'Cows Save The Planet': Soil's Secrets For Saving The Earth

Jun 17, 2013
Originally published on June 18, 2013 10:57 am

In her book Cows Save The Planet, journalist Judith Schwartz argues that the key to addressing carbon issues and climate change lies beneath our feet. Schwartz says that proper management of soil could solve a long list of environmental problems.

"The thing to realize is that while we think about this as a sky thing — that it's all about all the fossil fuels that we're burning and all that spewing into the atmosphere — it's actually also a ground thing," she tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Schwartz explains how livestock can help restore the land and get the carbon cycle back in balance.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Last month, for the first time in millions of years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, a scary milestone on the route to a warmer and more unstable climate. And that number will continue to rise as we continue to burn fossil fuels in our cars and power plants unless we can find someplace else to put all that carbon. In a February TED Talk, an activist and visionary named Allan Savory argued that properly managed herds of ungulates - cows - can bury huge quantities of carbon and restore our topsoil at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

DR. ALLAN SAVORY: There is only one option, I repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.

CONAN: Allan Savory calls this holistic management. We want to hear from farmers and ranchers today who use holistic management, also sometimes known as intensive grazing. We'd also like to hear from skeptics, too, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Journalist Judith Schwartz profiles the work of Allan Savory, among others, in a new book called "Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth" and joins us now from Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JUDITH SCHWARTZ: Thanks. Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And at the same time, cows can both bury the carbon and restore the topsoil. Sounds too good to be true.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, well, it's actually amazing. The book is really a book about soil. Soil is a hub for so many of our environmental, economic and social crisis, and for solutions. And in the process of all my research, I found that when you look at our situations, our various situations, from the standpoint of the soil, everything turns around. It almost allows for a radical reframing of our problems such as, as you mentioned, climate change.

CONAN: And really though, the soil is the key to all of the many different problems we have, including climate change and carbon dioxide and the various other problems?

SCHWARTZ: OK. Well, let's look at excess CO2 in the atmosphere. OK. So the thing to realize is that while we think about this as a sky thing, that it's all about all the fossil fuels that we're burning and all that spewing into the atmosphere is actually also a ground thing. So if you look over time, way, and I mean way more carbon has gone into the atmosphere from soil, from the way we treat the soil compared to the burning of fossil fuels. And once you start to understand this and you understand the processes that release carbon into the atmosphere - you know, so the carbon, I mean, it's heavy tillage. It's leaving soil bare. It's interrupting the life in the soil. It's all these things - soil drying out. Then you can understand that you can actually reverse those processes and, by so doing, bring carbon back into the soil.

So over time, we're talking gigatons of carbon that's gone into the atmosphere from the soil. And what's so exciting about this is that this is something we can do. It just concerns me that when we see these numbers, you know, we look at the Keeling Curve, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere going up, up, up. I mean, we just...

CONAN: Yeah, the famous hockey stick chart.

SCHWARTZ: Exactly. And, you know, us as individuals, we can only watch this happen, and we can only just shake our heads as carbon global discussions just don't seem to go anywhere. But if we look to the soil, then we can actually do something about it.

CONAN: So where do the cows come in?

SCHWARTZ: Aha. So you mentioned Allan Savory and his work for holistic management, holistic plant grazing, which is the use of livestock as a tool for large-scale land restoration. Basically, the thing to keep in mind is that any time you have animals on land those animals have an impact on the land, and that can be either a positive or negative impact, depending on how those animals are managed.

And when you manage livestock in a very precise way, then - moving them, as Allan said on that little clip - then they serve as biological accelerators, which means that they're kind of kickstarting and keeping moving the biological processes that bring carbon into the soil.

CONAN: Keep moving them. In other words, what, as I've read, is described as pulsed grazing, a large - relatively large number of animals on a relatively small piece of land and - but not there very long.

SCHWARTZ: Right. And one of Allan Savory's insights is that while overgrazing is a real problem and it can be devastating to land, under-grazing also has a negative impact on the land. So this way, the land gets the animal impact but not too much, so that the grasses are nibbled within the way that stimulates their growth and pressed - and seeds are pressed in so you get greater biodiversity and their waste adds organic matter to the soil, all these things - but never to the extent that the land is overgrazed. So that's how they keep moving.

And it's very precise. I've talked to farmers and ranchers who said that not only will they not bring back animals to the land for a certain amount of time, but they wouldn't do it at the same - in the same way in the same season. So everything's - I mean, you can say, in chaos, but everything is in a dynamic state.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from farmers and ranchers, both those who use holistic management and those who might be skeptical, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Dale's on the line with us from Huron in South Dakota.

DALE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DALE: I attended Allan Savory's school in North Platte, Nebraska in 1984. He revolutionized my thinking, changed the outlook from using the grass - grazing the grass, changed that emphasis from grazing to rest and restoration. We have, for the past 25 years, practiced holistic range management.

We've seen definite increases in desirable plant species production, decreases in undesirable plant production, definite increase in forage production overall, increase in financial returns, increase in overall plant and animal health, a number of desirable aspects of this practice. And I have yet to see any undesirable in our practice.

CONAN: If it's good both for the planet and your wallet, though, Dale, why doesn't everybody do it?

DALE: It takes some learning. There's a learning period definitely. And people tend to be skeptical from new ideas. When Allan started this entire thinking process back in the, oh, late '70s, early '80s, everybody was skeptical, including universities. And he had a huge task to perform in convincing people of the desirable aspects of the practice. People tend to say, it won't work on my place. It won't work where I live.

And that's a tendency people have, but it's basically untrue because they don't know what the practice entails. It's not easy to do. But once you learn how to do it and once your cattle are trained to it, it's a rewarding practice.

CONAN: Dale, thanks very much for the call.

DALE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Judith Schwartz, we hear what he had to say. But as you know, a lot of people think cows are not part of the solution. Cows are part of the problem.

SCHWARTZ: Right, right. And that's why I mentioned that the important thing to keep in mind that whether animals are - have a good effect on the environment or negative effect on the environment, is how they're managed. And I know that people are very concerned about methane. But again, it's useful to know that the methane cycle is part of - is a subcycle of the carbon cycle. And when land is healthy - and this practice is intended, of course, to restore land. When land is healthy, then the methane cycle is in balance because there are - just as cattles do produce methane, there are organisms in the soil that consume methane. So it's a cycle that works when the land is functioning.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Michael. Michael with us from Gettysburg in South Dakota.

MICHAEL: Hello. I'm calling from some native prairie in North Central, South Dakota, I was out hiking on public land.

CONAN: Michael, go ahead. I think Michael's cell phone may be betraying him. He may be a little too far away from a tower. One more time. Michael, are you still there? OK. Thanks very much. And call back if you get the chance. Let's see. We go next to - this is Tom, and Tom's on the line with us from Berkeley.

TOM: Hi. This is a fascinating topic, but I think it misses, kind of, the point. And that is the problem is not just carbon production. It's carbon production in relation to energy. And there is a known way to produce carbon negative energy. It's an old way: gasification. There were a million gasified vehicles in Europe during World War II whose only waste product is pure carbon that's a soil supplement.

So while grazing herds of cows is a good idea, it doesn't get to the issue, which is how do we make energy in a more sustainable way, where we need it? And small-scale gasification can do that.

CONAN: Gasification, you mean, of coal?

TOM: No, no. Gasification of biomass like wood or walnuts. Like, for example, here in Berkeley, California, we can get a ton of almond shells for $30 and make an enormous amount of electricity. And the only waste product is charcoal, which we then sequester in the ground. That's a carbon negative production cycle that isn't dependent on having ungulates.

CONAN: Judith Schwartz, you write about not just cows in your book.

SCHWARTZ: Correct, correct. Yes. Yeah, there are all different problems that we have to look at. I guess I can mention that today is world desertification awareness day. And desertification isn't something that we hear about. But when we think about - at least in this country we might think that it's a third world problem. But here, in this country, when we have drought followed by floods, followed by droughts, et cetera, et cetera, that's what we're dealing with. We're dealing with land degradation.

And it's a useful - it's useful to think about many of our environmental problems from this perspective because then we understand as we start to think about the functioning of land. And that again brings us back to soil.

So if we can - just as storing carbon in the soil, it's really important for getting the carbon cycle back in balance. Keeping water in the soil is really important for getting our water cycle back in balance too.

CONAN: We're talking with Judith Schwartz, a journalist, who's new book is called "Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways to Restore Soil to Heal the Earth." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Mark. And Mark is with us from San Rafael in California.

MARK: Hi there. Yeah. I appreciate what she's saying, and I think she's correct in a partial solution. And - but the problem that I hear - and I never hear anybody say this, is that 75 percent of the carbon dioxide in the air has been put in there by volcanoes, not by human behavior.

Well, you know, forest fires, and human behavior, and manufacturing and the other animals that do create it only to create 25 percent. And I was at a recent conference with a gentlemen that I can't think of his name right at the moment, that - a Ph.D. that has presented facts in front of the president and Congress. And he pointed out over the last 10 years, about a year and a half ago that I saw him - that the measurement of carbon dioxide from the satellite hasn't increased, which suggests one thing. Even though we have increased our CO2 output.

They told us that the volcanoes are not putting it out. And that means we're in a quiescent period. And when they reverse, we're going to be in a mass of trouble. And that's my comment. And nobody seems to even twig on it, even though it's in every biological - recent ecological textbook.

CONAN: Well, massive trouble, I think, Judith Schwartz, everybody can agree with though.

MARK: Oh, yeah. There's no doubt about that.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, Judith.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, yes. I was going to say that what I'm trying to get at in this book is that so - that many of our challenges right now are an outgrowth of the damage that we've been doing to our lands. And we can reverse that process.

We're losing millions and millions of land - acres of land every year to land degradation. But we can reverse that by working with the biological cycles and using livestock for holistic management, holistic planned grazing is one of them, but there are many others too, and many other basic principles to follow that will help us from doing the kind of damage we've been doing, and creating pockets of restoration - and even greater than pockets of restoration, large-scale land restoration.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Suzanne(ph). Suzanne with us from Grinnell in Iowa.

SUZANNE: Oh, hi, yes. We do our cattle in this way and we found great results. But I do have an answer to your question about why more people don't do it. First of all, there's the cultural aspect of going against the tide, and also it does take an enormous amount of work.

We move our cattle every day, which means we're building fence and taking it down every day. But I - along the (technical difficulties) degradation that's through other agricultural practices, there's also a lot of land that is going to suburban sprawl and to - it's just here right in my, you know, in my backyard. And people don't understand that this enormous potential is being eaten up, literally, by, you know, other forces, you know, putting industrial buildings on prime farm ground and they don't understand what the problem is.

But I do - I mean, the species diversication - I've seen trees growing in places where we haven't had trees because we had open grazing before we did this. And...

CONAN: Does all that hard work pay off, Suzanne?

SUZANNE: Oh, yes. We're getting more grass, and more grass means - and, for instance, we're also more resistant to drought. We had grass last year when a lot of people around us didn't have grass because of the drought. Because when you don't have - we have - the cows trample the grass and they create a mat on top of it so you don't have the bare soil exposed, and that protects you.

There is 80 percent more transpiration of water out of black dirt than there is out of something that's covered. So in a drought situation, which we've had, that makes a big difference to how much grass you can grow and the fact that we're growing more legumes, like more clover in our fields because of this - that also insulated us a little bit last year from the drought situation.

CONAN: Well, Suzanne, thanks very much for the call, and continued good luck.

SUZANNE: Thank you.

CONAN: And you can find out about, well, not just the way intensive grazing can improve land quality but other approaches, too, practical ideas to do things right now that could improve the soil and, well, potentially save the planet in Judith Schwartz's new book, "Cows Save the Planet." Judith Schwartz, thank you so much.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Judith Schwartz joined us today from Northeast Public Radio in Albany.

Tomorrow, when are kids ready to deal with hard subjects and tragedy? Join guest host John Donvan for that conversation. I'll see you again on Wednesday. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.