“Thank you for being a regenerative farmer. We would like to introduce you to the Regenerative Farm Map we’ve created — you’re on it!”
The email finally arrived from Regeneration International, notifying my wife and I that we had officially made it onto the map with our small regenerative dairy founded on the land in rural Wisconsin she inherited from her grandfather called Happy Köe Farm — a place that doesn’t exist.
Of course, the location was once a real farm and the backstory was true about my wife’s grandfather, who immigrated to a Dutch dairy community in Wisconsin after enduring the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The part about us moving out there and buying fourteen cows to start our own dairy ranch… that was a lie. But that didn’t tip off the staff at Regeneration International, whose job isn’t exactly to ask hard questions when landowners tell them that their ranching operations are fighting climate change.
I was inspired to “found” Happy Köe when I tuned into a video presentation for the launch of a Boycott Big Meat campaign by the anti-vaccine Organic Consumers’ Association. With Regeneration International and several other partners, they were launching an interactive map of regenerative farms. Regeneration International defines regenerative farms as those that use “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.”
Following the link revealed that thousands of such farms were already listed across the country. Considering that scientists were reporting global habitat destruction and soil deterioration crises, a regenerative agricultural movement seemed like what would be a good sign, but some of the farms resembled feedlots in satellite imagery and the moderator dismissed my question about the criteria for being listed.
Although regenerative agriculture is a broad concept, the vast majority of businesses on the map farm animals, particularly cows. The regenerative ranching doctrine is known by many names — including rotational or mob foraging, multi-paddock adaptive grazing, and holistic rangeland management — but their essence is the same: using cattle farming to stimulate ecological restoration. While the regenerative potential of many agricultural techniques is widely accepted among ecologists, the inclusion of ranching is disputed. The organizations who listed my fake farm, however, contend that the critics are wrong.
The presentation proceeded in classic Zoom form — the nonprofit staff handed off a slide deck, reciting their pedigrees and introducing their speakers. The star guest was Georgia rancher Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures. Harris has a big name in the world of regenerative ranching and a huge media footprint, appearing everywhere from the New York Times to the BBC and partnering with everyone from the Sunrise Movement to Shell Solar. His affect is individualistic and his marketing evokes the imagery of a modest family farm, but it’s actually quite an operation, with nearly 3,000 ruminants and 100,000 birds.
In a thick southern drawl, he told us how his ranch operates carbon-negative, citing a white paper he commissioned by a consulting firm called Quantis. Six months later, a peer-reviewed study would follow. Like the Quantis paper, it was financed entirely by General Mills, listing several conflicts of interests among its authors, who were employees or had received agribusiness funding. Unlike the Quantis paper, the peer-reviewed study found the ranch to be a net emitter of greenhouse gases, despite charitable modeling assumptions regarding the ability of the soil system to indefinitely sequester atmospheric carbon.
Despite this finding, at the time of publication, Harris’ website still claims the ranch is drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The land at its margins is shadowed by great forests of pine trees, each holding hundreds of pounds of carbon, which once stretched unbroken across the landscape. Bald eagles who attempt to nest in them are hazed and harassed into leaving. The nearby highway is paved over an ancient First Nations footpath. Harris inherited the land from his great grandfather, who settled it in 1866 after the Muscogee Creek tribe was forcibly displaced along the Trail of Tears.
While Harris hasn’t exactly faced the music for false advertising, other regenerative ranching evangelists have come under scrutiny of late. Joel Salatin, a bestselling author with glowing profiles in Food Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has traveled the world teaching panels on “how to quit your job and start farming.” But in September 2020, he saw his column in Mother Earth News canceled after posting a series of objectionable comments in retaliation to criticisms from Black Indigenous farmer Chris Newman, once an admirer who bought Salatin’s books and sought to emulate his methods. Salatin’s posts boldly advanced racist tropes and metaphors, which were detailed by fellow rancher and writer Tom Philpott in a reflective profile distancing himself from the man whose reputation he had helped to build.
What Philpott left out were the shocking testimonies of abuse from Salatin’s former farm hands. Like White Oak Pastures, who settled a class action lawsuit for wage theft, Salatin’s Polyface Farm relies on a steady stream of underpaid labor. Each year, bright-eyed young interns seeking to change the world of farming show up to work for a chance to gain experience and learn skills for their own careers and ventures. Salatin’s program, according to one person who went through it, sounds more like a labor camp than a learning opportunity: five months on property, working on days off is expected, trips to visit family are discouraged, and curfews are enforced. Three interns corroborated that in the summer of 2019, an entire cohort of eleven was poisoned, causing intestinal hemorrhaging in one woman, who was hospitalized three times. She alleges that Joel and his brother Daniel discouraged her from seeking emergency care or telling medical staff where she came from. Her coworker testified that they later learned that the Salatins were aware all summer that interns’ water supply had been contaminated with campylobacter, a bacterial pathogen associated with intensive bird farming, and had it tested and chemically treated without notifying the interns.
Despite preaching a self-made “Christian libertarian” ethic, labor isn’t the only thing Salatin gets for free. He also inherited his land from his father, an accountant for Texas Oil who was kicked out of Venezuela during land reforms instituted in the 1960s by Rómulo Betancourt. “We fled the back door as the machine guns came in the front door,” Salatin tells interviewers, although sometimes he says they left through the front door. Conversely, papers at the time described the transition as “orderly”, despite the inequity of 1.7 percent of landholders owning 74 percent of the country by area. It is reasonable, however, to imagine the neighborhood may not have been fond of the Salatins, who Joel describes in his book You Can Farm as being involved in “wildcat oil drilling,” “clearing… the jungle,” and “corner[ing] the poultry market.”
The godfather of regenerative ranching, however, is a man named Allan Savory. While Harris and Salatin were just kids, Savory was killing revolutionaries to uphold colonial rule in the British Royal Rhodesian Regiment. His memoirs describe training Selous Scouts-style “pseudo-gangs” who retaliated against African resistance fighters, wearing blackface and guerilla garb to blend in behind enemy lines in the bush. Before that, he worked as a ranger for the British Colonial Service, tracking and shooting wildlife like elephants, hippos, and lions that were causing problems for settlers. He claims to be responsible for the killing of 40,000 elephants as a colonial wildlife manager. As the Zimbabwe African National Union overtook the white minority government, Savory was exiled and came to the United States, a grievance he would bear for the rest of his life. In a 2015 blog for Regeneration International, Savory called the expulsion of Cliven Bundy for illegal grazing on Gold Butte National Monument an example of a “western ranching cultural genocide”, echoing reactions to agricultural land reforms in post-apartheid South Africa.
Savory rose to prominence in the United States after a breakout TED talk, a media venture by CNN founder and ranching tycoon Ted Turner. Savory now has a consulting firm, an online school, and a farm certification. The consensus among ecologists — and even many ranching scientists — regards him as a crank, but he compares himself to Galileo, claiming that it’s impossible for peers to review his methods of holistic range management. Regardless, his theories are flattering to business and convenient to consumers, which means they still find plenty of advocates in media.
Agribusiness not only funds an increasingly significant proportion of agricultural research in the United States, but a number of state-mandated marketing programs. In 1985, during the Reagan administration’s campaign to fleece federal lands for privatized grazing, congress passed the Beef Promotion and Research Act, placing a small tax on cattle sales to fund industry advertising in public spaces, which has grown over the years with the expansion of the industry. The Beef Board has kept up with the times, recently taking interest in climate messaging. “Improving grazing management techniques [can] enhance carbon sequestration particularly on land that has been degraded,” Sara Place wrote in one of many articles sponsored by the federal Beef Checkoff program during her tenure as Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production at the National Beef Cattleman’s Association.
Place is now a consultant at a former Eli Lilly subsidiary called Elanco, currently embroiled in a class action lawsuit over thousands of pet deaths linked to its pesticide flea collars. The Beef Board has also propelled the prolific media career of Frank Mitloehner, the self-styled greenhouse gas guru, who has also received millions of dollars in research financing from livestock industries. Similarly, Jason Rowntree, principal investigator in General Mills White Oak Pastures study, declared no conflicts of interest, unlike some of his coauthors. He declined, however, to mention that he sits on the board of the American Grassfed Association and has received research grants from corporations such as McDonald’s. While these are just a few of the more public-facing personalities, the ranching industry infiltration into the academy is vast, including on-campus slaughterhouses built with industry funding and parallel institutions such as range ecology and animal sciences, which help to avoid peer scrutiny of industry scientists’ business-related priorities in conventional ecology and zoology departments.
Although generally associated with reactionary politics, the ranching industry’s extensive public relations strategies also help to promote ranching pseudoscience in the more progressive corners of popular culture. Ranching has been promoted as a means of combating climate change in media outlets such as The Nation, The Guardian, Scientific American, and CNN. Environmental NGOs with financial ties to the ranching industry, such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society have advanced similar narratives. The 2020 Netflix Documentary Kiss the Ground, narrated by vegan Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, heavily features regenerative ranching. Political spheres have also been swept up in the hype. Regeneration International has partnered with climate activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement and food justice advocates like Vandana Shiva, who sits on their board. California House Representative Ro Khanna called in and spoke for the launch event of the regenerative farm map. Even Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cited the meat industry-adjacent Rodale Institute and alluded to regenerative ranching in his Green New Deal platform.
The proliferation of industry messaging has been less successful in altering the scientific consensus, but has provided an orchard of alternative narratives, ripe for cherry-picking. Crudely extrapolating from a favorable study and ignoring concepts such as soil types and carbon saturation, Regeneration International calculates that “If… regenerative grazing practices were implemented on the world’s grazing lands they would sequester 98.5 gigatons CO2 per year,” meaning that “Just transitioning ten percent of agricultural production to best-practice regenerative systems will sequester enough CO2 to reverse climate change and restore the global climate.”
The international scientific community strongly disagrees. The IPCC, for instance, estimates that all regenerative agricultural techniques — for plant and animal agriculture — have the capacity to annually draw down 2.3–5.3 gigatons of atmospheric carbon into the soils beneath all the world’s croplands and pastures. In 2018, a team of eleven scientists from seven countries led by the Food Climate Research Network came together specifically to investigate this question. Conducting a metastudy drawing from over 300 articles in the literature, they concluded that-
[B]etter management of grass-fed livestock, while worthwhile in and of itself, does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon. This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate.
Furthermore, emitting greenhouse gases is far from the only damaging environmental side-effect of ranching. In the United States alone, studies have shown that it vectors the spread of invasive plants, endangering endemic flora. It accelerates the erosion of stream banks, clouding waterways and propagating harmful algal and bacterial growth. It desiccates streams, groundwater, and aquifers, diverting them into pastures, stock tanks, and feed crops. It encloses vast expanses of land within fencing, entangling wildlife and inhibiting migration of native grazers like elk, pronghorn, and bison. It entails the trapping, hunting, and poisoning of predators and “pests”, such as prairie dogs, coyotes, and wolves. It promotes the wholesale destruction of ecosystems such as sagebrush and pinyon-juniper forests by methods such as bulldozing, chaining, and even napalm air strikes to create more range land.
It produces vast quantities of effluent waste, polluting waterways and washing into river deltas, begetting hypoxic marine dead zones. It incubates zoonoses such as mad cow disease. It expropriates immense quantities of crop yields that could be used more efficiently to feed humans directly. It occupies an estimated 60 percent of global agricultural land while providing only two percent of calories consumed worldwide. And although the regenerative ranching movement posits itself as an alternative to the industrial feedlot system associated with many of these repercussions, 95 percent of all cattle in the United States spend the final quarter or more of their life in a concentrated animal feeding operation.
Despite deep investments, broad networks, and a widespread will to believe, science continues to erode the theoretical basis of ranching as a mechanism of ecological regeneration and a solution to climate change. In truth, cattle ranching is not only by far the most land, water, and emissions-intensive way to feed humans, but a leading cause of habitat destruction, a consolidator of land and natural resources, and a pillar of settler-colonialism. While regenerative crop farming practices such as cover crops and wildlife corridors have considerable and proven potential to aid in regenerating habitat and sequestering atmospheric carbon, the cynical corporate crusade to claim ranching among regenerative agricultural techniques is co-opting grassroots support for such ideas and damaging their credibility. The reality is that the concept of sustainable carbon-negative ranching is little more than meat marketing mythology. There is, however, one ranch that generates so few emissions, it’s as if there are no cows at all. It’s out in the Wisconsin countryside and it’s called Happy Köe Farm.