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