Millions of Tiny Cows to Regenerate the Soil


This article was originally published on CounterPunch.

Earth Day comes and goes every year but nothing seems to really change. We are still headed for climate catastrophe, we are still in the midst of a mass extinction, we are still losing our topsoil at an alarming rate. It is time to center food systems, and especially agriculture, in our efforts to address our ecological emergencies and to live more sanely on this Earth. Food systems are central to each of these emergencies for a number of reasons: the direct amount of energy used in the production, processing and transportation of food; the disproportionate emission of greenhouse gases; the toxic chemicals that end up in our waterways; the loss of autonomy that results from the globalization and corporatization of food systems drives human labor into other unsustainable industries, etc. Of particular importance is the land: how much of it is used by agriculture, who uses it and how it is used. The practices of our dominant agricultural paradigms are rapidly degrading and eroding our soils, and we need topsoil to grow food and sustain life. If we continue on our current trajectory, it’s not a stretch to say that we’re doomed.

Any strategy that truly seeks to heal our environment will have to have degrowth as its cornerstone; in terms of land use, degrowth will allow for rewilding and veritable ecosystem restoration. Since human poverty and exploitation and general misery are largely the result of capitalism’s ethos of growth at all costs, degrowth would also result in a more humane and equal society. Changing how we do agriculture is not only about halting the damage we are doing but also reversing course and undoing the damage. We can use agriculture as a tool to restore our soils and the biodiversity they support. This should happen both through the implementation of restorative practices on the lands we cultivate as well as the freeing up of much of the land currently used for agriculture and other industries. A main goal of regenerative agriculture is to draw atmospheric carbon down into the soil and vegetation. When it gets to specifics, its proponents usually speak of the restoration of grasslands, but there are other ecosystems that are carbon sinks, like forests. Deforestation itself releases an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere. So, rewilding and halting deforestation are essential to decreasing our carbon footprint and land usage and must be given far more attention than they currently are.

In the past year, Seed the Commons has hosted a webinar series to bring attention to the centrality of food systems to our most pressing problems, from public health crises to climate change to poverty, and to point to ways forward. Many of our presenters have touched upon soil and we also celebrated World Soil Day by devoting a whole webinar to digging deeper into the soil issue. We were extremely lucky to be joined by two top leaders in the field of ecological farming: Dr. Amir Kassam, a Visiting Professor of Agriculture and Development at the University of Reading, UK, and the Moderator of the FAO-hosted Global Platform for Conservation Agriculture Community of Practice and Chairman of the International Conservation Agriculture Advisory Panel for Africa; and Helen Atthowe, an eco-organic farmer and researcher who was the recipient of the Steward of Sustainable Agriculture Award at the 32nd Annual EcoFarm Conference.

Their approaches are very similar. Conservation Agriculture is based on the three principles of minimal soil disturbance, permanent biomass mulch cover on the soil surface and diversification of species, while Helen has developed ten guiding principles which include diversification of the soil food web with crop and ground cover diversity, minimal soil disturbance, and keeping the soil covered with as much plant diversity as possible. Perhaps a surprising point of convergence is that neither of them advocate for the use of farmed animals or animal-based inputs, or consider it a default part of ecological farming, and they don’t condone the grazing of cows that has become inseparable from the word “regenerative” in the minds of many.

Dr. Amir Kassam addressed this head on: he closes his talk [at 32:00] by bringing attention to the fact that he had not mentioned farmed animals, going on to say that many of the narratives that float around are based on an agenda other than truth-telling, like profit or other self-interest. In the case of farmed animals, the myths are that we need them, be it for their manure for nutrient cycling, on the grasslands for carbon sequestration, or other reasons. But the truth is that we don’t need them. Regarding manure, Dr. Kassam explains that it is nothing more than biomass pushed through a ruminant’s gut, you can leave biomass on the ground and it will be taken in by “our friends the earthworms and termites”. The idea is that nature already has mechanisms in place to break down and recycle nutrients, these processes aren’t dependent on humans providing ecosystems with animals we’ve domesticated. He says, ‘So you have millions of little cows – if you want to have the cow image – in the soil already. But we have killed them. We’ve told them to bugger off with our tillage, destroying their habitats all the time. But they were there–put in there by nature to do the very thing which we then say “we need a big cow to do it”.’

Those who have done the most to bring public awareness to the importance of soil, especially its role in carbon sequestration, have called for agriculture to be our vehicle of action. But usually only a very specific type of agriculture: the grazing of cows. As awareness grows around the harms of industrial agriculture and the centrality of food systems to many of our struggles, ranchers are riding the wave to place their specific brand of non-industrial farming in the spotlight. While part of their discourse has been helpful, it also frequently equates mimicking or restoring natural ecosystems with the introduction of domesticated ruminants to those ecosystems. Their frequent jabs at veganism seek to associate it with the idea of “ecosystems without animals”, wherein vegans are characterized as too clueless to see beyond the dichotomy of factory farms and the Impossible burger.

While regenerative grazing proponents are particularly virulent in their anti-veganism, the false equivalence between the absence of animals and the absence of farmed animals has long come from proponents of ecological approaches to farming more generally. It is a false equivalence that serves not only ranchers and other animal farmers, but anyone who is attached to the current status quo of eating animals. Myself and others have debunked it many times over. At the first conference I organized, vegan permaculturist Joe Kilcoyne gave a talk titled “Cultivating voluntary relationships: animal liberation, community building and regenerative options”. He does not seek to create farming systems that are absent of animal life, he seeks to create systems in which animals are free rather than enslaved. In an article advocating for the end of ranching in Point Reyes National Seashore Park, ecologist and tireless opponent of public lands ranching George Wuerthner wrote “there are plenty of native herbivores though most ranchers either ignore them or are completely ignorant of their existence. For instance, grasshoppers often consume more grass biomass than large animals like cattle. Add in all the other herbivores from soil nematodes, bacteria and worms to other herbivore insects like beetles and caterpillars, grazing birds like geese, to mammals from gophers to ground squirrels to native Tule elk and there is no shortage of native species to graze the Park’s vegetation.”   

Iain Tolhurst is a veganic (vegan + organic) farmer and the co-author of Growing Green: Organic Techniques for a Sustainable Future that we’ve also had the honor of hosting in our webinar series. He has been active in the organic movement in the UK for over 40 years and has received a number of awards, including the 2016 “Soil Farmer of the Year” award. He often says of his farm “The primary product of this farm is the culture of bio-diversity, food production is the by-product of that.” The Tolhurst Organic farm website states “We have had several surveys done to asses our bio-diversity and it has been most encouraging to see the way that the number of species has grown over the past 20 years.” Evidently, this is not the unnatural animal-free ecosystem that the regenerative grazing folks warned you about. 

Pollinators are not dying off because someone who grows vegetables doesn’t also have cows on their farm, or because a veganic farmer is going about building soil fertility without adding manure. It is happening mostly because of the practices inherent to our dominant monoculture system, such as the application of toxic pesticides and herbicides. And around the world there are thousands of examples of farms that demonstrate that there are alternatives to monocultures and pesticides and herbicides that don’t include farm animals. If you start to also consider the larger wildlife that inhabits an ecosystem, you realize that not only are cows not a necessity, their introduction can result in a conflict.

From the website Take Extinction Off Your Plate: ‘Wild animals suffer not only the collateral damage of meat-related deforestation, drought, pollution and climate change, but also direct targeting by the meat industry. From grazing animals to predators, native species are frequently killed to protect meat-production profits. Grass-eating species such as elk, deer and pronghorn have been killed en masse to reserve more feed for cattle. Important habitat-creating animals such as beavers and prairie dogs have been decimated because they disrupt the homogenous landscapes desired by livestock managers. “Predator control” programs designed to protect the livestock industry helped drive keystone predators like California grizzly bears and Mexican gray wolves extinct in their ecosystems. […]

More than 175 threatened or endangered species are imperiled by livestock on federal lands, where livestock grazing is promoted, protected and subsidized on 270 million acres of our public lands in 11 western states. Livestock grazing — not including the large portion of agriculture devoted to cattle production or other forms of meat production — is among the greatest direct threats to imperiled species, affecting 14 percent of threatened or endangered animals and 33 percent of threatened or endangered plants. In addition, at the behest of ranchers, a federal agency known as Wildlife Services shoots, traps, and poisons millions of animals every year, including wolves and foxes and bears in National Forests, to make more room for cows and other ranched animals.’

When people warn against veganism by going on about how “healthy ecosystems have to include animals”, remember that farming cows is not some grand effort to introduce animal life to an agroecosystem from which it would otherwise be devoid. It more often amounts to ousting the animals who are wild and free so as to make room for those who are owned and generative of profit.

This past Earth Day, Biden announced that the United States would commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to 50% of the country’s 2005 emissions. Who knows, maybe things will change this time. One thing is certain: if we are to reduce emissions, we can’t just talk about cleaner energies and pursue market-based solutions. We need degrowth. We need to stop ignoring agriculture and wrest our food systems back from corporate control: de-globalize, decentralize, and replace industrial agriculture with small-scale, biodiverse, closed-loop, regenerative farming systems.

The goals of degrowth and cutting emissions also inevitably lead to a shift away from animal agriculture, not only of the industrial sort. To be clear, I do not believe that our environmental emergencies require an absolute, global transition to veganism. My organization is unusual in the vegan world in that we do not advocate for veganism as a “solution”. Instead, we advocate for ecological farming as a solution and we do it in a vegan way because we reject the exploitation of “farm animals” on ethical grounds. For us veganism is a normative ethical paradigm in the same way that the normative ethical paradigm of the majority includes not considering dogs as a food source. It follows that when we put forth any system such as agroecology, permaculture, regenerative, etc, we default to a version of these that eschews farm animals. What we find relevant therefore is the technical question “can it be done?”, not the environmental question “must it be done?”

With that said, we also recognize that even if a 100% shift to veganism is not necessary from an environmental standpoint, a drastic reduction in the consumption of animal products is. It has been repeatedly established that animal agriculture is a disproportionate contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents of regenerative grazing argue that a single focus on reducing emissions is reductive because when cows are grazed following their principles, the resulting sequestration of atmospheric carbon more than makes up for whatever greenhouse gases the cows are emitting. But this trade-off is based on a false premise. Whatever soil-building the cows can do, the mini cows and other animals can do better.

That animal agriculture is resource and land-intensive has also been not only repeatedly documented in modern times, it’s probably been understood since the dawn of agriculture. It is largely because it is resource intensive that throughout history meat consumption has been linked to wealth and status. All else being equal, the vegan version of a given model will require less land. This is how the Biointensive mini-farming model came to be vegan by default. It was created with the goal of growing complete diets in a way that is closed-loop and as self-sustaining as possible, using the smallest possible amount of land and resources. In the early years, the founders of the Biointensive method included manures until they realized that doing without farm animals or their manures was more efficient, allowing to conserve more resources and free up more land to give back to nature.

We have the option now – and the tools, and the knowledge – to stop destroying the basis of what keeps us alive. Changing how we grow food is fundamental, and what is healthiest for our bodies and our societies is also key to healing our ecosystems.

So this is my vision:

Let’s take back our food systems from corporate control and our public lands from rancher control. Let’s not allow politicians, international institutions and the environmental movement to go on about the climate without centering agriculture–and not through market-based false solutions. Let’s bring agriculture back into the hands of smallholders like Helen Atthowe and Iain Tolhurst, and support farms that grow soil, biodiversity, and healthy food for the local community. Let’s stop buying the lie that farming animals is in any way necessary. And let’s let the millions of tiny little cows in the soil do their jobs undisturbed.

Image: Peach and pluot bloom 2021, Woodleaf Farm (Helen Atthowe’s farm). Credit: Helen Atthowe.

Many thanks to Sydney Grange of Victory Gardens for Peace for her feedback on the segment on Biointensive growing.