By Colleen Forgus
In the sustainable community, raising animals for food and caring about the health of the planet are sometimes regarded as conflicting paradigms. However, a growing chorus of scientists, farmers and activists are demonstrating how symbiotic polycultures hold the key to responsible stewardship of the earth. Holistic planned grazing can actually improve soil health, facilitate carbon sequestration, and feed a worldwide population that is expected to reach 7.5 billion in 2017.
Where did we go wrong?
Over the past 100 years, cattle – and even wild hoofed animals – have been deemed responsible for the overgrazing and the subsequent destruction of grasslands. Eventually, herds were reduced in size and in some cases, completely removed from the land they had roamed for thousands of years.
Biologist and environmentalist Allan Savory studied the desertification of the grasslands in his native Zimbabwe. His research led to the destruction of 40,000 elephants in the 20th Century as part of a desperate attempt to save the savannahs. Despite the removal of the elephants, the land continued to degrade.
At the same time, expansive mono crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton replaced 98 percent of the American prairie lands. Livestock and chickens moved from pasture to massive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they were fed grain-based diets and treated inhumanely. Manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics were used with increasing frequency and quantities. The valuable humus that once covered the plains was vanishing in the wind, and with it, the ability to retain nutrients, water and microbial species. The more man disrupted Mother Nature’s order, the greater the problems became.
Vast areas of native grasslands have been burned. According to Savory, the burning of one hectare of land (equivalent to 2.47 acres) releases more damaging pollutants into the atmosphere than 6,000 cars. While burning destroys dead vegetation, allowing for new growth, Savory recognized that herbivores were much better adapted to remove the dead growth while simultaneously improving the quality of the soil. Over time, he realized that removing the grazing herds from the land was actually facilitating its destruction.
How should we nurture the soil?
As any avid organic gardener will tell you, the vitality of the soil is the most critical component to a successful harvest. Organic materials deliver nutrients and allow the soil to retain precious moisture and microbes. Pruning encourages fresh tender growth, instead of dense woody stems. Gently agitating the soil is supportive of the life below the surface.
Farmer Joel Salatin has long been a caretaker of the soil. Salatin recognized long ago that diversification of livestock ensured his farm mimicked Mother Nature. At Polyface Farms in Virginia, Salatin employs holistic management of his pastures by rotating cattle and poultry through the fields. They work in a symbiotic fashion to prune the grasses and fertilize the soil without the addition of chemical pesticides, fertilizers or supplemental grain feed.
Will Harris, a farmer in Bluffton, Georgia, abandoned conventional farming methods in the 1990s, allowing his farm to return to pasture. Like Salatin, Harris cultivates the soil, which in turn provides nourishment for the animals, plants and humans that benefit from the land. Generation after generation, the animals are stronger and healthier, roaming the fields that also support a variety of wildlife, from bald eagles to bumble bees.
How should we feed the planet?
Across five continents, Allan Savory has helped restore barren fields to productive grasslands through holistic management of livestock grazing. According to Savory, by returning one half of the world’s arid wastelands to lush vegetation through planned grazing, enough carbon will be sequestered to the soil to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels, while providing food for people who otherwise would have had none.
As Harris stated in the documentary “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” he is not responsible for feeding the world, but rather the community that surrounds him. As more and more farmers adopt these strategies, we will begin to feed the world.
Ultimately, it is the health of the soil that must be addressed. Microbial diversity within the soil facilitates the production of lush, nutrient-rich grasses that provide homes for wildlife, nourishment for animals, retention of rainwater, sequestration of carbon to the soil, cooling of the climate, and food for a growing population.
Colleen Forgus is a Certified Nutritional Consultant, Professional Chef, Master Gardener, speaker and educator. For more than 20 years, Colleen has used food to connect with others and inspire healthful living. You can reach Colleen at 480-399-3192 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Rick Forgus, Atomic Werewolf Studio.
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