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Is the changing climate we face today the result of human activity, or is it the result of cattle (Bos primigenius)?

Current environmentalist dogma declares that cattle, other livestock species (including chickens [Gallus gallus domesticus]), and ruminants in general are incompatible with a healthy ecosystem. Environmentalists routinely announce that science proves that a severe reduction in the number of livestock is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid climate disaster. It is also widely dismissed in these circles that livestock can actually play an integral role in regeneration of landscapes. The conclusion is that livestock always negatively impact the environment and that we must eliminate our consumption of any products derived from them.

Earlier this year I penned a few diaries on the subject of livestock and their relationship to the environment. The conclusion, based upon a wide body of evidence, is that livestock do not always have a deleterious effect on the environment and climate. In fact, when managed properly, livestock are essential to the health of agroecosystems.

This is what the UN had to say about these systems:

Small-scale farmers can double food production in a decade by using simple ecological methods, according to the findings of a new United Nations study released today, which calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a poverty alleviation measure.

Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems that can help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty. It enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects, according to the study. [emphasis added]

It is deeply disquieting to me to continue reading articles, diaries, and reports from environmentalists pronouncing livestock as a curse upon the earth. Rather than rightly decrying industrialized chemical agriculture (in all of its forms) and then offering multiple solutions, these dispatches continue to ignore the rapidly advancing field of agroecology. Environmentalist media should no longer deliberately disregard these advances.

It is, therefore, unconscionable for me to relent in bringing a more nuanced, hopeful, and inspiring message to this community.

From now on, in addition to my other writings on agroecology and permaculture, I will make it my mission to write weekly on the benefits of livestock integration into agroecosystems. I mean to do my best to dispel the false choices presented to us by current environmentalist dogma.

Last Time Here

"An image produced for the 2010 EU conference: ˜Rebuilding the Natural Heart of Europe™" from the Geopolitics page of Wild Experiments: New Natures from the Anthropocene."

My last diary "A Serengeti on Our Doorsteps- George Monbiot & Rewilding the Earth" explored some of the concepts in Mr. Monbiot's Feral. The book, and Mr. Monbiot's talks on the subject (not only 5x15, but recently at TED as well), are well worth your time. Rewilding, as conceived by Mr. Monbiot, offers a world of enchantment, regeneration, and ultimately- more happiness.

By the end of my 'review,' I did have to take some time to discuss the same issue that I am writing about today.

Namely, the peculiar way in which livestock have become at scapegoat for human action.

"Industrial livestock production is essentially indefensible ”ethically, ecologically, and otherwise" -Bill McKibben1

Factory farming of livestock and the chemical industrial agriculture system that this "method" of raising animals requires is undoubtedly an unmitigated disaster. We know this. It is common knowledge. Let me make this perfectly clear: I am not a supporter of this type of agriculture. There is absolutely no good reason why this abusive, morally reprehensible, destructive, and utterly wasteful system exists.

The sheer destructive power of these systems is without question. What is in question, however, is the leap from revulsion at this abomination to the conclusion that livestock are always a detriment to the environment.

The livestock that live in these situations did not force humanity to plant massive monocultures of GMO corn. They did not force humans to herd them into a CAFO where they are force fed this corn. They did not force humans to develop all kinds of hormones and drugs to stretch out their miserable lives- their final months spent living in their own feces.

The livestock also did not force humans to develop a culture that demands inordinate quantities of their products three times daily. They did not force humans to deforest large tracts of rain forest to make way for soy bean (GMO again, most often) plantations.

No, the livestock did none of these things. In fact, humans have made all of these decisions on their own. That means the responsibility for the resulting damage caused by these practices lays squarely at the feet of humanity. Not the livestock.

1. Bill McKibben. "The Only Way to Have a Cow." Orion Magazine, March/April 2010.

"Overall, methane emissions from bison, elk, and deer in the pre-settlement period in the contiguous United States were about 70% (medium bison population size) of the current emissions from farmed ruminants in the U.S."- Dr. Alexander Hristov2

My issue is not with those who have a moral problem with the raising and consumption of livestock. I am not here to argue morality. My issue is with those repeating the mantra that livestock are always a detriment to their immediate ecosystem and the climate at large.

What ties this dogma together is an overarching, prevailing use of absolutes when speaking about this issue. There are very few absolutes in this world; such as gravity and the sun rising daily. And even those are only a consequence of our specific location in space and time.

This world revolved around the sun for millions of years with massive herds of wild animals spewing methane into the atmosphere at rates approaching- or even exceeding- current methane emissions. Strangely enough- or not, depending on your perspective- the world did not suffer cataclysmic climate shifts when tens of millions of bison, pronghorns, elk, and other ruminants were migrating the plains of North America. Nor did the world end when the great migrations of Africa and Central Asia were taking place.

What is fundamentally different between livestock and their wild cousins?

There are no fundamental differences between them. How is it possible, then, for environmentalists to continue scapegoating livestock for destroying the environment and climate while letting their wild cousins off the hook?

2. Dr. Alexander Hristov "Wild Ruminants burp methane too." Penn State.

Anthropogenic climate change began in earnest when humanity unleashed billions of years worth of fossilized solar energy into the atmosphere in an effort to sustain an economic system that destroys the very basis of life.

The reality is that humanity has been impacting the earth's ecosystems on a massive scale for a very, very long time now. Our discovery and utilization of fossilized solar energy has kicked our ability to change the climate into overdrive.

As is widely known, at the dawn of written history, the Fertile Crescent was a very different place than it is today. It is commonly argued that a climate shift led to the current arid and hyper arid conditions. However, it is well documented that when destructive agricultural and urban activities take place that humanity often breaks essential cycles and systems that allow even brittle environments to thrive with life. The same happened in China's Loess Plateau region, considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.3 Humanity, with some rare exceptions, has developed cultures which value human material objects over the health of the natural environment for millenia.

When researchers and environmentalists declare that livestock are the cause of climate change, they are playing a dangerous game. Shifting the blame for thousands of years of human disregard for natural systems onto a species we control the fate of is not only embarrassing, but it is disingenuous.

Anthropogenic climate change is just that- anthropogenic. No other species forced us to denude the hills, shunt rainwater into rivers and streams rather than infiltrate it into the ground, and turn our own manures into taboos to the point where we deprive the soil of its absolutely necessary carbon and nutrients.

No other species forced us to do what we have done to push the earth's ecosystems which sustain our species ever closer to the point of no return.

The fault lies with humanity.

3. I have shared an excellent documentary, Green Gold, which delves into this issue here at Daily Kos.

"That means shifting from feedlot farming to rotational grazing is one of the few changes we could make that on the same scale as the problem of global warming." -Bill McKibben4

Recognizing this, it begs the question: if we can destroy, can we also regenerate? The answer is a resounding YES. The answer, when it comes to livestock, is that we must replicate nature.

There is no fundamental difference between a cow on pasture and an antelope on the plains. The only difference is that, over most of the globe, humanity has persecuted the other natural predators of large herbivores to the point of extirpation and extinction. The predator prey relationship we see in healthy ecosystems is the impetus for herd formation and continual movement of the herds. And we broke it.

If you remove the stimulus for herd behavior, you allow herbivores to act in destructive manners.  Fault lies not with the livestock for any damage done to the ecosystem when humans create the environmental and security conditions for abnormal behavior. Most of our domesticated species are herd animals that need to move regularly. The burden shifts to the intervenor.

When we move them regularly, in a planned and organized fashion, life returns.

It really is that simple.

4. Bill McKibben. "The Only Way to Have a Cow."

"Kariegasfontein Ranch, Aberdeen, South Africa: Land on the left managed under Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) in 200 mm [7.87 inches] rainfall, showing a contrast with advancing desertification," Photo Credit: Norman Kroon. Source.  I fixed the horizon line from original image.

Fear mongering should have no role to play in the fight against climate change

Environmental writing that deliberately ignores the reality that animals are integral components of functional ecosystems is doing a grave disservice to the fight against anthropogenic climate change.

Reducing and eliminating our consumption of animal products from the current abomination of industrialized agriculture is important. This is admirable.

But the continued vilification of livestock on the assumption that they must always destroy the environment while ignoring the millions of years of evidence to the contrary is repugnant.

Agroecological systems are the future of humanity's continued existence on this planet. The research, the large and small scale projects are there for all to see.

Why purposely ignore this overwhelmingly hopeful and inspiring message?

Please see the section below on Holistic Management for more information as well as my earlier diaries on this subject.

Additional Resources

Large Scale Damaged Ecosystem Regeneration [Diary]:

Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit.

Another good article by John D. Liu. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.

Holistic Management [Diaries: First, Second, Third]:

The Savory Institute.
The Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
Holistic Management International.

Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.


The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology [diary]), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.

There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from Spring 2013.If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence.

Ecological Gardening

Here is a list of diaries I wrote that covered some of the very basics.

I. Basic Garden Ecology
II. Soil
III. Layers
IV. Polycultures

Plant Databases

Plants for a Future. Absolutely massive database for useful plants.


The first diary of this series revolves around three documentaries.

The first is a TED talk by Willie Smits about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods. Not only was the project highly successful, but climate moderation was demonstrated via satellite imagery.

The second, The Rebel Farmer, is about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian who practices his own version of permaculture. He has also written numerous books in addition to being in demand across the globe.

The third presents "Greening the Desert"- which covers both sites in Jordan where Geoff Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute have been applying permaculture with great success.

YouTube Channels:

In no particular order:

John D. Liu: pioneering large scale damaged ecosystem restoration.
What If We Change: John D. Liu's project to inspire others to share their efforts to combat climate change and other problems.
Whole Systems Design: operating from Vermont, Ben Falk's permaculture design firm. Excellent site overview and talks on agroecology. Also a must see video from Hurricane Irene.
Permaculture News: PRI's YouTube branch
Permasolutions: Offering permaculture inspired solutions to problems
Toby Hemenway: Author of Gaia's Garden and permaculture designer. Great talk on horticultural society.
Al Baydha: Pilot project in Saudi Arabia to regenerate "bare bones" landscape for Bedouins.
Eric Toensmeier: Author of Perennial Vegetables, coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, and plant guru. Has an upcoming book on perennial agricultural solutions to climate change.
Paul Stamets: World famous visionary mycologist who will change the way you see the world. You'll never forget fungi after his speeches regarding their potential use and place in the ecosystems.


My favorite books:

Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!
Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. George Monbiot. Allen Lane, 2013.
The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. Ben Falk. Chelsea Green, 2013.

For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List.


The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you for reading. Once again, (9+ / 0-)

    I want to remind readers that I live in Finland and thus am usually unable to respond to comments in real time.

    I also want to repeat that I am completely uninterested in debating with anyone who has moral objections to livestock rearing.

    Lastly, I will be here every week with another diary on this subject. I cannot stand idly by while established environmentalist dogma continues to ignore the beneficial role that livestock play in integrated agroecosystems.

  •  is this author credible? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Don’t blame climate change for extreme weather
    Bjørn Lomborg - 9/13/13

    "Tax cuts for the 1% create jobs." -- Republicans, HAHAHA - in China

    by MartyM on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 04:17:01 AM PDT

  •  Intriguing take on this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FinchJ, Kimbeaux

    BTW you probably want "bovigenic" for the title.

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Wee Mama on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 05:15:53 AM PDT

  •  Cows and wild ungulates are not the same. (5+ / 0-)

    Cows are extreme ruminants. They have been bred (and evolutionary equipped) to be able to eat very low quality forage. Consequently, they have larger rumens (the stomach compartment where microbial digestion takes place) per unit body mass. This means that they get more complete microbial digestion (more biomass, longer transit time in the gut) and can be largely non-selective grazers. A cow will thus generate more methane from a mouthful of grass than will an elk or a deer. Cows and bison are more similar.

    In addition, there are important differences that selective/non-selective grazing or browsing impose on native plant communities. Native plant communities typically have co-evolved to thrive in the face of browsing/grazing by native herbivores. Non-natives can be disruptive.

    The reason livestock agriculture is so counterproductive isn't the relative methane production per animal per se. Its the industrial/chemical agriculture (high energy inputs, land conversion, wind/water driven soil erosion) connected to most livestock production *supporting* that methane production that itself contributes to climate change.

    You mention this but it kinda gets lost in your argument about not scapegoating the cows themselves.

  •  Seems to be primarily a font based argument. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Big letters, small letters, colored letters, bolded letters and sections headlines not related to the following paragraphs?
    Summary: Ungulates good; environmentalists bad.

    Tea Baggers Unite and follow that lemming.

    by OHdog on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 05:56:35 AM PDT

    •  Yes, this specific diary is specifically a font (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      flowerfarmer, Kimbeaux

      based argument.

      See the other three diaries on Holistic Management for media.

      Obviously I disagree with your summary.

      It goes more like this:

      Environmentalist dogma which states that livestock (of all stripes) always have a deleterious effect on their local environment and the climate at large is false. The resulting dispatches that hold this line of thought do not offer a nuance view that when managed appropriately, livestock are integral components of agroecosystems. The continued disregard for this rapidly advancing sector- which is being demonstrated to combat most of the ills of our modern world (climate change, water scarcity, poverty, biodiversity loss, etc)- by environmentalists is doing a grave disservice to the efforts to combat anthropocentric climate change.

      Thanks for reading though.

    •  PS: The section headlines do relate specifically (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      flowerfarmer, Kimbeaux

      to the following paragraphs.

      The first quote and section deals with the indefensible practices of modern industrialized livestock raising.

      The second quote and section deals with the fact that wild relatives of domesticated livestock, at their historic populations, produced large amounts of methane emissions. And yet the world didn't burn from climate change. What is the missing link?

      The third headline and section deals with the knowledge that anthropogenic climate change has been accelerated by our utilization of fossil fuels, but that its roots dig deep into human history.

      The fourth and final headline and section says that if we recognize the root of the problem- human action- and rectify these behaviors with those based on agroecological principles that we can combat climate change.

      I do have to wonder how you could make a statement that they headlines and following sections are not cohesive.

  •  Good diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FinchJ, flowerfarmer, Kimbeaux

    Our place on the planet, how many of us there should be, how we see to our own sustenance, and how we balance the needs of indigenous wildlife with our own, is a complex subject. People who reduce the argument to good/ bad seem to miss the details of best practices from the past. Thank you for a considered look at possible alternatives like permaculture and rewinding.

    “The universe implodes. No matter.” -Liam Williams

    by northsylvania on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 06:24:37 AM PDT

  •  Your diaries are a rich source (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FinchJ, Kimbeaux

    of important information, even for the non-farmer.

    The only way i see our money grubbing society changing the way cattle are raised is from a grassroots, small farm movement.

    Polyface Farm is a great example of successful cattle ranching in this country.
    Joel Salatin is a visionary with the charisma to influence the industry.

    From the Polyface website....

    Scaling up without Selling your Soul

    Many successful entrepreneurial start-ups morph into Wall-Streetified empires that lose their distinctives. And in the process, the business chews up and spits out its workers and founders in a mad scramble to dominate something. Does middle ground exist between the calm talking-stick consensus circle of indigenous eastern tribal cultures and the mad scramble frenzy of western capitalism? Or perhaps more to the point in light of recent Wall Street and economic developments, what values are more important than growth? Especially since cancer is growth. At this juncture of our culture’s reality, I would like us to immerse ourselves for a few minutes in an alternative innovative business philosophy.

    And this.....
    For context, please understand that we don’t do anything conventionally. We haven’t bought a bag of chemical fertilizer in half a century, never planted a seed, own no plow or disk or silo—we call those bankruptcy tubes. We practice mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertlization with the cattle. The Eggmobiles follow them, mimicking egrets on the rhinos’ nose. The laying hens scratch through the dung, eat out the fly larvae, scatter the nutrients into the soil, and give thousands of dollars worth of eggs as a byproduct of pasture sanitation. Pastured broilers in floorless pasture schooners move every day to a fresh paddock salad bar. Pigs aerate compost and finish on acorns in forest glens. It’s all a symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models. And it’s all aromatically and aesthetically romantic.

    'A scarlet tanager broke the silence with his song. She thought of the bird hidden in the leaves somewhere, unseen but nevertheless brilliant red. Nevertheless beautiful.' Barbara Kingsolver/ Prodigal Summer

    by flowerfarmer on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 07:22:59 AM PDT

    •  Thank you flowerfarmer. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Kimbeaux, flowerfarmer

      I mean to do a diary on the Salatin family operation there. He is quite the character and intellect- love him to death. Even though he and I are on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum.

      I would be interested to read a diary written by you about their farm as well!

      Thanks again for stopping by and sharing these wonderful words on Polyface.

      •  I also ignore Salatin's politics (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        in the interest of promoting better farming.

        I have not visited his farm but would love to make the trip.

        I will always eagerly stop by your diaries since i am more of an organic farmer than a political junkie.
        Much more.

        Thanks for your enthusiasm and excellent writing.
        The younger farmers have much on their plate but change to a more sustainable system is possible, one farm at a time.

        'A scarlet tanager broke the silence with his song. She thought of the bird hidden in the leaves somewhere, unseen but nevertheless brilliant red. Nevertheless beautiful.' Barbara Kingsolver/ Prodigal Summer

        by flowerfarmer on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 08:50:10 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Bill McKibben said: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Meteor Blades, FinchJ
    "That means shifting from feedlot farming to rotational grazing is one of the few changes we could make that on the same scale as the problem of global warming." -Bill McKibben4
    This is not a proper statement of the science of greenhouse gas emissions determination and control.

    First, U.S. agriculture does not feature the land clearing and biomass combustion features of South American agricultural practices.   As a result, considering (as the UN FAO report does) that U.S. agricultural practice and greenhouse gas emissions are characterized by agriculture GHG emissions from other parts of the world is erroneous.

    Next, emissions determination and comparisons on amount of emissions to bring a lb of live weight for delivery to market depend on the entire life cycle of the animals in question.   Since, grazing animals take considerably longer to get to a market weight and the production efficiency is considerably less than for non-grazing animals, their emissions are higher per unit of live weight delivered for marketing.

    The meat industry emission determination and criticism of the UN FAO report as to U.S. agriculture is correct and Bill McKibben's take on this isn't.

    The guy in the video did the work necessary to understand animal agriculture emissions of volatile organic compounds from agriculture in California.   His work has been primarily used by CARB and others for emissions determinations from CAFO operations.

  •  Great diary. Thanks for posting. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I look forward to more from you.

    Socialist? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    by Kimbeaux on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 08:09:54 AM PDT

  •  If you make a claim like this: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    This world revolved around the sun for millions of years with massive herds of wild animals spewing methane into the atmosphere at rates approaching- or even exceeding- current methane emissions. should be prepared to demonstrate this by showing present and historical methane emissions or CO2 equivalents that would illustrate your point.
    •  Yes, this post is short on that kind of info. (0+ / 0-)

      There is a lot more to be found in the links provided. Which is one reason why I want to make this issue a weekly diary. There is a lot to be explored.

      When properly managed, livestock are very important parts of agroecosystems which are being demonstrated to sequester carbon, fix broken water cycles, and return biodiversity. Among other ecosystem services.

      The issue here is not necessarily the emissions. It is the continued ignoring of the whole picture. I think it would be quite the challenge to declare that livestock, when managed properly, contribute negatively to the climate.

      I have yet to see one detractor take a look at any of these working farms and projects and declare that they are having a deleterious effect on the planet's ecosystems and climate.

  •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Having worked with Seth Itzkan on a variety of projects including, in a tangential way, his introduction of Allan Savory and Holistic Management to Tufts and Bill Moomaw of the Fletcher School there and the IPCC, I appreciate anyone who is putting forth the concepts of ecological design as opposed to geoengineering.  I also have diaried about the Jordanian desert reclamation project through permaculture.  It is almost completely true that "you can fix all the world's problems in a garden."

    We can rethink and reimagine most if not all of our present economic production in terms of ecological design to great benefit and, probably, higher profits.  Unfortunately, too few people in power are even aware of the possibility.  It seems that systems thinking is extremely rare as most of us think like hammers rather than trees.

    •  Happy to have you stop in gmoke :) (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Always a pleasure to read your thoughts on these topics. I think we see eye to eye on much of this. It is good to know that there are a few of us on Daily Kos working to bring this type of thinking to the fore.

      Hope to read some more from you in the future.

      PS- I like your sig- I whole heartedly believe that protecting and expanding biodiversity through regeneration practices is national defense as well!

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