Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cows save the planet

One of my favorite story lines in The Wonder Years was about Kevin's math teacher, Mr. Collins. He wasn't very personable but was a focused and demanding teacher who took his job seriously. He was there to teach his students the subject matter yet was wise enough to know how to handle adolescent problems, like the episode where Kevin is struggling and resorts to cheating on quizzes when he sees other kids getting away with it ("Every problem contains its own solution, Mr. Arnold.").

I had a teacher back at West High who was kind of like that.  Mr. Ekberg taught biology classes and was notorious as a hard teacher, and because of that quite a few kids disliked him (like this poor fool).  But I probably learned more from his classes than all the others, and one class I really loved was "Ecology" which is the study of how environments function.  In fact, me and my friend, Todd Bartholomew, liked it so much that we asked Mr. Ekberg one day about careers in ecology.  He told us what kind of jobs there were and when we asked how those jobs paid he admitted that they didn't pay well.  But that was back in the early 80s, and by the mid 90s such jobs were a hot choice when environmental science grew in popularity and importance.  And even though I chose a different career path, I still find myself drawn to ecology and the study of the environment and it's probably why I read Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Schwartz argues that the obsessive focus on limiting carbon emissions is somewhat misguided when we should be using nature to pull that carbon out of the air and put it back in the soil where it belongs (what she calls restoring the "carbon cycle").  The primary source of carbon emissions up until the 1970s was agriculture, mainly due to practices which allow carbon in the soil to oxidize into the atmosphere.  But she claims that using the "holistic management" ideas of Allan Savory in the way we farm and use land we can not only reverse that trend but renew the health of our soils.  Cows play a part in this process because undergrazing is as big of a problem as overgrazing, and grazers are a natural part of many ecosystems, especially grasslands (and yes, she touches on the issue of methane from cows).  She explains how this can also solve problems of erosion and desertification and mitigate the damage from both floods and droughts (fixing the "water cycle").  I thought Schwartz did a great job of explaining how grazing would help natural grassland areas and it made sense, but I didn't quite follow how the same thing would apply in a farming situation.  It sounded like leaving bare ground (especially when the soil is tilled) is the biggest problem since that's when oxidation of carbon happens and I think she advocates a method of planting crops right in the natural grass cover – something I'd like to understand better.

She also points out that USDA statistics show the nutrition of our food has been steadily declining – in some cases more that 50% since I was a kid in the 70s – and says this is due to minerals being depleted where most of our food is grown.  Some researchers link this to the health issues of today, and while blaming it for things like cancer seems a bit tenuous, the connection to obesity makes more sense.  If our bodies aren't getting the right nutrients we continue to feel hungry and eat more.  Of course, better soil management principles can replenish the soil and correct such deficiencies and she cites a couple of examples of instances where it has improved health.

Normally I have an allergy to words like "holistic" which (perhaps wrongly) conjures up images of crystals and quack medicine.  In this case, however, holistic refers to ecologically-sound principles that emphasize the natural relationships of microbes, fungi, and worms in the soil with the roots of the plants, and the grazers that preserve the proper balance of plants above the surface and promote healthy soil.  And this natural order makes a lot of sense to me: it's not anti-farming or anti-people like a lot of environmentalist literature, but advocates a balanced and healthy relationship with what many have called our most valuable resource.  I also have to give her credit for offering better explanations than most I've read for why chemical fertilizers and GMO foods can be harmful.

But while it makes a lot of sense in my limited understanding, Schwartz unfortunately offers little tangible evidence like peer-reviewed research and scientific studies to back up her assertions.  There are a total of 3 notes at the end of the book and 2 pages of bibliography which looks more like "further suggested reading" than documentation.  She includes examples of farmers in the book who have changed their practices and have seen greater yields and less problems from flooding or droughts, but unfortunately that's only anecdotal evidence.  I would feel a lot more comfortable with solid evidence even if it's limited, but I'll still recommend the book on the basis that it seems in line with my own reading and experiences with gardening and composting.

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