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Can Cattle Save Us From Global Warming?

A small band of activists and scientists believe that farming done the right way can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny winter morning—the kind that lulls you into thinking global climate change can’t be so bad—a group of environmentalists and sustainable agriculture advocates gather over muffins and coffee on a California ranch to discuss a bold initiative to reverse the greenhouse effect. It’s a diverse group—longtime ranchers, a forestry professor from Berkeley, organic food activists, a Vermont dairy farmer, the author of a famous children’s book—united in their belief that current proposals to address the climate crisis don’t go far enough. On The Commons cofounder Peter Barnes, author of the book Climate Solutions, is also on hand along with OTC fellows Ana Micka and myself.

CC license NC, SA by wYnand! from Flickr

“We now have 380 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, compared to 280 before the industrial revolution. Even if we stopped all emissions today, which is a long way from happening, it would still be 345 a century from now,” notes John Wick, echoing the sobering conclusions of a report released last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore.

Wick—who owns this ranch in the hills of Marin County north of San Francisco with Peggy Rathmann, author of the classic picture book _Goodnight Gorilla_—goes on to outline the climate crisis in terms all-too-familiar to anyone paying attention to the issue. But he then offers a solution that would astonish most people, especially green activists: “Eat a local grass-fed burger.”

“It will take carbon out of the air and put it back into the soil,” chimes in Abe Collins, the Vermont dairy farmer.

This idea is shocking on two counts:

First, the cattle industry and meat eating are targeted as a leading cause of global warming, up there with autos, jet planes and coal-burning power plants. The animal rights group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for instance, recently launched an ad campaign declaring, “Meat is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming.”

Second, efforts to stop global warming have been focused almost entirely on reducing emissions, not in taking existing carbon out of the atmosphere (a process known as known as carbon sequestration).

Carbon sequestration is not a new idea. It figures prominently in the popular carbon off-setting programs in which people pay a firm to plant trees—which absorb atmospheric carbon in their trunks, branches and roots—to compensate for their carbon emissions from air or auto travel. Coal companies and the Bush Adminstration have also floated the idea of massive engineering projects to sequester carbon underground, which have been greeted with intense skepticism by most environmentalists due to the cost and the unproven nature of the technology.

But initiatives to sequester carbon in soil through growing crops and grazing animals are less common, but perhaps more promising than planting trees since croplands and grasslands cover more of the earth’s surface than forests and they grow at a faster rate.

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, according to John Wick and Abe Collins, would solve the problem of global warming. Soil scientists studying the issue are more measured in their predictions, but still enthusiastic about the potential of soil sequestration of carbon to reduce the threat 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 grass takes in carbon from the atmosphere; the animals trample the grass into the soil, where the carbon is absorbed; new grass sprouts and the process is repeated over and over again, absorbing more and more carbon.

This was the natural cycle before the enclosure of the commons. Bison roamed the great American plains, as did other large herds in wild lands throughout the rest of the world. Even in places where livestock farming prevailed, the grazing lands were still held in common and animals wandered freely under the watch of shepherds or small farmers. With the privatization of grazing land, this ecological system was disrupted to the point where today raising livestock is rightly seen as one of the most environmentally destructive industries.

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.

The idea of soil sequestration is still under the radar,” notes Soil Science Professor Chuck Rice of Kansas State University, a member of the IPCC panel who directs a joint project of nine American universities and the U.S. Department of Energy studying the potential for reducing greenhouse gases through agricultural practices. “There is more carbon stored in the soil than in the atmosphere. If we can make a small change in managing that carbon in the soil, it would make a big difference in the atmosphere.”

Rice suggests adopting a wide range of carbon sequestration strategies, ranging from planting more trees to cultivating crops using no-till agriculture (which minimizes plowing) to raising animals on grasslands instead of feedlots—the idea that excites Wick and his fellow ranchers in California. In Canada, a group of power utilities has already signed an agreement with Saskatchewan farmers practicing no-till agriculture to offset the carbon produced by their power plants.

“This isn’t wishful thinking down the road,” Rice asserts. “It’s being done right now and we can do a lot more.”

Professor Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist in the Environmental Policy and Management department at the University of California-Berkeley concurs. “Absolutely I think it’s possible to sequester carbon in the soil. This is a hot topic of research right now,” she says. She just began a study of 36 agricultural fields in California—including John Wick’s and Peggy Rathmann’s ranch—that are being managed in ways that boost the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon.

Wick and Rathmann are running 180 head of cattle on 340 acres using an intricate grazing system designed by Abe Collins to mimic the ecological conditions that occurred when wild bison and elk thundered across the grasslands of North America. They restrict the cattle to a few acres of grassland at a time, moving them as many as four times a day to minimize the effects of overgrazing and to maximize the carbon absorbed by native grasses into the soil—a technique called “carbon farming” or “holistic management”. This is based on a theory devised by African game rancher Allan Savory, who believes soil is healthiest and best able to absorb carbon when grasslands are managed in a way similar to the natural cycles created by huge herds of hoofed animals feeding on and trampling grasses for short periods and then moving elsewhere to avoid predators.

Whendee Silver will do extensive chemical analysis of the soil to test the results of these practices. “Many believe the soil has a large potential to sequester carbon—especially degraded soil, which should be able to recoup lost carbon. This could really be a win-win situation, because these soil practices almost always improve the agricultural capacity of the land. And think about the amount of degraded soil around the world.”

Silver, Chuck Rice (whose research often takes him to South America) and other researchers see hope for fighting global poverty as well as global warming with these new farming techniques because tropical climates and degraded land, frequently found in the world’s poorest nations, have the most potential for sequestering carbon.

Soil Science Professor Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, notes, “The best places are Africa and Asia. But that is where it is hardest to do right now.” In an article published in Science (Jan. 30, 2008) he and associates say, “Aid programs should place far greater emphasis on subsidizing and providing technical and other assistance for soil restoration.”

Lal, a native of India who spent18 years at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria before coming to Ohio State in 1987, advocates an international trading system that would offer lucrative incentives for people in the developing world to undertake no-till farming, sustainable forestry and managed grazing projects that return carbon to soil in significant quantities. “Carbon should be a farm commodity people can buy and sell like any other commodity, then poor farmers would have another income stream,” he says.

Abe Collins has launched a trading program along these lines in the U.S. through Carbon Farmers of America, a group he co-founded after seeing remarkable results with carbon farming at his organic dairy farm in Vermont.

Outlining the new trading program, Collins says, “What we are proposing is to pay farmers for their important services that we as a society need— climate regulation, healthy soils.” The organization sells offsets for carbon sequestered into the soil (known as a carbon sink) at $25 a ton on its website). Nineteen dollars goes to the farmer, five dollars to public education about carbon farming, and one dollar for the organization’s administrative costs.

He estimates that $45 billion in annual payments to farmers sequestering carbon would make the U.S. carbon neutral—not such a high pricetag, Collins muses, when you consider that U.S. taxpayers bailed out the Wall Street trading company Bear Stearns for $30 billion and fork over $31 billion in agriculture subsidies every year to continue current farm policies which degrade the environment and fuel global warming. The $45 billion would also represent an investment in improving soil quality and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Collins originally took the idea of soil carbon trading to the Chicago Climate Exchange—a leader in the idea of organizing financial incentives for businesses practices that reduce greenhouse gases—but they found it too experimental at this point. However soil carbon credits area now being discussed in Australia, according to Collins, which makes sense because carbon farming is more advanced in Australia than anywhere else according to most observers.

A lifelong environmentalist and social justice activist, Collins, 35, grew interested in land restoration while working on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. He returned home to Vermont seven years ago to put his ideas into practice, eventually renting a small farm near St. Albans and joining the Organic Valley dairy cooperative.

A major influence for Collins has been the work of Allan Savory, a trained biologist and game rancher in Zimbabwe who noticed decades ago that land roamed by large herds of antelope or other hooved animals was generally healthy while land managed by farmers or government agencies was often in danger of becoming desert. Savory, who now divides his time between Africa and the New Mexico, formulated a new method of grazing he calls Holistic Management (the foundation of carbon farming), which he says is now practiced on about 30 million acres of grassland in Africa, Australia, and North America.

Following Savory’s suggestions, Collins sows native grasses such as timothy, brome, red clover, and ryegrass, which grow as high as two feet tall, on his 135 acres of pasture. He moves his herd of 65 dairy cows to different spots around the pasture five to eight times a day. “The effect is that animals trample the grass onto the land, where it feeds the soil,” Collins says, estimating that he has created at least six inches of prime topsoil capable of sequestering substantial amounts of C02 in just three years of carbon farming.

This flies smack in the face of conventional agricultural thinking, which holds that intensive grazing ruins lands and the only way to restore it is by removing animals for a long period of time. “We have land that has been rested for decades and it is still degraded,” responds Collins, citing his experience working in the American Southwest.

The central idea in carbon farming is moving 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. But many farmers, especially those with large operations, are skeptical of this practice because of the extra labor involved. A major research effort led by Cornell University Professor David Pimentel studying Collins’ operation and 19 other farms in New England, Iowa, Nebraska and California to test the claims and explore the potential of carbon farming is set to slated to begin this summer.

In addition to running his farm, Collins has become a leading advocate for agriculture’s role in solving problem of global warming. He’s helping John Wick and Peggy Rathmann map out a grazing management plan for the new cattle herd on their California grassland and he’s advising the Marin Carbon Project, a new initiative to promote carbon farming as way to lower Marin County’s high carbon footprint.

That’s what brought Collins to the meeting last February at the California ranch, where he and Wick heralded the hamburger as a savior of the planet.

“The hamburger makes a good symbol of what can be done with carbon farming,” Collins says. So he reasons that eating grass-fed beef from sustainably-managed herds will contribute in a small way to reversing global warming. Any large hoofed animals like sheep, goats, bison, elk, antelope or horses can be used in carbon farming, and raising meat isn’t essential to the process. Collins after all is a dairy farmer.

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? John Wicks answers immediately and forcefully, “That’s absolutely correct about feedlots and absolutely wrong about grass-fed livestock. Sustainably-raised grass-fed beef is a natural system and the methane and other greenhouse gases are mitigated by the carbon sequestration in the soil. We see this as a way to phase out feedlots.” Collins adds that nitrous oxides are in huge part the product of chemical fertilizers, which don’t make any sense in a farming system based on restoring the soil and halting global warming.

On The Commons’ Peter Barnes is looking into the idea of carbon farming. “We saw the Arctic melt last summer and Greenland glaciers slide into the ocean,” he says, “and scientists realize that climate change is happening faster than in their models. We seem to be a tipping point right now, and that’s the context for ideas like carbon farming and planting trees. Sequestration is not a marginal idea but central to any effort keep the planet from tipping into disaster.”

One reason why carbon farming and other sequestration methods have gotten far less attention in the fight against global warming than efforts to reduce emissions is because they represents something new 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.

“The days of hands-off environmentalism are over,” declares John Wick. “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 ways that take carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, we can do that.”

Wick notes that when he and Rathmann first bought their ranch, they stopped leasing the land to neighboring cattle farmers in the belief that livestock was an unnatural element imposed upon the land by humans, which threatened the healthy ecosystem of these fragile, rolling hills. “We are environmentalists and thought the best thing to do was kick the cows off, and when we did that we watched the coyote bush—a natural plant that takes over when there are no animals to eat it—kill all the other vegetation on our hills.”

In late March, they welcomed cattle back to their ranch and within a week reported enthusiastically that their brown hillsides were already turning green.

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This is expanded from an article appearing in Ode magazine (June 2007). Ode an international news magazine with offices in both the Netherlands and California.