150 years ago, much of the Midwest was still covered with chest-deep prairie grassland, providing valuable food and habitat for billions of plant and animal species, including millions of elk, bison and deer. These lands also supported natural environmental processes like carbon sequestration and seasonal flood control.
When Americans first settled the Midwestern prairies, they killed off the natural bison and other ruminants that lived there and began to farm highly fertile, virgin soil that was about 10 percent organic matter.
Today, 150 years of plowing the prairie into vast monocultures has cut that vital organic matter by more than half and released more carbon dioxide—the leading driver of global warming—into the air than any other source, including transportation or coal-fired power plants.
Yes, that’s right. Plowing fields is the leading cause of excess CO2 pollution and climate change.
In the spring of 2008, the upper Midwest experienced catastrophic flooding which caused dislocations, massive erosion of precious topsoil, and billions of dollars in property damage. This was mostly because plowed fields shed rainwater almost as fast as a parking lot does; the soil can only absorb, at most, about 1-1/2 inches of rain in an hour. A permanent pasture, however, can absorb as much as 7 inches of rain in an hour.
That’s the difference between flooding and no flooding.
Today nearly all of America’s original grasslands have been converted to vast monocultures of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, two crops that are enormously destructive to the environment because they require massive amounts of fresh water, pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers to grow.
And sadly, these crops are mostly used to feed livestock: It takes about 15 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef.
Most U.S. beef is produced from cows living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where grain-fed cows become sick from eating a diet unnatural to them, and emit large amounts of methane into the air—further contributing to global warming.
The concentrated lagoons of manure that these feedlots produce are largely unregulated, and they pollute rivers, streams and other fresh water sources. Plus, their horrid stench destroys quality of life for every person who lives near them.
Additionally, the conditions in these feedlots are so poor that cows have to be treated with antibiotics and hormones simply in order to survive, which inadvertently creates the conditions whereby E. coli outbreaks, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and other health problems more easily emerge.
The irony of all of this is that the very prairie we destroyed to grow grains to feed cattle was already the perfect, natural habitat for raising healthy, happy cows virtually for free.
But here’s where the vegetarian argument ends: Whether you feed the corn to livestock or people doesn’t matter. A conventionally farmed corn or soybean field is a major source of greenhouse gases, air and water pollution either way. But a permanent pasture is a biodiverse, ever-cycling pump that continuously pushes carbon back into the soil where it increases fertility and builds topsoil.
According to a recent Scientific American article “Future Farming: A Return to Roots?” production of high-input, annual crops such as corn and soybeans release carbon at a rate of about 1,000 pounds per acre, while perennial grasslands can store carbon at roughly the same rate.
Therefore, converting just half the U.S. corn and soy acreage back to pasture might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result.
That’s enough carbon sequestration to offset the emissions from all the cars, trucks and other vehicles on the planet!
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enhancing the natural processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere is thought to be the most cost-effective means of reducing atmospheric levels of CO2.
Scientists agree that organic matter in topsoil is on average 50 percent carbon up to one foot in depth, and bumping that upward by as little as 1.6 percent across all the world’s agricultural land could potentially reverse the problem of global warming.
In other words: If we were to restore just some of the organic matter to the Great Plains that we strip-mined over the last 150 years of row-crop monoculture, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide could be reduced to pre-industrial levels within 10-15 years.
Yes, you read that right. Simply by boosting the organic matter of our depleted industrial soils through returning ruminants to restored pasture ecosystems, we could practically REVERSE our carbon pollution problem within one generation.
Whether it’s from cattle, gnu, bison, sheep or antelope, grasses require regular destruction of their top leaves to promote root growth. Grassland ecology requires grazers to chomp and stomp down trees and shrubs so it won’t be overshaded, and it further requires significant amounts of their manure to fertilize the soil.
This symbiotic system, which evolved over millions of years, is what sequesters carbon naturally and keeps the planet habitable for all creatures, including us. In fact, destroying grassland ecosystems, and the planetary carbon sequestration cycle they sustain, is arguably as damaging to life on the planet as is clearcutting the Amazon Rainforest. Maybe even worse.
Here’s a brilliant 3-minute synopsis of how we can harness grassland ecology to intentionally sequester carbon and stop desertification:
The central idea of carbon farming and holistic grazing is to cluster and move the animals frequently—as once happened with wild herds chased by predators—so grasses are not gnawed beyond the point of natural recovery and plant cover remains to fertilize the land and sequester carbon.
The sequestration process works like this: The grasses, forbs and herbs in a field take in carbon from the atmosphere. The animals eat, fertilize and trample them into the soil, where the carbon is decomposed and absorbed, feeding the roots of the plants. New plants sprout, and the process is repeated over and over again, absorbing more and more carbon, building more and more topsoil.
Carbon farming is, simply put, an attempt to recreate and imitate the natural, evolutionary conditions of a grassland commons within the structure of modern life and private property, in order to reverse the effects of global climate disruption.
But what about the argument that meat-eating is a major cause of global warming due to massive emissions of nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from livestock operations?
What may be true of CAFO feedlots is absolutely wrong about grass-fed livestock. Raising cattle (or other ruminants) on polycultural, permanent pasture mimics a natural system wherein the methane and other gas emissions are mitigated by the carbon sequestration in the soil, just as occurred across grasslands and savannahs for hundreds of thousands of years before human interference.
Let’s be clear where the responsibility truly lies: The elimination of grazing animals from the Earth’s grassland ecosystems and plowing them into industrial monocultures is a huge part of what got us into this global warming mess in the first place.
Grazing animals provide fertilizer, root stimulation, pest control, organic matter improvements and nutrient capture services to soils and plants in grassland ecosystems—they’re supposed to be there by the billions. They are part of a healthy ecosystem.
If humans had better control over our own emissions, or were managing the planet’s plant cover better, the animals wouldn’t be a problem.
Crafting Carbon Sinks
Scientists and ranchers alike, including the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), see carbon farming through managed intensive grazing as a way to phase out feedlots and all of the environmental and health problems they cause.
As Wendell Berry said (and I paraphrase), by taking farm animals off pasture, we have taken a perfect, natural solution to nutrient cycling and divided it neatly into two problems.
This conversion to permanent pasture will pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming, as well as improve our air, soil and water quality, prevent flooding, and even recharge aquifers.
By converting corn and soybean fields to permanent pasture—permaculture modeled on the tallgrass prairie species that were the native cover a century ago—grassfed beef producers have found they can make more profit than the corn and soybeans yielded before.
Part of this is a result of lower or no costs for inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, GMO seeds, pesticides, tractors and machinery. Additionally, farmers that create successful carbon sinks through their grazing operations can also qualify for payments under “cap and trade” programs and other offset and conservation subsidies.
And on properly recovered land, most graziers can finish about two steers per acre. That is almost precisely the acreage it takes to grow the grain to finish those same steers in a feedlot. This whole system makes good economic sense, acre by acre.
More than half of our total grain crop goes to feed livestock, so it follows that we can convert the same percentage of the 150 million acres used to grow corn and soy back into permanent pasture and lose no meat production. At the same time, we can produce healthier meat, clean up our air and water, and shift the massive federal subsidies for corn and soybean production to a better use.
Humans Working With Nature
Sequestration is not a fringe idea, but rather a major tactic keep the planet from tipping into ecological uncertainty. One reason why carbon farming and other sequestration methods have gotten so little media attention in the fight against global warming is because they represent a new idea in environmental policy—the idea that solving our ecological crisis means not just stopping human interference with nature, but also on humans taking positive steps to undo the damage already done.
And, let’s face it, grazing just isn’t sexy, even if it is being used to restore dead rivers and transform deserts.
We are slowly beginning to understand that human enterprises work best when they imitate and participate in enhancing Nature’s diversity—a basic tenet of Permaculture.
Early in the rise of organic farming, we mistakenly thought we could sustain ecological diversity by raising a dozen or so different tilled crops on a small farm—forgetting that an acre of grassland is the most diverse biome on the planet, containing hundreds of species of plants and animals that work cooperatively to sustain the ecosystem and the planet.
Many modern organic farmers learned from these early mistakes and brought animals and wild plants back into the farming ecosystem. Managed properly, ruminants and fowl help control weeds and insects, cycle nutrients, build soil, and provide a use for waste and failed crops.
They can also produce food from land where crops cannot grow. Healthy ecosystems—both wild and cultivated—must include these animals (whether or not we choose to eat them!).
We now understand that working with natural systems is vital to the very life of our planet. Humans are part of nature, we are part of ecosystems. We can be blind and arrogant to our interdependence on this planet, or we can be part of the solution.
If the best solution to global warming, topsoil loss, water shortages and safe food production involves sending large herds of hoofed animals back to tromping through the landscape in a way that takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it into the soil naturally, then it would “behoove” us to start right away.
Even if you don’t eat meat, returning ruminants like buffalo, cattle, goats, sheep and fowl to a restored, natural grassland ecosystem where they belong could effectively SOLVE our global warming problem.
Good Models Can Move Us Forward
The good news is that many pioneering farmers and ranchers (like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms or African environmentalist Allan Savory) are already healing the earth by successfully raising bison, cattle and fowl on polycultural grassland—an enterprise that can scale up quickly because the prototypes prove the model works.
In fact, in Africa, holistic managed grazing is beating back the creeping Sahara desert and restoring dead rivers to the communities that depend on them.
Allan Savory’s work is nothing short of a true MIRACLE. (Please don’t miss the 3 minute video above.)
And according to Mother Earth News, “…it is not unrealistic to think that we could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the process.”
Doing so would give us:
- a more humane livestock system,
- a healthier human diet,
- less deadly E. coli,
- elimination of feedlots and the manure lagoons they produce,
- a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide,
- enormous savings in energy,
- virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on grazing lands,
- elimination of the catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin,
- more vibrant rural communities where farmers and ranchers can earn a decent living with less work and fewer expensive inputs, and
- a dramatic reduction in global warming gases, possibly reducing our carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions to pre-industrial levels.”
The American Grassfed Association, a network of almost 400 graziers, is behind this effort. Their label certifies that their beef came from cattle that ate only grass from pastures, not feedlots, received no hormones or antibiotics in their feed, and were humanely raised and handled.
This emerging marketing network has already placed grass-fed animal products in co-ops, health food stores and supermarkets across the nation.
This quiet revolution against industrial farming practices has been fueled entirely by growing consumer demand. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef, dairy and poultry simply because we know it’s significantly healthier than its conventional grain-fed counterpart, and because we don’t like the pollution, cruelty and antibiotics inherent in the concentrated feedlots that dominate the industry currently.
In a market economy driven by consumer demand, purchasing pasture-raised meat, dairy and eggs in lieu of their grain-fed counterparts is the ONLY way we are going to attain the many environmental benefits of carbon farming and reduce global warming.
A Return to Roots
It is no coincidence that in the past 75 years as our diets changed to include large quantities of industrial meat and refined carbohydrates, diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer have reached epidemic levels. Pasture-raised animal products are substantially cleaner, leaner and lower in the omega-6 fats that are linked to inflammation, obesity and heart disease.
Pasture-raised animal products also are much higher in Vitamins A, E and D as well as beneficial omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), both of which reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and promote weight loss. And, perhaps most importantly, grass-fed beef just tastes better to most people.
While it is true that much environmental good would come from significantly reducing the world’s consumption of industrially produced meat, the reality is that the number of people around the world who eat meat is only growing.
When living as an essential part of grassland ecosystems as they were meant to, animal foods are healthful and traditional parts of the human diet that we have relied on and enjoyed for our entire existence on this planet.
So if we hope to avert climate change and enjoy a good steak in the future, it is incumbent upon us to restore our prairies and raise our animals in the most humane and environmentally beneficial way possible, which, it turns out, is the way nature had been doing it all along.
Here’s an amazing TED talk by Allan Savory, the inventor of holistic managed grazing, that explains things even further. This man’s work is nothing short of miraculous:
Where to Find Pasture-Raised Beef
Pasture-raised beef is enjoying explosive demand, thanks to informed people like you who want a cleaner, healthier, environmentally sustainable product. You can find local grass farmers raising beef, pork and poultry in your area by checking out U.S. Wellness Meats, Eat Wild or your local Weston A Price chapter.
Sources and More Information
- A Breath of Fresh Air
- Reverse Global Warming with Livestock? – TED Talk
- TED: Allan Savory: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change
- “The Amazing Benefits of Grassfed Meat” – Mother Earth News
- The First Millimeter – Great PBS preview on how holistically managed grasslands can return our planet to health
- “Can Cattle Save Us From Global Warming?” – OnTheCommons.org
- Holistic Management International
- The Carbon Coaltion
- Managing Wholes
- The Stockman Grass Farmer
- Carbon Farmers of America
- Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape
- Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
- The Savory Institute