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'Cows Save the Planet': Soil's Secrets For Saving the Earth

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In her book Cows Save The Planet, journalist Judith Schwartz argues that the key to addressing carbon issues and climate change lies beneath our feet. Schwartz says that proper management of soil could solve a long list of environmental problems.

"The thing to realize is that while we think about this as a sky thing - that it's all about all the fossil fuels that we're burning and all that spewing into the atmosphere - it's actually also a ground thing," she tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Schwartz explains how livestock can help restore the land and get the carbon cycle back in balance.



Last month, for the first time in millions of years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, a scary milestone on the route to a warmer and more unstable climate. And that number will continue to rise as we continue to burn fossil fuels in our cars and power plants unless we can find someplace else to put all that carbon. In a February TED Talk, an activist and visionary named Allan Savory argued that properly managed herds of ungulates - cows - can bury huge quantities of carbon and restore our topsoil at the same time.


DR. ALLAN SAVORY: There is only one option, I repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.

CONAN: Allan Savory calls this holistic management. We want to hear from farmers and ranchers today who use holistic management, also sometimes known as intensive grazing. We'd also like to hear from skeptics, too, 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Journalist Judith Schwartz profiles the work of Allan Savory, among others, in a new book called "Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth" and joins us now from Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JUDITH SCHWARTZ: Thanks. Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And at the same time, cows can both bury the carbon and restore the topsoil. Sounds too good to be true.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, well, it's actually amazing. The book is really a book about soil. Soil is a hub for so many of our environmental, economic and social crisis, and for solutions. And in the process of all my research, I found that when you look at our situations, our various situations, from the standpoint of the soil, everything turns around. It almost allows for a radical reframing of our problems such as, as you mentioned, climate change.

CONAN: And really though, the soil is the key to all of the many different problems we have, including climate change and carbon dioxide and the various other problems?

SCHWARTZ: OK. Well, let's look at excess CO2 in the atmosphere. OK. So the thing to realize is that while we think about this as a sky thing, that it's all about all the fossil fuels that we're burning and all that spewing into the atmosphere is actually also a ground thing. So if you look over time, way, and I mean way more carbon has gone into the atmosphere from soil, from the way we treat the soil compared to the burning of fossil fuels. And once you start to understand this and you understand the processes that release carbon into the atmosphere - you know, so the carbon, I mean, it's heavy tillage. It's leaving soil bare. It's interrupting the life in the soil. It's all these things - soil drying out. Then you can understand that you can actually reverse those processes and, by so doing, bring carbon back into the soil.

So over time, we're talking gigatons of carbon that's gone into the atmosphere from the soil. And what's so exciting about this is that this is something we can do. It just concerns me that when we see these numbers, you know, we look at the Keeling Curve, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere going up, up, up. I mean, we just...   
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