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Judith Schwartz is a freelance writer and author of the book Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth . I recently met Judy at a conference held by Allan Savory of the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
The Savory Institute helps farmers to holistically manage their livestock in order to improve soil quality and heal the environment. In fact, according to Savory, an African ecologist, dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock is the only thing that can reverse desertification (when land turns to desert).
This was Savory's first conference, and turned out to be quite a memorable event. Judy has summarized a big portion of what was presented in that conference in her book. But what made her hone in on the issue of soil health to begin with?
Surprisingly, it all began with an investigation into the economy. Around 2008, just before the economic downturn, she'd started writing about the transition movement:
"One of the things that transition initiatives were dealing with was local currencies," she says. "Looking into local currencies kind of helped me understand how local economies work and primed me to ask questions when the economic downturn hit, like 'What is money? What is wealth?'
I was on that trajectory, writing about environmental economics and new economics. Basically, it's the notion that our economy can and should serve the people the planet as opposed to the other way around.
This I fear is the scenario that we've kind of gotten stuck in – that people and the planet, meaning all of our natural systems, exist to serve the economy.
From that framework, I started looking at ecology and observed the disconnect between our financial system and the natural world, which just cannot be separate. That disconnect doesn't work."
The Environmental Impact of Conventional Farming
This led her to learn more about soil health, economical land use, and how modern agricultural practices affect our environment.
For example, did you know that our modern agricultural system is responsible for putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the actual burning of fossil fuels? Understanding this reveals an obvious answer to pressing global problems.
There are only three places for carbon to go: land, air and water. Our agricultural practices have removed massive amounts of valuable carbon from land, transferring it into air and water. By paying greater attention to carbon management, we have the opportunity to make a dramatic difference in this area, which is having major negative consequences to our agriculture, and the pollution of our water and air.
As explained by Judy, early this past summer, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 crossed the 400 parts per million-threshold—the highest it's been in thousands of years. According to an organization called 350.org, scientists believe our CO2 levels need to be around 350 parts per million in order to maintain favorable living conditions on earth.
Carbon management is a critical aspect of environmental health and the growing of food.
That said, CO2 levels are not constantly or continuously rising in a straight line. The level rises and falls, and this is a clue to what's going on.
"Depending on the season, depending on how much photosynthesis is happening, it dips down, and then goes up again," Judy explains. "When we've got a lot of plants, as we get towards the warmer part of the year, more photosynthesis is happening, and the CO2 levels drop slightly.
That's so important to know, because photosynthesis is key to what we're talking about.
When I talk about bringing carbon back into the soil, I'm talking about supporting and stimulating the process of photosynthesis – in other words, growing more plants. Those plants then take in the CO2. They make carbon compounds. Those carbon compounds are drawn down, and they go into the soil."
Sequestering carbon in the Earth's soils is a good thing. There's actually more carbon in our world soils than in all plants, including trees, and the atmosphere together. However, due to modern agricultural methods, we've lost between 50 and 80 percent of the carbon that used to be in the soil. This means there's plenty of "room" to put it back in.
"It's useful to understand that the notion of bringing carbon back into the soil, one thing that it does is withdraw carbon down from the atmosphere. That's hugely important," Judy says.
"Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter. That's the good stuff that you want in soil anyway for fertility. It also absorbs water. When you have carbon-rich soil, you also have soil that is resilient to floods and drought. When you start looking at soil carbon, the news keeps getting better and better."
The Importance of Holistic Herd Management
Another major factor that needs to be considered is the management of livestock. Herds raised according to modern, conventional practices contribute to desertification—turning land into desert—which, of course, doesn't support plant life and photosynthesis, thereby shifting the equation in the wrong direction. When land turns to desert, it no longer holds water, and it loses the ability to sustain microbial life and nourish plant growth.
One of the reasons Allan Savory has become so popular is his promotion of holistic herd management, which causes desert areas to convert back to grasslands that support plant life. As explained by Judy:
"It occurred to him that the land needed the animals in the same way that the animals needed the land. He began to really observe how animals functioned on land, and came to understand the really intricate dynamics, the system, that had been naturally in operation.
Basically, when grazing animals graze, they're nibbling on the grasses in a way that exposes their growth points to sunlight and stimulates growth. Their trampling [of the land also] did several things: it breaks any capped earth so that the soil is aerated. It presses in seeds [giving them] a chance to germinate, so you have a greater diversity of plants. [Grazing herds] also press down dying and decaying grasses, so that they can be better acted upon by microorganisms in the soil. It keeps the decaying
process going. Their waste also fertilizes the soil."
This natural symbiotic relationship between animals, soils and plants—where each benefits the other mutually—is a powerful insight. And it's one that can be replicated with great benefit. Besides the environmental benefits, grass-fed, pastured livestock is also an excellent source of high quality meat. In fact, it's the only type of meat I recommend eating, as raising cattle in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) alters the nutritional composition of the meat—not to mention such animals are fed antibiotics, growth promoters and other veterinary drugs.
You Can Make a Difference in More Ways Than One
As for recommendations for what we can do to get us going in the right direction with regards to improving not only animal and human health but the health of the planet, Judy says:
"Most recommendations are very simple. The simplest thing is to avoid having bare soil. Because when you have bare uncovered soil, the land degradation process begins. When you have bare soil, that means that the carbon is binding with oxygen and becoming carbon dioxide."
We also need to shift our focus to emphasize the biological system as a whole. Soil is not a static "thing." It's a living symbiotic system, and soil microorganisms also play a very important role in this system. When I visited Elaine Ingham at the Rodale Institute, I learned the value of compost tea for promoting beneficial soil microbes, and I now use a vortex compost tea brewing system to revitalize my own garden. Interestingly, the better you farm or garden, the less land you need. According to Judy, a biological farmer using appropriate methods can grow on 1,000 acres the same amount of food another farmer might need 5,000 acres to produce.
Another factor is the importance of integrating animals on the land. Most biological farmers understand this, and will tell you that in order for soil to get to its highest potential of productivity and health, there needs to be animals on the land. (According to Savory, grazing large herds of livestock on half of the world's barren or semi-barren grasslands could also take enough carbon from the atmosphere to bring us back to preindustrial levels!) But what if you're not a gardener yet, or a farmer? How can you help achieve this much needed shift?
"I think people can make a difference in all sorts of ways that people make decisions every day, such as asking yourself how the food you're buying was grown," Judy says. "Because once you start asking where the food comes from, even posing that question, will lead you to make different choices.
Apart from food, what decisions are being made in your community about the use of land? Can your community save money by working with soil rather than, say, putting in an expensive waste or water treatment plant? That's another thing, getting involved on a local level. There are all kinds of organizations that are working on different environmental and different food aspects locally and nationally, etc."
Biological Farming Solves Many Pressing Problems
My first passion and career was being a physician, then an Internet educator, and now I'm moving into high-performance biological agriculture because I really believe it's the next step in our evolution. We must shift the way we produce food because the current system is unsustainable. And while this information really is ancient, it's not widely discussed. There's only a small segment of the population that even understands this natural system, and the potential it has for radically transforming the way we feed the masses AND protect the environment at the same time.
I thoroughly agree with the recommendation to get involved personally, because it's so exciting. For me, it's become a rather addictive hobby. Once you integrate biological farming principles, you can get plant performances that are 200-400 percent greater than what you would typically get from a plant! What's more, not only does it improve the quantity, it also improves the quality of the food you're growing. These facts should really be at the forefront of everybody's mind when they think about farming, as it's the solution to so many pressing problems. Judy agrees, noting:
"The challenge is that we've been led to believe that our agricultural model, which is an extractive model, is the way it needs to be. But we can shift to a regenerative model. That's where we need to go."
As Judy says, there's a lot to be optimistic about, because whether we're talking about the degradation of the environment or our food supply, there are answers!
"Many people just sort of give up and say, 'I can't do anything about this.' I was speaking to someone the other day who said that her son, who just finished college, said, 'You know, it's over. We're doomed.' To me, that is just so sad. How can we let the next generation feel that way? I think that betrays a huge lack of imagination. Because when we talk about our environmental challenges, one thing we don't talk about is nature's desire to heal itself. Once we ally with that natural process, it's amazing what we can do."
Ending the burning of fossil fuels is not the one and only way for us to turn the tide on rising carbon dioxide levels. Granted, solar energy and wind power would certainly be preferable to burning fossil fuels. But even if we didn't stop burning fossil fuels, we can still reverse rising CO2 levels by addressing the way we farm, using sound, time-honored agricultural principles.
And—something else to consider—even if we completely stop burning fossil fuels but do not change agriculture, we'll still be left with problems like lands turning to desert, flooding, and drought for example. In short, we really must address how we manage our lands and soils. You can learn more about biological farming by reviewing the related articles listed in the right-hand side bar on this page. I also highly recommend Judy's book, Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth . It's a great read for anyone wanting to learn more about this topic.
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Category: Personal Finance