Cows, carbon and climate change

Alex Heffron
Oct 25, 2017 · 6 min read

This is a rambling discussion spurred by the book The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier.

Cows, carbon and climate change is a fairly controversial topic to put it lightly. You have the entrenched view of George Monbiot in one corner who makes comparisons between livestock farming and atrocities like genocide, in another corner you have the ecomodernists with their concept (I mean oxymoron) of ‘sustainable intensification’ and in another corner you have the pasture-fed movement. In the middle is most people to a varying degree. There is another faction, that believe the pasture-fed movement to be over-egging their claims, who themselves promote ruminants eating mainly pasture and trees maybe with a little locally grown grain, but not too much, or even better integrated within an arable rotation. They tend to accuse the pasture-fed movement of exaggerating their claims of carbon sequestration. We farm along pasture-fed principles but I tend to believe that the pinnacle from a sustainability and environmental perspective (including but not limited to carbon) is the integration of livestock into the arable rotation, in a Newman Turner style of farming, to help improve degraded soils and reduce dependencies on artificial inputs and improve outputs. At least for those large swathes of England where arable predominates. Even better combine (no not in that way…) that with trees. Where I am though arable makes no sense. We farm less than 100 acres, at 200m, in a drizzly, overcast climate, with a good proportion of the land north facing. So we’re opting for silvopasture, with animals grazing beneath a wide variety of trees like willow, hazel, cider apple, sycamore and so on. They will provide a variety of outputs such as forage, shelter, improved soils, biodiversity and habit, fruits, nuts, firewood, timber and more. That’s the next phase of our farm’s development.

My position is that you can sequester carbon through the right management, even on permanent pasture (on arable land even the recent Grazed and Confused report agreed, although it then went to dismiss it based on, I don’t know what really, other than a prejudice against rearing livestock), but that’s not necessarily an easy task in practice, and requires tight and adaptive management. I don’t go all the way to what Allan Savory suggests, of being able to sequester all the anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere and then some, but I don’t see why carbon sequestration via livestock farming can’t be a very necessary thing to do over the next few decades if we seriously want to mitigate the worst of climate change. (Funnily enough, I don’t happen to think we are that serious about it, and I don’t believe we will mitigate it particularly well, but that’s another blog.) Plus Holistic Management is an effective way of regenerating landscapes in a wider ecological sense and can help farms become more profitable and sustainable long term. It supports good land management.

Toensmeier puts it well, with regards to Savoury’s comments on carbon and climate change, saying;

Althought I respect Savory’s work, I have trouble with this kind of rhetoric, because it suggests that Holistic Management (or carbon farming, or geoengineering or anything else) can allow us to continue emitting all the fossil fuels we want…

I’m a proponent of Holistic Management. I think the criticism of it in the Dazed and Confused report was absurd, seeing as it didn’t really have an argument against it other than saying its claims must be exaggerated, because we believe them to be so. Sheldon Frith wrote a pithy post recently debunking the so-called evidence against Holistic Management (HM) showing that the studies (with reference to a recent meta-analysis of HM) really weren’t measuring what they claimed to be, namely HM, so how can a relevant analysis be made?

Some might find my position a bit confused and unsure. And that’s right. I think there is far too much posturing going on, and we’d all be better off developing a little less confidence that our conclusions are accurate. Yes that includes you George Monbiot. Reductive analsyses are not going to provide us with a sustainable answer. A little bit of self-doubt keeps us open to other potentials.

The simple thing to realise though is that livestock aren’t going anywhere — it’s certainly not the end of livestock farming, and that better management leads to more carbon being stored in the ground. With the right conditions and the right management more carbon can be stored than emitted, but that’s not a foregone conclusion — and it’s complicated to assess. And besides, all methods of producing food lead to carbon emissions and the overwhelmingly obvious reason for climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. I’m not saying climate change is the only topic up for discussion, but it’s pretty important. Though on that note there are many reasons to graze cows even if it did lead to some carbon being released. Taking those millions of cows out of CAFOs in the US would be a good place to start though, so I can sympathise with the vegan or vegetarian argument, when it stays on topic and doesn’t descend into disdain, fake facts and vitriol— to be fair that applies to meat-eaters and livestock farmers too— both sides need to lay their arms down and stop vilifying the other. In other words, binary thinking may not be the most suitable form of cognition for arriving at a positive way forward. What if both sides weren’t at war with each other but worked together? Is that really too much to ask for?

Should you take my opinion? Probably not, I’m no expert, I’m just trying to navigate it as honestly as I can. True I’m a livestock farmer but if I thought it was doing more harm than good, then I’d do something different. But in other words, WTF do I know?!

One man who does know more is Eric Toensmeier, and he seems to have a refreshingly fair, balanced and considered approach to this incendiary topic.

The debate will rumble on with regards to how much, if any, carbon can be stored via grazing practises like HM. One system of land management that seems beyond debate though is silvopasture. When sheep and cows are grazed beneath trees there is a net sequestration of carbon, an improvement in biodiversity and habitat, a multitude of outputs, improved soils, and benefits to the animal’s health and welfare. Silvopasture systems in temperate North America are estimated to sequester 6.1/t/ha. More than enough for a net sequestration of carbon with the integration of sheep and cattle. Can we really readily dismiss carbon farming with this kind of potential? It’s a complete win-win situation for people and our environment (as if those two things could even be separate) — and the planting of trees benefits the health and welfare of the livestock.

I can already hear George Monbiot saying, as he said to me in a response on twitter, why not go one step better and make it all woodland. I’m going to ignore his ultra-reductionist, one-size-fits-all approach. We can have a balance. I agree to planting more trees, but that doesn’t mean we need to do away with livestock. Overly simplistic ‘solutions’ tend to fail for a multitude of reasons. And why limit ourselves to one approach? Maybe some ‘wilder’ areas can be reforested, but I’d suggest that’s something to be worked out with the local people who currently work the land as they’re not just pawns in the intellectual struggles of academics and their concerns and worries matter. Silvopasture I’d suggest is something that can work for the farmer, the environment and the government. We currently pay £3billion in subsidy payment to people merely for owning land — little of that ends up with real farmers, it’s usually traded as yet another market commodity. How about taking ‘just’ £500million of that to support agroforestry and silvopasture (or for that matter silvoarable)? Thankfully The Woodland Trust already give grants to people who want to plant trees on their land, which is something we’re hoping to capitalise upon in the next couple of years, taking advantage of money from corporate carbon offsetting schemes.

So whilst we’re all arguing about whether Holistic Management practices can sequester carbon and improve the wider ecology, why not take some easy wins and just incentify the planting of trees within agricultural systems?

Building bridges is harder than burning them but it might just be more effective.

Alex Heffron

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1st gen farmer interested in Regenerative Agriculture.