The more I learn about organic farming the more impressed I become with the dynamics of it all. As Fritz Capra has said, we live in an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy. Everything has an intrinsic pattern which in turn is part of a greater pattern – and all of it is in flux. That sure makes it hard to do an LCA, and it makes for very wobbly footing if somebody takes a stand and defends it against all comers.
For example, I have been under the impression (based on some published LCA’s) that the production of wool is very resource inefficient, largely based on the enormous need for water: it’s generally assumed that 170,000 litres of water is needed to produce 1 KG of wool (versus anywhere from 2000 to 5300 to produce the same amount of cotton). That’s because the livestock graze on land and depend on rainwater for their water – and some LCA’s base the water use on the lifetime of the sheep (reminding me to check the research parameters when referring to published LCA’s).
In addition, industrial agricultural livestock production often results in overgrazing. As we now see in the western United States, overgrazing in extreme cases causes the land to transform from its natural state of fertility to that of a desert. At the very least, it severely limits plant reproduction, which in turn limits the soil’s ability to absorb water and maintain its original nutrient balance, making overgrazing difficult to recover from. And then there’s methane: livestock are often vilified for producing more greenhouse gases than automobiles.
The exciting thing is that what is known as “holistic management” of the soil makes it possible to use animals to improve, rather than degrade, land. What’s consistently ignored in the research is the failure to distinguish between animals raised in confined feedlots and animals grazing on rangeland in a holistic system. Research on holistic land management is, in fact, showing that large grazing animals are a vital and necessary part of the solution to climate change and carbon sequestration. Read about holistic land management on the Holistic Managmeent Institute (HMI) website.
The reason holistic practices work, according to HMI, is that grazing animals and grassland co-evolved. According to the HMI website, hooves and manure accomplish what mechanical tilling and petrochemical fertilizers cannot: healthy, diverse grassland with abundant root systems and improved soil structures that makes highly effective use of existing rainfall. Domestic animals can be managed in ways that mimic nature, called “planned grazing”: rather than allowing animals to linger and eat from the same land repeatedly, animals are concentrated and moved according to a plan which allows the land long periods of rest and recovery. This planned grazing allows the animals to till packed soil with their hooves, distribute fertilizer and seed in their manure and urine, and move from one area to another before they can overgraze any one spot. In fact, the animals help maintain the soil, rather than destroying it, and increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, making it function as a highly effective carbon bank. Properly managed, grazing animals can help us control global climate change: soil carbon increased 1% within a 12 month period in a planned grazing project (a significant increase).
This carbon is essential to not only feeding soil life and pasture productivity, but it also affects water infiltration rates. On one trial site where planned grazing was implemented, within two years, the soil water infiltration rate increased eightfold in comparison to the conventional grazing treatment.
In addition, holistic management of grazing animals eliminates the need for the standard practice of burning crop and forage residues. That burning currently sends carbon directly into the atmosphere. If we convert just 4 million acres of land that’s operating under the traditional, conventional agriculture model to holistically managed land – so the residue is not burned – the carbon is captured rather than released. Look at the difference in erosion in the picture below: compare the severely eroded, conventionally managed riverbank on the left with the Holistically Managed bank on the right. All the shrubbery and grass means abundant root systems and healthy soil infrastructure underground – both of these sequester CO2.
What you see on the right is the result of managed animal impact. Source: Holistic Management International
According to Christine Jones, Founder, Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation, “The fabulous thing about sequestering carbon in grasslands is that you can keep on doing it forever – you can keep building soil on soil on soil… perennial grasses can outlive their owners; they’re longer-lived than a lot of trees, so the carbon sequestration is more permanent than it is in trees: the carbon’s not going to re-cycle back into the atmosphere if we maintain that soil management… and there’s no limit to how much soil you can build… for example, we would only have to improve the stored carbon percentage by one percent on the 415 million hectares (1,025,487,333 acres) of agricultural soil in Australia and we could sequester all of the planet’s legacy load of carbon. It’s quite a stunning figure.”
Data from a demonstration project in Washington State is confirming other worldwide research that grazing could be better for the land than growing certain crops in dryland farming regions – it reverses soil decline (erosion and desertification), restores soil health, and instead of losing carbon through tilling or systems requiring inputs (like wheat farming) planned grazing sequesters carbon; biomass to soak up carbon is increased, and the use of fossil fuel has been reduced by more than 90%. Wildlife habitat has improved. The Washington State project even sells carbon credits.
In April of this year, Catholic Relief Service, one of the country’s largest international humanitarian agencies, is launching a worldwide agricultural strategy that adopts a holistic, market oriented approach to help lift millions of people out of poverty. Read more about this here.