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Can Cattle Save Us From Global Warming?

October 15, 2009

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual event held on October 15th when bloggers of the world unite and post about one topic, as a way to spark discussion about an issue of global importance. Again, the goal of this event is discussion, not advocacy or endorcement.

We started this blog as a way to increase communication and discussion among people interested in the diverse topics and issues related to livestock production and the environment. With topics ranging from energy to disease to ecology to economics–we hope that everyday you have the opportunity to read posts that increases your awareness of an issue, broaden your perspective, or even confirm and validate something you knew and that it leads to greater discourse and discussion about emerging and important issues.

This year, the organizers of Blog Action Day selected “Climate Change” as the topic to blog about. Here at ILE, we recognise that climate change is a topic that sits smack on the “intersection between livestock production and science-based environmental management” (Hey, isn’t that our mission?). Climate change has the potential to impact livestock production–making it more difficult and expensive to raise food, and also has the potential to impact climate change. Mostly, we figure you hear enough about the negative ways that livestock production can impact climate change, so we decided to give you something new, and thanks to writers at WorldChanging Team, especially Jay Walljasper, we’re able to bring that alternative perspective to you.

We hope that the following article makes you think and sparks discussion. That’s what today is all about.

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[Source: Jay Walljasper, WorldChanging Team, 8 Aug 08]

A small band of activists and scientists believe that farming done the right way can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

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.

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.

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