Climate change is a holistic issue. Its many components are interconnected and dizzyingly complex. Fossil fuels, greed-based economic policies, uninformed land use practices, inefficient distribution networks, socioeconomic blockades; just to name a few.
As such, the solution is also multi-faceted. Holistic intensive grazing of livestock on managed silvopasture in conjunction with regenerative agroforestry practices combined with local production chains is the people/place/planet solution to climate change and its related issues.
Essentially, using biomimicry we can manage land in ways that reflect how plants and animals evolved together in various ecosystems. These practices build soil and sequester carbon while at the same time creating local jobs and boosting local economies.
Let’s dig in!
Forests: The best carbon sequestration technology ever invented (and not by us).
Estimates show that the planet’s forests are able to sequester 40% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere by humans annually. That leaves a devastating 60% that is speeding up the Greenhouse Effect. By and large, forests are the most effect means we have in trapping and storing carbon.
These effects differ by forest type. In tropical rainforests where vegetative growth is rabid, 1 acre can hold 110 tons of carbon, with half that amount being in above ground vegetation, and the other half in the soil. Temperate forests hold 70 tons per acre, with a third above ground, and two thirds as organic soil carbon. Lastly, boreal forests hold 180 tons of carbon per acre, with 84% of this is in the soil.
Amounts of carbon captured and held per acre across these different biomes varies based on vegetative growth conditions, species makeup, and decomposition rates. Tropical forests have the lowest percent of soil carbon because conditions are best for vegetative decomposition, while boreal forests have the highest amount of soil carbon due to the extremely unfavorable conditions for rapid decompositions.
All told, forests sequester 25% more carbon than any other land use. By increasing the amount of forested land on planet earth we can dramatically increase the amount of carbon sequestered annually. That 60% we talked about earlier must be fought on 2 fronts. One to decrease our overall amount of carbon emissions, and on the other we need to increase the amount of carbon our biomes are capable of drawing down out of the atmosphere.
However, forests grow best with the presence of ample water, soil nutrients, and ground cover. Desertification is one of the major components of climate change leading to food scarcity, water scarcity, poverty, and rising temperatures. To combat this and pave the way for agroforestry, there is another tool we need.
Hello Livestock: Holistic land management, or intensive grazing is regenerative.
Watch a nature documentary about Africa, and you’ll see vast herds of wildebeest grazing on the fertile grasslands after the rainy season. Rewind United States history and you’ll see the same thing: million head strong herds of American Bison chomping away on the Great Plains.
As it happens, grasslands evolved in tandem with large grazing animals. They form a symbiosis that if one is missing, the other is weakened. Allan Savory has been on the forefront of researching this relationship for decades. His work has shown that in arid and semi-arid regions where precipitation is clustered to a portion of the year, followed by a dry season, the herding and grazing behaviors are essential to keeping grassland healthy and preventing it turning into desert.
Basically, these grazing animals group together to protect themselves from predators. Each individual is safer if they are surrounding by many of their own kind. As they graze, they are urinating and defecating all over the grass. Very quickly they’ve trampled and excreted on their food source and have to move to new area.
All that urine and feces plays the role of fertilizer. If you have any gardening knowledge at all you know how important it is to regularly fertilize your soil. You are also probably aware of how mulch increases moisture retention for the soil. The trampling action of the herds does the same thing.
Take away the massive herds of grazing animals quickly moving from area to area and guess what happens? The long grass doesn’t get trampled down, and is left to slowly oxidize, eventually toppling over in clumps and suppressing the next generation of grass too much. The ground is not covered in an even layer of “mulch” allowing all the water to quickly evaporate back into the atmosphere. And the lack of excretion means no new fertilizer to encourage growth.
Over time this leads to top soil erosion, and eventually desertification. Ever heard of the Dust Bowl? This is exactly what happened. Settlers slaughtered the great herds of bison, put up fences which prevented the continual movement of whatever herds were left, overgrazed their own little spaces with domestic cattle, and in short order a vast portion of our country settled into the process of becoming a desert.
Thankfully, this is reversible.
What Savory’s work shows is that we can mimic this grazing animal to grass symbiosis to regenerate top soil, soil microbiomes, and pasture macrobiomes. Livestock have long been the target of blame for desertification. Now they are the key to reversing the process.
Livestock are also frequently blamed for their contribution to greenhouse gasses. And under the factory farm setting, this is true. But the answer isn’t to all go vegan and stop having livestock. These animals are not meant to be confined in one area, with a food source they didn’t evolve to eat being hauled in from all across the country.
When grazing animals are “grass-fed” and living on the land where their true food source comes from they actually create a carbon sink. The same can not be said of tofu.
We’re not talking about just meat products either. Holistic management, regenerative pasturing, intensive grazing, etc also can be used for dairy and fiber production. Cotton, linen, and hemp cannot be used to reverse desertification. Grazing animals can.
Trees + livestock + crops = Agroforestry/Silvoculture
Read anything about permaculture? If you have, you’ve probably come across the term “food forests.” This is the practice of stacking food, medicine, and materials production the way that natural forest ecosystems do with a canopy, a low tree layer, a shrub layer, an herbaceous layer, the rhizosphere, ground cover, and vertical surfaces.
By combining the carbon sequestration abilities of forests with the soil regeneration properties of holistic management, we can create production ecosystems that are more abundant and more resilient than conventional agriculture. Aka silvopasture and agroforestry.
While extremely similar, for the sake of this article I am defining them as the following. Silvapasture: the incorporation of grazing animals under a canopy of productive trees. Agroforestry: agriculture incorporating trees with other plant crops.
In my article on chestnuts I explained how this profitable and nutritional tree crop can be paired with Icelandic sheep to create an abundant system that produces nuts, meat, dairy, fiber, and leather, all on the same parcel of land. This is an example of silvopasture. If you manage your silvapasture using the holistic management method, you can generate healthy soil, increase water retention, and maximize carbon sequestration.
The agroforestry version of this would be to grow shade tolerant crops like greens, root vegetables, and berries underneath the chestnut trees. Don’t think you have to use chestnuts, there are many species that can be used in in the canopy layer of these practices.
These types of productive ecosystems don’t just benefit us. They benefit wildlife as well. A little discussed issue in rural areas is the fragmentation of forest ecosystems. As woods were historically cleared for agriculture, small pockets and hedgerows got left behind. This inhibited the migration and ranging patterns of many kinds of wildlife from large species like deer and bear all the way down to squirrels and weasels. Resulting issues include increase in lyme disease, over browsing, under browsing, decrease in pollinators, etc.
Silvoculture and agroforestry create conditions that allow animals to move more freely between wild spaces. Combined with scattered open meadow environments, using trees to create abundant systems produces dramatic positive effects on biodiversity and wild ecosystem health.
These are hands on practices. Move over machinery, jobs are back in town.
A shift to agroforestry and silvopasture won’t happen over night. But if it did, we would immediately see benefits to local economies.
Unlike agribusiness operations with thousands of hectares being planted with a single crop that is easily harvested by machine, silvopasture using holistic management and agroforestry with multi-level crop stacking are hands on. There is no mechanical replacement for a shepherd and sheep dog (except a factory farm) and no machine yet has been built that could manage the complexities of a food forest.
In both these cases you have the formation of long term jobs that require skill. A challenge many farmers face is finding good employees year after year. Conventional agriculture has bursts of activity with lulls in between. Hence migrant workers must move from one location to the next as work is available. At the same time you have local youth with few work opportunities that must leave to make a living.
Can you imagine trying to teach a new employee the complexities of tree pruning, seeding schedules, no-till seeding techniques, irrigation, proper harvesting, animal husbandry, and more every year or multiple times a year? If instead you are able to hire someone and keep them long term, year after year, you create stable local jobs that allow youth and immigrants to settle down and feed money back into the local economy.
Local production chain anyone?
Fast forward a bit. Now we have locally produced commodities like wool, berries, nuts, vegetables, herbs, eggs, milk. The opportunity arises for local production chains.
The way current agriculture works is you have crops being grown in various parts of the country, but the factories to process certain products are massive and far flung. This creates the need for long-haul transportation which can be expensive, and such a hurdle as to negate the point of growing a certain crop at all. It also draws wealth away from the local communities.
Let’s look at an example.
Sheep are one of the grazing animals available for intensive grazing management in a silvopasture setting. Currently, the US produces about 26 million pounds of wool every year. And that is only the wool that is actually accounted for. Many farmers throughout the country don’t even bother reporting or selling their wool, because the cost to actually send it away to a mill and have it spun into yarn and/or woven into cloth would cause them to lose money.
There are only about 70 fiber mills left in the USA that process wool fiber, and not all of them can handle the whole production chain of washing, carding, spinning, weaving. Aka more money and fuel for transportation. This drives up the price of the finished product, making it often too expensive for most Americans to afford, creating an entirely ineffective production and distribution chain.
If instead you had mills set every hundred miles or so that could be co-supported by farmers within a 50-mile radius, the price of production and distribution would come down substantially to the point where farmers could still make a profit and local communities could afford the items being made.
Again, this is creating skilled long-term jobs, and reinvesting wealth back into local communities. And you can apply this to many other products. Chestnuts > flour mills. Walnuts > nut butter and oil. Fruits > local jams and jellies. Lumber and sticks > wood working and basketry. Milk > yogurt and cheese production.
Somewhere along the line corporations took control of where things get made, and promoted only those products easily made by machinery or cheap labor overseas and it has undermined the self-sufficiency of communities everywhere.
Expanding the kinds of goods produced on a local level promotes food security and local economy. Doing this using silvopasture and agroforestry ensures healthier ecosystems which are less prone to drought and natural disaster, all the while fighting climate change through carbon sequestration. It’s wins all around.
Integrated Solutions for Complex problems.
No single action is going to fix climate change. Or war. Or poverty. But there are many pieces that when combined have a better chance of solving all these problems. One of those “greater value than the sum of its parts” sort of situations.
Conventional systems of agriculture, production, distribution, and global economy have gotten us into this mess. It’s time for a new approach. One that has the backing of scientific knowledge and wisdom hard forged by 10,000 years of mistakes. As more people convert to agroforestry and silvopasture, and production chains are brought back to the local level, we will see an increase of local wealth, an increase in public health, decreased reliance on government aide, and the birth of a culture that once more cares about the land, the soil, the planet that feeds us, clothes us, and gives us shelter.
Do you know any farmers that could benefit from this model of agriculture? Do you have a small-scale food forest of your own? Share your stories and comments below. Let’s change the world together!
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