Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to our Food

reviewed by Jane Hammer

You know that first warm, sunny morning of the New England spring, where you can finally feel in your bones that yes, the seasons keep on turning and it will be green again…that is how I felt reading Cows Save the Planet. This book presents the first real message of hope about our future in the face of weather extremes and global warming: how people from North Dakota to Australia, New England to Zimbabwe are cooling their local climate naturally, regenerating their soil and water resources, and sequestering carbon for the betterment of their own lives as well as global systems. It’s a pretty quick read—succinct, inspiring, well designed and not preachy. Readers receive a thorough introduction to many of the pioneers of soil carbon farming and a good explanation of how carbon and water cycles are related to soil health, food security, climate stability, and rural livelihoods.

While the ambitious and lengthy subtitle is true to the important and wide-ranging content, the quirky main title (“Cows Save the Planet”) aptly hints at Judith’s concise and entertaining style, which makes this pithy subject matter very approachable. A lot of ground is covered, in depth (literally!), with choice descriptiveness and skillful wording—readers easily join her in a satisfying journey to learn and understand. We get up-close, personal introductions to the farmers, ranchers, their lands, and those that help them to push the boundaries and document their progress.

Expert journalism makes this an excellent introduction while also getting into many of the details. Judith has done the work of going on location and asking the hard questions as well as doing her own “reading up” so that she can convey some of the underlying science and also the results and on-the-ground evidence. Her reporting is in depth but hardly dry, such as when she refers to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones’ “article called, ‘Carbon That Counts’, passed around soil circles like a 1970s rock bootleg among music fans”. While Judy is adept at giving the bottom line to the layperson, for example, “the bumper sticker version: ‘oxidize less, photosynthesize more’”, she is able to give more advanced explanations clearly. For example, ”without plant cover, soil carbon is prone to bind with oxygen and go airborne” and “…in high carbon, high functioning soil with the liquid carbon pathway intact, soil microbes, are able to fix nitrogen and release phosphorus and other elements, making them available in a plant-accessible form.”

Through every chapter we get down-to-earth stories of how it’s done: capturing carbon and nurturing biodiversity to make the soil a nutrient-generating, fertile sponge which proofs farmer livelihoods against drought, floods, pest and disease pressure, temperature extremes, all the while enhancing fertility and food quality. We get to know some of the thoughts, personalities, and history of people who are pioneering soil regeneration on tracts of thousands of acres and on as little as a fraction of an acre at a time. Woven throughout and repeated helpfully is the common story of plant-microbe relationships, carbon streaming into the ground well below where we usually think of carbon content—and staying there because of and for the benefit of healthy, deep rooted plants that are approaching their photosynthetic potential.

In the introduction, she dives right in to clarify and answer, and does not waste our time reiterating the gloom and doom realities of climate change.

The first chapter we meet Peter Donovan and Abe Collins, who teach land managers and others how to think about the carbon cycle, that “water follows carbon”, that plants and soil life actively work and that we have a power as humans to positively effect these, with proper management and monitoring. Peter teaches farmers and ranchers how to monitor soil improvements through the Soil Carbon Challenge with baseline plots all over the country—to document, but most importantly to constantly correct the steering of land management. Here we start to get the gist pretty quickly, aided by short captions like Peter Donovan equating bare ground (where oxidation is the dominant process) as a “sunshine spill”, its energy getting re-radiated as heat instead of binding it into the soil biochemically. At the close of the chapter there are sidebars about cows and methane and about biochar.

Chapter 2, about nature’s version of carbon trading, takes us to Australia to meet soil scientist Christine Jones, the “liquid carbon pathway”, humus, mycorrhizal fungi, glomalin, and how the carbon transfer takes place under ground. In this chapter we begin to understand how we can be free from the widely held view that soil generation is something that can only occur over geologic time scales. “One farmer…put it more succinctly, ‘You build soil where the roots go—down!’” This chapter ends with a side bar about the impact of high nitrogen fertilizers on soil microbial life and soil carbon and water retention.

Turns out, building soil, biologically, can happen very rapidly, by inches, and percentage points of carbon content, on the order of a few years to a decade. Covered here is the introduction of the keyline plow by P.A. Yeomans and subsequent work by his son, Allan Yeomans. The book goes on to document many cases of this. Colin Seis is building soil on a 2,000 acre farm in New South Wales using pasture cropping which improved ecological function, resistance to drought, and greater diversity after just 2 years, and developed a 200 percent increase in soil carbon levels over ten years. Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition runs a non-profit in Sante Fe training farmers and ranchers and educating the rest of us about how it is possible and necessary to rebuild grasslands. Farmers and ranchers explain some of their techniques and often astonishing results: Gene Goven of North Dakota employed his soil system to build 6 inches of topsoil in one season. Abe Collins saw an increase from 8 inches of topsoil on top of gray clay to 16 inches of topsoil in one year. Judy also reports about Jay Fuhrer and Gabe Brown, now famous, of the Burleigh County soil conservation service, a hotspot for soil building on the ranch and larger farm scale.

A whole chapter goes into the work of unmaking deserts in Africa, thanks to the work of Allan Savory and the Africa Center for Holistic Management. Here is explored the grazing paradox–higher stocking rates, managed properly to mimic large wild herds of ruminants, can lead to land regeneration on the scale of thousands of acres in less than a decade. The factors of disturbance, decay, and brittleness are explained—these factors are critical to understanding desertification and soil regeneration in seasonally dry lands (which make up most of the land area of the world).

Another chapter introduces us to the scientists and political activists who, as a “group of friends” together promote the New Water Paradigm: Michal Kravcik, Jan Pokorny, and Juraj Kohutiar in Slovakia. They have connected the dots among the biosphere, hydrology, and climate. Not only are they doing things locally in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but also are researching and engineering in Africa, and have been actively promoting the role of water in the climate at Copenhagen and on the world stage.

The chapter entitled “Beyond Eat Your Vegetables” goes into how restoring the soil microbiological system and increasing soil carbon leads to higher food quality, as well as higher fertility, disease and pest resistance, and overall resilience. Many may recognize Dan Kittredge who heads the Bionutrient Food Association, training farmers and educating consumers here in New England and across the country about the intimate link between soil nutrition and food quality.

Interweaving more individual stories, including some of the people and places key to the ongoing success of the Grassland LLC experiment in the west, Judith also delves into exposing the problems with biotech, backwardness of chemical fertility, and mounting evidence of the huge mistake that policy makers have made in supporting genetically engineered crops. She doesn’t finish without consulting with the New Economics Foundation and the Schumacher Center, encouraging us to think here about what money is and to explore how carbon is the real currency. The idea is that if we pay attention, we may be able to re-align with the real economy and harness the power of bio-ecological systems on a large scale to reverse global warming and sustain ourselves.

Although this is not in the book, this quote from the Quivira Coalition website is a good summary: “Today, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and other land-based carbon sequestration activities. Strategies include enriching soil carbon, farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, and producing local food. Over the past decade, many of these strategies have been demonstrated to be both practical and profitable.”

This book is a gift of hope that shows the path by which we thrive into the future and a call to action. It so satisfyingly explains how we can do something about climate change, and it’s all about the soil.