Guest editorial: Data is what’s missing from argument over McPolin Farm cows
I don’t know if the cows on McPolin farm are good for the environment or bad.
A series of op-eds published in this newspaper recently have argued both sides. Unfortunately, none of them offered any data to back up their arguments.
These cows are there as part of a city-sponsored “regenerative agriculture” project, which is a component of the city’s overall zero-emissions goal.
Regenerative agriculture incorporates livestock into a holistic approach to farming that actually sequesters carbon by building deep, healthy topsoil. At least, that’s the claim of proponents such as Allan Savory (The Grazing Revolution), Gabe Brown (Dirt to Soil), and Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma).
In their Sep. 1 op-ed, Christopher Cherniak and Lauren Lockey disagreed, asserting that using “a methane and waste-producing, invasive species like cows” is inconsistent with the city’s objectives to achieve zero carbon emissions. They suggest that instead we could “plant more trees along the edges of the property and along McCleod Creek … The long-term environmental and aesthetic benefits of trees far exceeds any seasonal ‘benefit’ one farmer’s herd of cattle could offer.”
But what exactly are the environmental benefits? How much carbon can actually be sequestered by each of the alternative approaches?
Gregg Simonds responded with an letter on Sept. 16. He argues that what is happening on the McPolin Farm differs from the industrial agricultural practices that cause so much environmental concern, because regenerative agriculture will improve the land and “boost the soil’s ability to sequester carbon.”
But how much carbon? And when factoring in emissions from the cows themselves, what is the *net* quantity of greenhouse gas that will be sequestered, or emitted, by the operation on McPolin Farm?
Tom Horton responded with a letter on Sept. 21, arguing Simonds missed the point. “Livestock grazing can be beneficial (to the land) but that is not the context at issue. In a climate change context, livestock produced for food is a major carbon problem.”
But the central question is not how much carbon (or methane) is produced by livestock on other farms. It is how much greenhouse gas is emitted — or sequestered — by this one.
As grass grows, it absorbs carbon from the air. Some is pulled by roots into the soil. Some is released back into the air through decomposition. Some is eaten by cows. The cows emit some of this carbon (along with methane) back into the air. The cows are eaten by people. People eventually release most of this carbon back into the air. Some of this carbon is then absorbed by grass as it re-grows.
It’s a cycle, and whether there is a net emission or sequestration of carbon in the process depends a great deal on what’s happening with the soil.
I still don’t know if cows will destroy the planet or save it. But before I form my opinion, I want to see the numbers.
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