If I asked you to picture the most exciting solutions on the horizon for fighting climate change, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not a field of cows…

In fact, I’d bet it’s not even in your top twenty…

Cattle and other livestock are widely regarded as bad guys of the climate change debate, burping out vast amounts of methane and driving the destruction of rainforest for their pasture. But according to the ecologist, and farmer Allan Savory, these traditional climate villains could become the unlikely heroes in one creative solution to our climate woes.

In a series of high profile event presentations and articles, it’s argued that the world needs more livestock on grasslands, not less, to begin to reverse the causes and impacts of global warming. Further, if we are serious about restoring the climate, we need to change how we manage and relate to our land as well as our energy, and our buildings. Savory’s way of achieving this change, developed over five decades of fieldwork and farming, is called Holistic Management. The hope is that it can transform the world’s grasslands.

Around 40 per cent the earth’s land cover is filled with wide-open areas of wind-pollinated grassland. For many millennia, these grasslands were roamed by a variety of mammals, both natural and domestic. But through a combination of drought, ecological disruption and poor management, vast regions of the world’s grassland are desertifying (when fertile land becomes desert). This degradation leads to more soil erosion, harsher droughts, heavier floods, worse famines, more poverty and, by releasing carbon that was stored in the soils, global warming. Plus, “overgrazing”, exposing plants to so much pressure from grazing animals that they can’t recover, has been one of the biggest drivers of desertification of grassland in the past.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, tom idle, Savory Institute

But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, vast wild herds of grazers moved across thriving wild grasslands. Living in fear of predators, they would travel together in tight bunches, moving quickly. This behaviour sees the animals churn the soil with their hooves, their dung acting as a fertiliser, and periodically chomping aging grasses to make way for new growth before moving on.  

By properly managing livestock to mimic predator/prey relationships that existed long before humans started meddling in land management, a growing number of rangeland ecologists believe that this ecological balance and rich productivity of grasslands will return, re-greening the arid lands and stimulating growth of plants that eat carbon dioxide and bury it in the soil. According to Savory, farmers working some 40 million acres of land are already putting these philosophies into practice.

In a 2013 TED Talk, entitled, ‘How to green the desert and reverse climate change’, he lays out his vision for the path forward ‘… to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature’.

Holistic Management itself is a framework to encourage land owners and farmers to make their decisions and plans in an integrated way. In other words, a ways that takes social, financial and ecological factors all into account. In raising livestock, it means basing decisions on a keen sense of the underlying processes of the farm’s ecosystem, and being ready to adapt those decisions in concert with the ever-changing conditions of real grassland.

Managed “holistically”, in tune with the natural ecology of the grasslands, livestock can help to restore carbon from the atmosphere to the soil and boost the overall productivity, biodiversity and resilience of our landscapes. Done globally, Savory believes this could pull enough carbon out of the air to tip the balance on climate change.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, tom idle, Savory Institute

At present, Holistic Management is not without its critics. Writer George Monbiot questions the lack of evidence that such an approach can work in reality saying, “I would love to believe him. But I’ve been in this game too long to take anything on trust – especially simple solutions to complex problems.” For Monbiot, much more rigorous experimental evidence is needed before we can put our faith in such a counterintuitive idea.

And the idea that grasslands could absorb enough carbon to counterbalance all humanity’s emissions and reverse climate change? Monbiot concludes this is “wrong by orders of magnitude”; we certainly can’t bank on grasslands to bail us out of transforming our energy system.

Journalist Christopher Ketcham debates the idea that livestock can be anything but damaging in fragile grasslands, arguing that having “too many cows in places with intermittent or little rain, where the vegetation is brittle and the soil fragile, the animals spell trouble. Overgrazing denudes the soil and produces erosion, which leads to a landscape where plants can’t revive and grow”.

What is less contentious is the notion that boosting soil health and biodiversity can play a huge part in our battle against global warming. A growing body of research suggests many climate solutions are rooted in nature. Healthy soil contains large amounts of organic material that holds water, retains nutrients and stores carbon, keeping it from entering the atmosphere. The gradual breakdown of this organic material is also crucial to recycling nutrients, fostering new plant growth.

So, when soils get damaged, eroded, over-farmed, you get a depletion of organic matter and the carbon it contains. The result is that the soils just won’t produce crops and other plants in the same way, posing a both a threat to food security, and lose their ability to absorb and hold water, leaving them exposed to droughts and floods. The loss of this stored carbon also massively contributes to the climate problem. Amazingly, at least one third of all agricultural soils have been degraded around the world.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, tom idle, Savory Institute

Maintaining biodiversity will also be crucial to how we adapt to climate change in future. A recent study presented some of the strongest evidence yet that enhancing the biodiversity of our lands can seriously improve Earth’s resistance to extreme climate events.

When looking into Holistic Management, people seem to confuse the principles with the practices. The point isn’t that cows are a magic climate solution; the point is that, in many places, livestock doesn’t have to be extractive. Like many other things people do, they can also be regenerative. It all depends on how they are managed, and to what end.

To address the problem of climate change, proper holistic thinking will be absolutely necessary. There will be many, many solutions. Some may be shiny and new, but others might be right in front of us. When working to better understand these problems and the solutions, maybe it’s time to look to the soils beneath our feet.

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