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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.

by Jay Walljasper

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.


“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.

More information:






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.

Jay Walljasper, co-editor of and senior fellow of Project for Public Spaces, is author of the Great Neighborhood Book.

Photo credit: CC license NC, SA by wYnand! from Flickr

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This is not a new idea, nor is it limited to grass-fed burger farming. I quote Freeman Dyson:

"To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere."

Full story available here:

Posted by: David Pearce on 8 Aug 08

I'm making my way through Holistic Resource Management (1988) by Allan Savory. It's a great book and a useful guide for transforming our livestock practices.

There is extra labor involved here, but I suspect that would be offset by reduced costs elsewhere. Also, keep in mind that extra labor here means green jobs!

Besides this very necessary shift in livestock management practices, carbon sequestration can be taken to much greater lengths on a diversified farm. For instance, some of the biomass slated for composting can be skimmed off to a pyrolyzer to make biochar and producer gas. The producer gas can be compressed and used as a replacement for natural gas on the farm and biochar (along with compost) can be applied to the fields to improve soil and sequester carbon. The possibilities are only limited to our imagination.

Posted by: greensolutions on 8 Aug 08

This is a subject I've been hearing a lot about lately. I am particularly intrigued by your claim that it may be a solution to global poverty. I have a sister doing work in Haiti, where the soils are badly damaged by their agricultural practices and by deforestation. I have some doubts but not I am curious to hear more.

1. No till farming: My understanding of this is based on a recent Scientific American article on the subject. This article left me with the impression that it is very capital intensive, requiring expensive no-till seeders, which makes it less likely to be taken up in 3rd world countries. Also, apparently it relies on liberal use of herbicides. If you know of people successfully doing organic no-till farming and they're sharing information about their practices I'd be curious to hear it.

2. Management intensive grazing: At first this seems a much better option -- it's low capital, labor intensive, and 3rd world labor is cheap, right? But 3rd world labor is only cheap for us, and when in history has meat been the cheap way to feed the world's poor?

3. On property: You talk about the days when grazing was done on common land as preferable to these days of privately owned land. Maybe, but keep in mind that in America land is abundant and frontier ranchers didn't have to support a very large population. If you're grazing on common land, just because you individually are grazing sustainably doesn't mean you and the various farmers who bring animals through after yours leave won't collectively overgraze. Frontier cowboys did not get along with frontier shepherds. Someone with private land has good reason to be concerned about how productive that land will be 5 years down the road. 3rd world countries generally don't have strong senses of property rights -- outside your house or land you are clearly marking as yours and using, everything is the commons. You can do slash-and-burn agriculture and you don't have to buy the land from anyone -- no one is using it, it's up for grabs. And who cares if the land is worthless in a few years, you won't be using it.

4. On selling carbon credits to 3rd world farmers: This would be great, though it's politically a harder sell if you're paying people not to do damage or burn down the rainforests than if you're paying people to put carbon in the soil. And if there are people doing both, and you're paying one but not charging the other, but maybe paying someone to later restore the damage the earlier farmers did with impunity, and maybe later once the land is good again it will be used by someone else using more harmful practices, well, it may be difficult to convince people of the fairness of your system. As for actually implementing this system -- how do you do the accounting? And how many people do you need to employ to verify the carbon sequestration claims of lots of poor farmers running small farms -- that is, how much of the money for the carbon credits will end up going toward all the accounting costs necessary to make sure you're actually sequestering carbon?

Posted by: Eric L on 8 Aug 08

Before excitable readers rush out and buy a cattle ranch they may want to read the FAO's Livestock's Long Shadow: which catalogs the vast environmental damage caused by livestock farming.

Worldwide, forests have been cleared from an area the size of India over the last quarter century, with a consequent loss of biodiversity and the release of billions of tons of CO2. Much of the cleared land in South America is being used to grow hamburger beef for obese humans. There are currently 60 billion animals in the world today and the FAO projects this will grow to 120 billion by 2050.

In New Zealand, a country that depends on pastoral agriculture, 49% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to this sector. Much of it related to the methane burped by grass fed dairy cattle. Many rivers and streams have been severely polluted by farm runoff and over 77% of the country's original forest cover has been removed; much of it for pastoral land.

So the sequestration of carbon in the soil is a good idea. Using livestock to achieve it, less so.

Posted by: Kublai Kahn on 8 Aug 08

I have been a "grass based" farmer for twenty years. I have actually taken abandoned farms and reclaimed them using livestock. Some lands were so eroded that they would not grow weeds. With the applications of manures, green plow down crops, and intensive rotational grazing of ruminant animals I have put these farms back into production. I have an eighty acre parcel in Mercer County, Missouri that I am recaliming as we speak. I bought it and went to the tax assessor's office to register it and he burst out in laughter. I told him that I had given half price for it and he stated that if it had been free it would have been too much.
This statement put out by PETA does not surprise me. The problem that I have seen, in general, is that we have individuals, as well meaning as they are, trying to write policy, when they do not have a clue of what they are talking about. Our population has become so disconnected with the land that most are too uninformed to pass judgement on these issues.
If these folks really want to do what is right for the earth they should embrace the small farmer. We are not the advesary. Write your congressional representative and express what a bad idea that the USDA's Animal ID program (RFID) is. This program will destroy small animal husbandry as we understand and need it.

Posted by: Todd Blanton on 11 Aug 08

Wish you were at this so-called global warming conference, hosted by the so-called Supreme Master:

The "meat is murder" crowd is doing its best to hijack climate change for its own misguided objectives, all the while undermining legitimate efforts to solve the crisis. Thanks very much for this post. We'll reference it often.

Posted by: Max Gladwell on 11 Aug 08

--Carbon stored in the soil is not a new idea, but the idea that cows (and other livestock) can actually improve on the process is pretty new, at least outside of some pretty small circles. As Collins and other farmers in the article and comments suggest, simply letting land lie fallow is no guarantee that carbon will sequester in it. Does holistic management of livestock do the trick? Looking hopeful but more evidence will be appreciated. Pimentel has been the bette noir of the biofuel promoters, so I appreciate that he's one of the people investigating the validity of the carbon farming claims. I expect him to be pretty rigorous in his analysis.

--Organic no-till methods have been (and are being further) developed. I know of efforts in that direction being done at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. Chelsea Green is scheduled to have a how-to book for farmers on organic no-till coming out in late 2009.

--Looks to me like there's a lot of "both sides are partly correct" here. It can be truth BOTH that the world can sustain only so many head of livestock, and also that these livestock can be managed in a way that results in net carbon sequestration. If Collins and other proponents of "carbon farming" are correct about the results of their methods, then eating a local, grass-fed, properly managed hamburger might indeed be a climate-positive action. That doesn't mean that eating such a hamburger twice a day, every day is the best way to go. There will be some optimum here. George Monbiot's back-of-the-envelope calculation on meat consumption was that we can sustainably--and egalitarianly--consume approximately 1 pound of meat per person per week. That exact volume could use more precise determination, but the principle stands. One climate-friendly hamburger a week might be the right level, or one every two days, or one every two weeks... we just can't say at this time. But it sure is worth figuring out!

--To Eric L's note on cheapness of labor in the 3rd world: yes, the labor is cheap there as well. Rural laborers in the 3rd world suffer from enormously high rates of unemployment and underemployment. That's partly why so many rural residents move to the overcrowded city slums. Separate from the question of land ownership reform (which IS a good question!), agricultural methods that require more labor will, all else being equal, be a good thing for the rural masses of the world.

Posted by: Jonathan on 12 Aug 08

fresh & other

Posted by: pankaj gupta on 15 Aug 08



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