Missing the Forests for the Cows

The reality — and limits — of silvopasture as a climate solution

Cow grazes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Virginia
Cow in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. (Photo by Natalie Runnerstrom on Unsplash)

In a warming world, sustainable farming means growing food while mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change. But when potential solutions are presented by media (even science magazines) without mentioning limits and tradeoffs, it drifts from science into belief. The dialogue on silvopasture — cows grazing woodland habitats — is a case in point, and it needs to be grounded in reality.

Silvopasture may introduce forage and fertilizer into woodlands or tree plantations, or plant trees in pasture, along with grazing livestock. In this system, livestock, forage, and trees are harvested for profit — while livestock and legumes may help sequester carbon and fix nitrogen. It works on a small scale with small herds and is regionally specific.

It’s true: Adding trees to cattle pastures can benefit cows. With cattle dying from unprecedented heat, solutions that alleviate climate effects are vital. But adding cows to forests can harm trees and native plants and weaken climate mitigation.

Silvopasture also has substantial limitations as a biodiversity solution. North American forests and woodlands did not evolve with cattle. And adding fertilizer can favor weeds over native species, while nutrient pollution from manure severely damages riparian areas and waterways.

Native plants and trees have a far greater potential to promote biodiversity and bring native insects — who in turn support native birds and other wildlife — than the non-native cattle. Forests are self-regenerating systems that provide microclimates for 70% of terrestrial biodiversity in wild plants and animals. These habitats are critical to the health of the planet.

Silvopasture has also been used by the timber industry to greenwash unsound logging practices. Timber plantations — monocultures of chemical-sprayed, non-native trees grown for the logging industry — are not climate or biodiversity solutions. Tree thinning of woodlands can damage the native plants and trees that have more potential to promote biodiversity and sequester carbon in the first place.

Realistically, as a carbon-storage scheme, silvopasture benefits are limited. Sequestered carbon is lost when land is degraded by climate change or mismanagement. As a result, silvopasture is a labor-intensive and expensive system, when it’s done correctly, that involves a precise, balance of native species, tree spacing and forestry practices. In the best-case scenario, there are ecological tradeoffs.

Culturally silvopasture has also been vaguely mispackaged as a traditional Indigenous practice. The reality is that cattle ranching was used to exploit and evict native people from their lands. In the Caribbean, cattle modified Taíno lands in ways that harmed native plants and benefited vegetation brought by Spanish colonization. (Watch our expert panel on cows and colonization to learn more.)

Popular reporting about silvopasture too often ignores the cow in the room: Cattle wreak immense damage to biodiversity and ecosystems as the leading source of domestic agricultural emissions, water use, and an overwhelming source of water pollution. Journalists have a responsibility to acknowledge tradeoffs and bring balance, not belief, to their writing.

People in North America eat many times more beef and dairy than others around the world. We can’t meaningfully discuss silvopasture without acknowledging that it requires significantly fewer cattle for the system to work. Realistic climate solutions require us to produce vastly fewer cattle.

In fact, any climate or biodiversity effort to adapt how we produce cattle requires vastly fewer cows on the planet. Too often public discussions focus on a single issue — like carbon or soil — while ignoring its relation to the larger environmental damages wrought by livestock. This benefits the cattle industry but limits our search for meaningful answers.

On a warming planet, we need science-based solutions. While silvopasture can play a role in a sustainable food system, that role will be small unless we address the systemic overconsumption of beef and dairy — and the unbalanced influence of industry on environmental policy. We must reduce the source of emissions and biodiversity loss while we conserve and protect natural sources of biodiversity and climate drawdown.

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Jennifer Molidor, Ph.D.

Jennifer Molidor, Ph.D.

1.5K Followers

Writer, teacher, advocate for wildlife, campaigner for sustainable food systems.