil, air, and water. A type of bacteria known as methanotrophs actively oxidize methane in the soil before it can get to the atmosphere. These organisms, however, make up a small part of methane mitigation processes. They can also be prevented from taking part in this mitigation process when they are killed off by tillage, bare-chem fallows, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Particularly, pastures that are not managed well and receive these synthetic inputs denies the ability of these bacteria to exist, let alone do their job.
This is why well-managed pastures that do not require such inputs is strongly recommended and emphasized here.
While some cow belches may be offset by more effective methanotrophic methane sinks, a majority of the methane that is released through enteric fermentation is already in the air, and is not going to come back down to the soil. Instead, the need for green plant cover, or plant cover in general, whether it’s from pastures, grasslands, cover crops, crop residues (somewhat), or forests, is much greater, for two main reasons.
- Covering the soil and having living roots in the soil at all times reduces emissions from natural sources (including ruminants) as well as emissions from man-made sources, like the carbon emissions from producing synthetic fertilizers and using machinery to grow crops for biofuel, oil, food and feed crops.
- Products of photosynthesis–water vapour and oxygen–react to create hydroxyl radicals (OH). The more hydroxyl radicals there are, the more methane will be oxidized (Rigby, et. a., 2017).
This may come to a surprise to most, but most methane doesn’t get guaranteed the freedom to accumulate. Instead, a large portion of methane is oxidized by these hydroxyl radicals in the lowest portion of the atmosphere, which is the troposphere (Prinn, 2014).
The important thing, though, is the need for these hydroxyls. They need to be available in order to oxidize methane. If there is more methane than hydroxyl radicals, methane does not get oxidized. A balance needs to be achieved between the source and the sink. Reducing the methane emissions from various sources (particularly anthropogenic sources) and increasing the availability of OH will help enormously. Where do cattle come into play in this? Simply, well-managed ruminants are keys to increasing water vapour from evapo-transpiration (more plants), and reducing emissions (CO and CH4) from burning biomass (grassland and forest fires).
These well-managed animals enhance and encourage a stronger soil biology with their dung, manure, saliva, trampling, and eating. This increases carbon sequestration potential as well as water infiltration, and encourages more vigorous plant growth. More plant growth means more photosynthesis, which means more transpiration from the stomata of plants’ leaves. More oxygen is released as well. This creates the pathway needed for methane oxidation, as follows.
Ozone (O3) reacts with the UV rays from the sun, creating oxygen (O2) and an excited oxygen atom (O*). This oxygen atom reacts and bonds with the hydrogen atom from the water vapour creating the hydroxyl radical. The OH then bonds with CH4 creating water (H2O) and oxidized methane (CH3+). Another reaction occurs where the oxidized methane molecule becomes carbon dioxide (CO2), and water. In the end, methane becomes just merely part of the carbon cycle.
The diagram to the left shows this chemical reaction process a little more clearly.
In the end, this encouraging of more plant biomass also means a better functioning hydrological cycle, as mentioned above. More plants means more moisture, since rain follows vegetation activity, since water vapour builds clouds from which rain is borne (to put it simply, although we know it’s more complex than that).
Ruminants reduce fuel load of vegetation stands with their grazing and trampling. This is importantly particularly in arid climates where there is insufficient moisture (at regular intervals) for soil microbes to be actively decomposing ungrazed or unbrowsed plant material. In arid environments especially, mature dead plants oxidize and turn grey, emitting carbon dioxide. Ruminants instead trample this dead material into the ground and consume part of the plant, stimulating regrowth. If these ruminants are not available, these plants would instead suffocate and die out in their own dead material. A negative feedback loop is created with less plant diversity, more bare soil, less soil microbiological activity, and more soil that cannot retain water with the lack of protection from plants and greater solar radiation exposure.
Fires are particularly bad because of their ability to rapidly release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane in the atmosphere. Insufficient hydroxyl radicals cannot oxidize methane (which leads to a greater load of methane in the atmosphere), and bear greater risk with binding with CO instead to form carbon dioxide and water.
We definitely need more ruminants to assist with encouraging greater plant biomass and reducing fires. Note as well with fires, the greater the fuel load, the greater the intensity, and the more destructive these fires can be, causing property loss and death all life that stands in its way, including humans.
In the end, is methane from enteric fermentation really so bad as Garnett et. al. (2017) postulates? When looked at from a holistic context, I believe that we can really begin to see that no, ruminants aren’t the problem. What is the problem is the HOW. This no doubt would be the same with the next major greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
Nitrous Oxide: An Industrialized Problem
Around 77% of nitrous oxide emissions come from the cropland agriculture enterprise in the USA alone (Canada is at the same 77% by comparison); Globally, this is closer to about 66%. The most significant and greatest source for nitrous oxide (N2O) is the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for growing crops. That means 85% of agricultural nitrous oxide emissions come from synthetic fertilizers.
We must recognize, however, that nitrous oxide is really merely a part of the nitrogen cycle. The diagram to the right (from Robertson & Groffman, 2015) provides a complete picture of the pathways and cyclical nature of the nitrogen cycle. This cycle has been in effect on Earth for billions of years, showing that nitrous oxide is a naturally-occurring greenhouse gas, just like with methane and carbon dioxide. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing nitrous oxide (or methane or carbon dioxide) as “not important,” instead I want you to realize that this is a greenhouse gas that is not new to the Earth. It has, however, become of serious concern due to the sources that have created greater emissions of this gas than what has possibly been historically (or pre-historically) known.
Soil microbes are largely the purveyors of the nitrogen cycle, mainly because they have the capability of consuming organic matter (including manure, compost, and dead plant/animal tissues) and in doing so, take the organic nitrogen from such sources and turn it into inorganic plant available forms: ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3-). Other bacteria, such as the Rhizobacteria, form mutually beneficial relationships with living plants so that plants can easily get this inorganic form of nitrogen due to the nitrogen-fixing capacity of these organisms, while feeding the microbes carbon in return.
Nitrous oxide is mainly produced through both nitrification (the conversion of ammonium [NH4+] to nitrate [NO3-]) and denitrification (the conversion of nitrate to atmospheric nitrogen [N2]). Fewer losses of N2O happen through nitrification; it is this pathway that is commonly needed for nitrogenous fertilizers to work so that synthetic N can actually be plant-available. Nitrification occurs in aerobic soils; denitrification also happens in these soils, but is more prevalent in soils that are anaerobic, warm and saturated. Denitrification is of the greatest concern for nitrogen losses to the atmosphere, as well as a source for nitrous oxide emissions; it primarily occurs when anaerobic soil bacteria use nitrate as their respiration source, instead of oxygen.
It is very concerning, indeed, that a huge portion of nitrous oxide emissions come from agricultural soils. As already mentioned, nitrogenous fertilizers that have been prevalent since after the Second World War–thanks to the Haber-Bosch process (originally used to create explosives for warfare), not to mention Justus von Leibig’s discovery of the Law of the Minimum and that all plants needed for growth was Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K), and Sulphur (S)–are the predominant reason for this problem. Now, of course fertilizers are just another tool for folks use, but it’s the fact that this tool has been used too liberally, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way… that we’re getting this kind of problem.
There are three main types of nitrogen fertilizers–urea (solid, pelleted), urea-based ammonium nitrate (UAN; liquid form), and anhydrous ammonia (gas). These fertilizers need to be in contact with moisture and the soil to become plant-available; basically to be converted from their current forms to ammonium and/or nitrate. Otherwise they are largely not usable by the plant, and are lost instead via leaching, runoff, and denitrification to the atmosphere. Losses are especially high when there is no moisture, as well as too much moisture, after application. Soil compaction also has a significant impact on the ability for nitrogenous fertilizers to be taken up by plants, since it tends to enhance denitrification activity, plus leaching and runoff. Wind also plays a role in nitrogen losses during and post-application, particularly when anhydrous ammonia is being applied to the fields before seeding.
The industrial/conventional agriculture folks have come up with all sorts of ways to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions for farmers to try to follow. Quite frankly, most of them are terribly hard to follow due to the incredibly difficult ability to predict the weather, as well as to “avoid” a certain soil type that they may already be stuck with in the first place. Some “tips” that have been suggested include (my comments in italics):
- Minimize fertilizer applications in excess of crop requirements to avoid surplus nitrate (or ammonium) in the soil (Note: EXACTLY how much is a plant going to uptake, and can this be easily predicted, let alone known? How much nitrogen is actually in the soil, at the current point in time? A soil test can tell a lot, but it doesn’t tell how much a plant “needs” and “should” uptake… )
- Time N fertilizer for when plants are actively growing and have the highest requirement for N. (But what about the weather and soil conditions [i.e., compaction]?)
- Apply irrigation water properly to meet plant needs; avoid over-watering and water-logging as much as possible. (There is much more dry-land cropping than irrigation, so this is a difficult tip to apply to every farm.)
- Use appropriate nitrogen fertilizer sources, including controlled-release fertilizers, nitrification inhibitors (such as Agrotain), or urease inhibitors when they fit within the management plan.
- Avoid applying fertilizer on windy days.
- Avoid soil compaction that can impede water flow and create surface ponding and waterlogging; Improve drainage in fields with excessive moisture. (Surface compaction is more easily observed than plow-pan compaction, which is quite common in many areas, especially those with clay soils. Nitrogen fertilizers also exacerbate compaction and other issues like salinity and acidity of the soil. Also, to “improve” drainage really equates to promoting runoff of soil nutrients away from the field, which is another big problem farmers have to contend with.)
- Use urea or ammonium-based fertilizers where denitrification is anticipated. (Really? More urea or UAN on soil that is already experiencing compaction and saturation? This completely contradicts and is counter-intuitive to the suggestions for reducing not just denitrification, but also leaching, runoff, nitrous oxide emissions…)
- Fertilize when the weather forecast is going to be giving at most 1/2 inch (or 10 to 20 mm) of rainfall. (Note: As mentioned, it’s hard to predict if and when this will happen when the weatherman says “30 or 60% chance of showers or thundershowers,” and the rains never come even if a farmer takes a gamble and goes ahead with the fertilizer application; or that the rains come in the form of a thundershower that has a lot of rain to get rid of…)
- Apply fertilize several times each year, instead of just once. (How feasible and doable is this tip? For most farmers, this is difficult when equipment isn’t available, it’s more costly to perform, and damage to the crop could occur when the incorrect application and type of fertilizer used. In the end, this suggestion only looks good only on paper.)
In the end, it’s at the point where we begin to question the need for fertilizers in the first place, when these band-aid solutions to reduce denitrification and nitrous oxide emissions have a high chance of not working as they should, if at all. There are indeed better solutions out there that negate the reliance of synthetic fertilizers, all which can do better to help mitigate nitrous oxide emissions.
At this point it should be noted as well that Garnett et. al (2017) has only recommended more “judicial” use of fertilizers to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions. Basically, the report recommends the same tips as mentioned above. I didn’t once mention the concern for sustainability, but when it comes to the soil microbiology and soil ecosystem, this is just not a practical solution. It certainly isn’t sustainable either, let alone regenerative. It also doesn’t solve the problem of healing the soil, encouraging more organic matter, and fixing compaction, runoff, and leaching issues that have largely come about with these industrial agricultural practices and band-aid tools.
So what are the best practices to help mitigate nitrous oxide emissions? The answer lies in the use of no-till cover cropping systems that integrate livestock in its crop rotations. Yes, it’s really that simple. Let me put it this way: Nature’s way has never needed “fixing” from us humans, ever. It is this approach (holistic in its very nature) we just need to adopt in our production practices that will solve the nitrous oxide (and methane) issues by itself; thereby negating the need for band-aid solutions to patch up an already dysfunctional, degenerative system that just isn’t helping us or anything in the first place.
I know most of the anti-livestock people have seen the nitrous oxide emissions and have reactively attributed much of it to animal agriculture. They have a point, but only so much. They are actually attributing these crops to animals raised in confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs), not grazing animals. This is where grazing ruminants have a huge advantage. These grazing herbivores, when managed properly, negate the requirement for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer because they are helping to complete the nitrogen cycle with their manure (dung and urine). The effectively recycle nutrients, putting 80 to 90% of what they eat back onto the land. From an efficiency standpoint, and for those rather obsessed with efficiencies, this is a ruddy nightmare. But for those who appreciate the value that these animals play to the ecosystem, this is an enormous benefit (of many) that man-made fertilizers cannot compete with.
This is just another reason why more grazing herbivores are needed, not less.
Land Use for Grazing in More Ways than One
Back on the Bovine Practicum, I wrote a few in-depth articles on land use practices you can check out:
- The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Breaking Down the Numbers
- The Beef vs. Vegetable Land-Use Argument: Why It’s Really a Non-Issue
- Another Land Use Debate: Feedlot-finished versus Forage-finished
The facts that I presented in these articles are so important to understand, because all too common the argument that ruminants “take up too much land” or are “inefficient uses of land” or other similar arguments, completely undermines the capacity of the ruminant animal to be a far more flexible and an adaptive multi-purpose tool to use for various agricultural systems.
Cows don’t always need perennial pasture to live. The fact that they have legs (they aren’t rooted to the ground like plants are) and can be moved from your typical pasture to a native grassland or a forested area or to a crop field makes them incredibly useful for depositing organic, all-natural fertilizer, spreading seeds, trampling down plant matter, pruning plants, disturbing soil crusts, compacting seeds into the ground, and turning inedible plant matter into an edible, highly nutritious product (meat & milk), makes them highly versatile indeed.
Basically, livestock (I’ll include poultry and pigs here too) are needed to be an integral part of the agricultural system. While of course agriculture isn’t natural, it relies on the cycles and niches (time and space) of nature that just can’t function as normally without animals. The efficiency argument against livestock is really non-issue.
One thing that Garnett et. al. (2017) tried to “debunk” was holistic management. Honestly, the report’s authors had no understanding of what holistic management really means. Honestly, how can you debunk something that you really don’t understand?
Holistic Management is this: “…the process of decision-making and planning that gives people the insights and management tools needed to understand [the natural ecosystems we are all a part of]: resulting in better, more informed decisions that balance key social, environmental, and financial considerations.”
Holistic is what others may call “systems thinking” which is partially right. Rather, it’s thinking in terms of wholes, as well as in terms of your context–“the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” In a nutshell, it’s the What and most importantly, the WHY you do or believe something. It is most certainly NOT just another type of grazing practice, as Grazed and Confused mistakenly has stated.
The grazing part is just one aspect of Holistic Management. But it doesn’t define HM as exactly that. Instead, Holistic Management is far more about being the framework for doing things the right ways at the right times, in the right places, and for the right reasons. It’s about embracing a holistic paradigm, having a holistic context, and definitely about everything that makes a farm or a business tick, from the land to the animals to the people. Sorry Garnett, but you didn’t debunk Holistic Management one iota!
We certainly need livestock and grazing to heal the land. HM just pulls everything together so that we’re not just focusing on the animals or the soil and thinking that’s good enough.
Cows WILL Save the Planet–And Humanity!
I’ll be honest here, the title is catchy, but it’s going to be up to more than just cows. We need all grazing, browsing, digging, scratching, pooping, animals to help us along. Cows, though, have been demonized for far too long, and it needs to stop.
Cows aren’t to blame for methane issues. They aren’t to blame for nitrous oxide issues. They aren’t to blame for the degradation of the soil, of our ignorance of soil ecology and biota. WE are the ones to blame.
Once more and more of us realize this, we can start turning to livestock–and ourselves–to help fix this and save our own sorry butts.
The Garnett et. al. (2017) report has only shown the kind of thinking that has been so problematic for far too long. Reductionist, linear thinking, the kind of context that fails to take into account every single aspect of our natural ecosystems, of ourselves, of the animals, and more importantly, the influences we’ve had on this planet. I can only say that this report is going to be another one of those examples of what we should have never believed in in the first place.
We at EOM aren’t confused about grazing, nor even about Holistic Management for Regenerative Agriculture. We know what we need to push for. And we’re not going to quit pushing for it.
- Garnett T., C. Godde, A. Muller, E. Roos, P. Smith, I. de Boer, E. zu Ermgassen, M. Herrero, C. van Middelaar, C. Schader, H. von Zader. 2017. Grazed and Confused? Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question – and what it all means for greenhouse gas emissions. Food Climate Research Network, Oxford University.
- Prinn, R. G. 2014. Ozon, Hydroxyl Radical, and Oxidative Capacity.
- Rigby M, et. al. 2017. Role of atmospheric oxidation in recent methane growth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
- Johnson, D.C., J. Ellington, W. Eaton. 2015. Development of soil microbial communities for promoting sustainability in agriculture and a global carbon fix.
- Johnson, D.C. 2017. The influence of soil microbial community structure on carbon and nitrogen partitioning in plant/soil ecosystems
- Climate Science of Methane – Environmental Change Institute
- Hanson, R. S., & T. E. Hanson. 1996. Methanotrophic bacteria. Microbiology Reviews. 60(2): 439-471.
- Whalen, J.K., & L. Sampedro. 2010. Soil Ecology & Management. Cabi publishing. McGill University, Quebec, Canada.
- Building Soil for Better Crops. 2010. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education.
- Kerlin, K. 2018. Grasslands More Reliable Carbon Sink Than Trees. UC Davis News.
- Robertson, G.P., & and P. M. Groffman. 2015. Nitrogen Transformations.
- Bryant. L. 2015. Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity. NRDC Expert Blog.