Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Our Best Chance at Saving the Planet is…Cows?

When Allan Savory was a young man, he killed 40,000 elephants in an effort to save the African landscape. Common wisdom, and even the best science at the time, suggested that overgrazing was the main cause of the desertification they were seeing. But Savory and his team of scientists were wrong.

Instead of seeing the desertified land rebound with plant life, the areas cleared of elephants only got worse.

“Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest blunder of my life, and I will carry it to my grave,” Savory said in his recent TED talk. “But one good thing did come out of it. I have devoted my life to finding a solution.”

That solution focuses on an unlikely tool in the fight against climate change: the soil. And Savory’s innovative system of soil-care hinges on the work of a much-maligned partner: livestock.

Far from being the scourge of grasslands and mass emitters of methane that the environmental movement has made them out to be, sheep, goats, and cattle — properly managed — can do more to heal the planet than any other solution we’ve got. When livestock are managed to mimic nature, they improve the health of grasslands, encourage the building of topsoil, and create landscapes that can absorb and retain more water.

Grasslands evolved alongside massive herds of grazers, who had to bunch together to defend themselves from predators, and had to keep moving as they deposit manure on their food source. Their grazing, pooping, and trampling (as long as they keep moving in a bunch), knocks down mature grass to allow new growth to reach the sunlight. Roots grow more lushly as new shoots emerge, and more roots mean more water retention. When soil retains enough moisture, it stores carbon as organic matter. Store enough organic matter in the soil and voila: you’ve fixed climate change! You can see the transformation Allan Savory’s methods have achieved in this before and after image: This kind of regenerative healing is exactly the opposite of what agriculture is currently doing. Industrial farming contributes 7% percent of US carbon emissions, much of that from depleted soils giving off the carbon they ought to be storing. As climate change accelerates, extreme weather events are happening more and more frequently. Droughts last summer killed 500 million trees across the US and destroyed an estimated $11 billion worth of crops and livestock. But desert prophets like Allan Savory are not without hope that we can change the game in favor of soil. In his soon-to-be-released book Growing Food in Hotter Drier Lands, Gary Paul Nabhan shares lessons from dry-climate farmers around the world who have found ways to steward marginal lands and reclaim them from desertification. And Judith Schwartz’s forthcoming book Cows Save the Planet explains how management methods like those pioneered by Savory are transforming our ideas of what livestock can do.


The New Farmers’ Almanac: A Collection of Essays for Beginners

What agrarian future can we realistically build together? This is a question the Greenhorns hope to answer in their latest book, The New Farmers’ Almanac 2015. Greenhorns is an organization for young farmers—a non-traditional grassroots network with the mission to promote, recruit and support the entering generation of new farmers. It exists to celebrate young […] Read More..

How to Achieve Resiliency Through Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening

In today’s world the marketplace distorts our values and our dependence on petroleum keeps us from creating truly sustainable agriculture. So, how can we achieve true wealth and at the same time make society around us more resilient? The answer, Will Bonsall believes, is greater self-reliance in both how we grow our own food, and […] Read More..

Bramble On: The Ins and Outs of Growing Raspberries

Fresh, ripe raspberries picked straight from the garden in the morning. What could be a better start to your day? According to Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard, growing your own berries is entirely possible for anyone with a bit of space and a passion for the fruit. Brambles grow from the north to […] Read More..

Turning Meat into Money: How to Raise and Sell it Ethically

The consumer demand for grassfed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic-free meats is on the rise, putting farmers and ranchers in a unique position to make a decent living on meat that is produced ethically. But, how exactly do you turn meat into money without resorting to the large-scale industrial techniques of today’s confinement-operations? Look no further than […] Read More..

How to Grow Strawberries Indoors

It’s strawberry shortcake season, which means strawberry harvesting season. But for those of you with no outdoor space for gardens, fear not—you can plant, weed, and harvest all from the comfort of your own home! That’s right: it is possible to grow strawberries indoors, from small spaces. According to R. J. Ruppenthal, author of Fresh […] Read More..