Our farmers are being criminalised. Here’s how they could be climate heroes
Peter Byck is a writer, producer, director and sustainability expert. He is on the board of directors for Project Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever created to tackle climate change and was a 2017 New York Times bestseller. His latest venture, Carbon Cowboys shows how cattle ranchers can help fight climate change, cultivate entire ecosystems and sustain their livelihoods by mimicking a natural process that gives the land time to recover from grazing.
Alongside drastically reduced meat consumption and food waste, experts agree approaches such as these will be vital in helping to green the food sector and preventing runaway climate change.
I wanted to inspire people through film, but I felt that a lot of the films [about climate change] were just moaning. When I’m fearful, I don’t act. In fact, I just close down. So, in 2011 we made a movie called Carbon Nation and it was about solutions to climate change not just the problems. In the making of that film I discovered how important soils were and that’s when I discovered adaptive multi paddock grazing (AMP).
AMP is a type of grazing that emulates the way bison and the grasslands co-evolved in a pattern of growth and grazing, which mutually supported each other. We discovered farmers across the US were having great success with AMP, not just in rebuilding their soils, but in turning their farms into an entire ecosystem. By using the animals as a tool, they were able to regenerate their farms, their incomes and, in a lot of places, regenerate their own communities. Just by focusing on soil health.
You get better plants, insects and birds
Healthy soils, through plants and photosynthesis, draw down enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. That’s important because we have a serious placement issue, where we have too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in our soils. If we can increase the carbon stocks in the ground, it leads to healthier, more productive soils. They don’t store the CO2 forever and it will eventually get up in the atmosphere through a natural cycle, but you have a lot less up above and a lot more down below – where it does enormous amounts of good.
AMP works by copying the natural process of growth and grazing. We’re talking even before farming here. Large herds of herbivores would heavily graze grassland and then quickly move on, unlikely to return for months if not years. The land then has time to properly recover and grow back into lush grasslands. It’s that heavy hit and rest. That’s the way the plants and the animals co-evolved together. So, through this method you’re bio-mimicking a natural technology. The cattle feed intensely on a small patch, then they are moved on, letting the land recover properly.
Traditionally, farmers will grow a single crop – usually hay. And then let the cattle roam wherever they want. This prevents natural grazing and doesn’t allow the land to properly recover. [Through AMP] you get so much more variety of natural grasses and flowers and crops. This helps biodiversity and you end up with a polyculture of crops instead of just one. What does that do? Well, if you have ten or twenty different crops growing, your animals know what to eat to keep themselves and their nutritional needs in balance – so they’re healthier. Then the various plants attract various insects, so now you have a biodiverse insect population. That attracts various birds and now you’ve got a wildlife situation.
Birds are a great indicator for a healthy soil system. In the US, we’re just ploughing and ploughing our grasslands and the bird populations are collapsing, up to 90%. That’s dangerous and a tragedy. But these adaptive farms are being picked by the birds to breed in much higher numbers and in a greater diversity of species. So, you’ve focused on your soil and your forage, but you get better plants, insects and birds.
The more biodiverse a system is the more resilient it is
We initially looked at AMP as a specific solution to climate change, but then realised all the other amazing things soils bring to a farm system. Every metric gets improved, not just wildlife. Soils with healthy and diverse plant systems don’t flood as much and actually prevent flooding further downstream. They also clean the water system and prevent the loss of top soil – vital for agriculture and farming.
We followed a farm in Devon and a farm in Cornwall with the River Tamer splitting those two counties as it flows into Plymouth sounds. Well, they have to keep dredging Plymouth sounds because all that beautiful topsoil is being washed away due to mismanagement, and ends up dumped at the bottom of the water table. [Letting topsoil wash away] is a crime, it should be illegal with everything we know right now. But I don’t want farmers to be criminals. I want them to be heroes.
Below ground, the different plants feed different soil microbial communities. It’s pretty well known that the more biodiverse a system is the more resilient it is – including human populations. Those microbes are the engine. The more microbes you have that are diverse and thriving, the better the plants are being fed. The plants then suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, burp out oxygen, keep the carbon, mix it with water, create sugars and feed the microbes.
It’s a whole system and it’s healthier and it’s doing good. And if you have healthy systems, you don’t need to put down fertiliser and nitrogen and pesticides, which saves nature but also saves the farmer money.
The more you use nature, the less it costs
In all our examples, the farmers operating costs are going down. This is because instead of planting, fertilising, harvesting and bailing all this hay to feed your animals for five months of the year, these farmers are able to keep their animals grazing in the fields for eleven months of the year. They don’t need tractors or bailers or hay storage. They set up temporary paddocks and rely on the robust crop management system that nature intended.
We found that this system of farming is possible anywhere in the world. You just adjust it to the rainfall and the number of animals your land can feed. The more you use nature, the less it costs. The less it costs, the more opportunity the farmer has to break even and make a profit. So many farmers in the US and across Europe have “off farm jobs” because they can’t make enough money from their farming operations. In the US, the highest rate of suicide amongst any group is farmers.
We have huge farming subsidies because agriculture right now is just not sustainable financially, or for the planet. What are those subsidies costing society? Right now, those subsidies are supporting soil degradation. If farms are profitable, they don’t need those payouts – then what else can that money be spent on? We’re at the beginning of a big movement to incentivise farms to support regenerative agriculture. But at last the policymakers are making the connection between climate change and agriculture.
The only people who don’t like adaptive grazing are those that profit from the old way of doing things, like the companies that sell products that aren’t needed anymore. Some of the universities that have been teaching the old way of land management for a long time also resist, but they just haven’t pivoted yet.
Unfortunately, there are always a lot of people too used to the way they do things. You see it in Carbon Cowboys; farmers going bust while their neighbours are thriving and they just refuse to shift. All I can do is just keep working with people and telling people these stories of successful farmers.
We’ve pushed food too cheap
The responsibility to support this movement doesn’t just lie with the farmer, but with the consumer. We need to buy our food from farmers who put their soil health as the primary purpose of their farming. It’s as simple as that. We know what the experiment to make super cheap food has given us: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, wildlife loss, biodiversity collapse and dying soils.
We’ve pushed food too cheap, which is also why farmers are in huge debt and killing themselves across the world. We have created a system where we’re not talking about profit per acre, but yield per acre. Our farmers are trying to win that battle and they have to buy equipment, seeds, feed, chemicals, fuel and adopt unsustainable practices to do it. The government policy for decades was go big or go home, and the results are horrifying. We’ve found what is best for the farmer is best for the food production, the nutrient density of food, the surrounding community and society at large. Our farmers can be climate heroes. When they see this alternative method and the impact on their livelihoods, their daily life, their profits and their environment – they get very excited. But enough farmers aren’t incentivised and we all need to make the case and support those who do this. Because I want farmers to be successful! I don’t want them out of business, or in debt. We have filmed in all sorts of ecosystems. From heavy rainfall to no rainfall, warm and wet, cool and dry, and everything in between. If they focus on soil health they do better.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 10th June 2020