Why cows properly cared for are good – for the land, the climate, and us

This from Tom Chapman a livestock farmer, agriculture consultant and founding member of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association:

“The oft-mentioned trope about emissions from animals and their other, supposedly damaging, effects….. The majority of ruminants in the UK graze either marginal land (not suitable for growing other food crops) or within an arable rotation.

The former is making use of land areas that would otherwise go to waste. Millions of people are fed from the wet, cold uplands of the British Isles. The latter (livestock grazing grass planted as part of an arable rotation) is a key technique, used by farmers to conserve and build soil and, most importantly, to reduce the need for nitrates to be used when growing the following arable food crops. Livestock add natural fertility. Removing them would dramatically, and damagingly, increase the use of nitrogen fertilisers (as well as herbicides, pesticides, phosphates and a whole host of other chemicals needed to grow crops in denuded soils).

And then there are the emissions….. One of the key principles of physics is that matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Therefore, the carbon emitted by the animal hasn’t magically appeared. It is part of the carbon cycle: plants remove carbon from the air when photosynthesising, and lock it into their plant structures (leaves, stems, roots etc). The animal comes along and eats the leaves of the plant, digests it and, hey presto, releases the carbon back into the atmosphere from whence it came! (Comparé this to our cars and tractors which, in burning fossil fuels, are releasing “new” carbon into the atmosphere – carbon that was, ironically, captured and locked into the ground by photosynthesising plants millions of years ago!) It gets better on the grazing livestock front too.

Not only are their emissions of carbon simply putting back the carbon removed from the atmosphere a short while ago, but not all of it is returned to the air. The roots of the grass plants, plus much of the dung from the cattle, gets locked into the soil as “soil organic matter” and, ultimately, as a very stable form of carbon, known as humus. In in other words, grazing livestock have the potential to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Australian scientists have calculated that using livestock to increase the soil organic matter of the worlds agricultural soils by 1% would capture all the fossil-fuel carbon we have released since the Industrial Revolution.

Bring back the cow!”

This was originally published as a comment in The Times in response to an opinion piece on vegans.

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