Cows have gotten a bad rap in recent years. Their flatulence and burps have been cited as contributing to climate change. But what if that’s not the case? What if, in fact, cows are actually helping save the planet?
Judith D. Schwartz is a journalist and the author of “Cows Save the Planet.” Today, she sheds light on the need for cows for healthy soil. She describes the diversity of such soil (that the cows enrich) in detail, along with details on its micro and macro diversity (including “mega fauna” such as earthworms)! She reminds us that the very minerals we seek for our children (often in the form of multivitamins) are found in the soil. Judith points out the critical role cattle play in cultivating such richness.
Visit Judith’s website: judithdschwartz.com
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
Our guest is Judith Schwartz. She is a journalist and the author of Cows Save the Planet. She stresses how healthy soil is teeming with micro and macro diversity, including megafauna such as earthworms. She reminds us that the very minerals we seek for our children, often in the form of multivitamins are found in the soil. She explains how cattle and other ruminants are changing the soil for good. She also points out the parallels between the body of the earth and our bodies. Before we dive into the conversation, I want you to hear what Dr. Palevsky, a speaker at 2022’s Wise Traditions Conference had to say about his experience.
“My name is Dr. Lawrence Palevsky. I’m a pediatrician licensed in New York State. I have been practicing pediatric medicine for many years. I’m here at the Wise Traditions Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2022. I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel discussion with Dr. Tom Cowan, Dr. Natasha McBride, and Brandon LaGreca.”
“I also had the pleasure of giving a lecture on moving from medicine to healthcare. The essential message that I have been giving and continue to give is how important it is for us to eat seasonally to make sure that we eat off the land and know what’s growing in each season so that we stay healthy that way. Eating foods that come from 3,000 or 5,000 miles away in different seasons from which we are living does not support our health no matter how healthy they are.”
“It’s important to follow the seasons. When the days get shorter, it’s important to slow down, do less, rest more, eat less, be more quiet, and eat more warm foods, especially as the days get shorter and colder. It’s also important to realize that the body is always detoxifying. The more toxins we put in, the more the body has to work to detoxify.” Oftentimes, the onset of an illness is the body is reaching past the threshold of capacity to hold onto those toxins.”
“An illness is not necessarily because we caught something. An illness is a way for the body to save itself from death and harm based on the increased load of toxins that we put into the body and because we don’t necessarily pay attention to how we are supposed to live by nature. If any of you have pets, pay attention to your pets and how they live during the seasons because we need to follow along with them. Thanks, everybody.”
It’s not too late to join us. Find more information registered now at Wise Traditions. I hope to see you there.
Visit Judith’s website: Judith D. Schwartz
Register for the Wise Traditions Conference
Welcome to the show, Judy.
It’s nice to be here.
You have a provocatively titled Book, Cows Save the Planet. How did you come up with that title?
As often happens, the title came upon me. I was writing a book about soil. This was a few years ago when people weren’t talking about soil. I can tell you that writing a book about soil back at that time was lonely. It was me, my books, and sources thinking, “Soil is amazing. No one else was talking about it.” I was thinking, “I couldn’t say I have a book called Soil Is Important. You Should Care About it and I will Tell You Why.” I didn’t think that was going to make me many friends. One day I was walking around and my son had a bunch of books on the floor. I bent down to pick one up. I saw that it was a book by Gary Larson, a comic book.
The Far Side.
One of those books that I picked up was called Cows Of Our Planet, and it was a ring of cows that like the shape of the globe I thought, “Cows of our planet. Cows Save the Planet.” That’s how it happened. From then on, it wouldn’t let me go. I want to add a little something. I am wearing cow’s earrings.
You called it Cow Save the Planet. I want to go back to this title. Do you still think that’s true?
I do. At this point, I would add an asterisk to that. I would say cows save the planet, but not just cows, but all other animals, wildlife, plants, and living things because the more I explore, report, and research, the more I feel that biodiversity is the key to life on Earth. Life creates life. Life begets life. Thinking of animals because it’s that notion of a four-legged thing that moves that people say, “What? Cows save the planet?”
It’s interesting and it opens things up to recognize the extent to which animals create our landscapes. We think about cows and other animals being in the landscape that you have got this landscape and the animals happen to be there, but no. The landscape wouldn’t be what it was were not for the wildlife. Now we have livestock, but it was their wild antecedents that created the landscape such as the great plains of the US, the Savannahs of Africa, and the grasslands of the world. If we look at forests, we look at other wildlife that created those conditions.
Can you tell us more about that? What do you mean that they created those landscapes?
The one thing that I have come to learn is that nature, species, and collections of species create the conditions under which they thrive. Let’s think about ruminant animals. We have got cows now, but in the past and wild lands, we had all kinds of antelope and buffalo. If we are talking about Africa, wildebeest, and all of these creatures running across the landscape.
Those animals created the grasslands. They built the deep-rooted grasses, the rich soil that can go down meters. The roots of the grasses could go down meters deep, which means that the soils were that deep. That perpetuated the conditions under which these animals thrived. Those ecosystems were created by the behavior and the digestive habits of ruminant animals. I can go into more detail about that.
It reminds me of what Joel Salatin says. He says, “Cattle move and they mob, they pull together and they mow.” They are doing all these things. Not just the cattle but the wildlife. They are simultaneously using the land but also fertilizing it and making it richer.
They do many things at once. To a large extent, that behavior has to do with they are responding to predators. The way that I articulated this at different points was that in nature, plants are managed by plant-eating animals. Those plant-eating animals are managed by predators. As Joel Salatin says, “These animals are moving.” They are not just saying, “There’s a wolf. I think I’m going to get out of the way,” rather they see a wolf, they bunch up and flee en masse. That has a lot of implications.
They are trampling seeds into the soil so that a diversity of grasses has a chance to germinate. They are pressing in plant matter. Decaying plant matter so they can be broken down by microbial life and incorporated into the soil. That’s the building of the soil. Their hoofs make imprints, their dung adds nutrients, and their urine adds moisture. All of this is happening when they flee very rapidly and intensely.
You might look at a landscape after a herd of antelope has been chased away by a lion. It might look rugged and everything looks messy. What’s happening is that those actions are kickstarting many ecological processes. In our culture, we think that a tame landscape or vista is healthy and desirable, but no. Nature works in action and disturbance. That’s how all of these processes, the cycling of moisture, carbon, nutrients, energy, and even information happens not by having a bunch of animals standing there and looking pretty.
No nature works in action. Nature works with disturbance.
It’s not about a bucolic vista where we see the cattle on the hillside. It can be more chaotic than that. What came to mind when you were sharing these things is forest fires, which for years we have been saying like, “Let there never be a fire in this area.” Eventually, nature takes care of itself and presents the right conditions for fires to occur, but maybe there is a reason. Even though to our eyes, it seems like it’s ravaging a landscape. It may be a necessary process of pruning. There can be growth in the future.
I agree with you halfway and I will explain why. There are landscapes that co-evolved with fire. A tree like the eucalyptus tree. Remember I said that species in nature create the conditions under which they thrive? Eucalyptus trees need fire in order to break open that seed and for those plants to germinate. In turn, that tree will create the conditions for fire. However, in many environments, fire is a rare thing.
In grasslands, you get occasional fires from lightning. What happens is that you get a burn that stimulates certain ecological processes, but it is contained because, in a healthy landscape, you will have a lot of moisture so the fire wouldn’t get out of control. A way that Allan Savory has talked about this, we know that vegetation needs to be managed. The nutrients in vegetation and biomass need to be cycled.
That can be done biochemically through fire. The vegetation burns and you get ash. That creates the conditions for pioneer species to grow and you get that cycle happening again and again, or that cycling can occur through biology. That is through the guts or the digestive processes of animals. I would say that now we are out of balance, in that we have much more vegetation being cycled biochemically, whereas our landscapes, health, well-being, and biodiversity would be better served if the balance were shifted toward biological cycling.
I didn’t expect to go in this direction. I appreciate that you have studied this in such detail. I want to go back to the animals themselves because now I feel like we are blaming the cattle for climate change with their farts, burps, and stuff. If they used to run wild, mob, move, and mow as you and Joel say, maybe that was part of the secret, and now we are out of balance because we are keeping them all locked up in these confined animal feeding operations. Is that why people are blaming them for climate change because in those conditions it’s not ripe for enriching the soil or their health or our health?
Yes, because when you confine animals, you have taken processes that are in a more spread-out scenario. You would have resources the animals would create and give waste, which would be a resource for nature. Everything from the dung beetles, which would bury the dung. The microbial life, which is acting upon it and how it’s building the soil and creating the conditions for all kinds of soil life to thrive enhancing the conditions for a diversity of vegetation to grow.
It’s taking what could be a resource and turning it into a pollutant. Those conditions are not good for anybody. It becomes a problem. It’s understandable that people respond and say, “This isn’t good,” but going that step further and saying, “Cows are bad.” It is a logical leap that doesn’t quite make sense. People want to blame something somehow that caught on.
Blaming cattle for our many ecological problems is a symptom of our collective disconnection from the land because when people are in ongoing relation to the land, then they are observing and seeing how animals are affecting the landscape. The more we observe, the more we understand, and the more insights we have to better manage our landscapes. I want to bring up the fire question and put me in mind of another animal that often gets blamed for problems. I’m talking about donkeys in Australia.
In Australia, donkeys were brought in as pack animals. When the people who arrived from the West were developing the Outback. They had all these donkeys and they carry things. They helped people as they were homesteading, then mechanized transport became available and people didn’t need the donkeys anymore. They let them go. Many people know that among the many attributes of donkeys is that they live a long time, upwards of 40 years.
We had all these donkeys running around the Outback creating bands and family groups. That’s the situation. In many of the rural areas in Australia, such as Western Australia, which is a vast province and state. They saw and like, “There are all these donkeys.” “Donkeys aren’t like kangaroos, bandicoots, or any of these other animals. They are not native. They are causing problems. They are running around and knocking over people’s fences. We must get rid of them.” That was the narrative about donkeys that they had to get rid of donkeys.
In the meantime, there is a farmer named Chris Hagler whom I have interviewed extensively. He and his family manage an area of land the size of Singapore, the size of the five boroughs of New York. It’s huge. Their goal or the purpose of their outfit is to restore the landscape. That’s it. They were using cattle in all the ways using holistic management and holistic plan grazing, and they were making tremendous progress. They are in restoring the land. The main challenge they had was a fire.
In Kimberley, Western Australia, it’s a very rough and rugged area. There’s a fire all the time. Somewhere at any moment in Kimberley is burning. They were using cattle to control the vegetation, bring moisture, and nutrients, add carbon to the soil, and all of these things that minimize the intensity and frequency of fire, then these donkeys showed up and Chris said, “That’s interesting. The donkeys go where the cattle won’t go. They can be part of our fire crew.” His father found ways of using helicopters to herd the donkeys.
This was all fabulous except for one thing. The government had already decided the donkeys were pests. This has been going on for years. The donkeys get a reprieve and then the government says, “We forgot about your donkeys. We want you to get rid of them.” “Wait a second. We are making great progress and we have had fewer fires and the fires have been less intense.”
This keeps going on. A little bit more about the donkeys, because this is relevant to this whole question of animals. Scientists have been researching and they are finding out yet more about how donkeys help that landscape. First of all, they dig wells and in digging wells they get water for themselves, but also for other wildlife. The way that they move their hoofs, they kick up the dirt and they move the leaves around, which creates favorable conditions for many of the small marsupials that have been struggling. It’s one thing.
There’s this wonderful scientist named Arian Wallach who talks about invisible megafauna. She was involved in that research about donkeys in Australia and how most scientists because the donkeys aren’t native. They are not paying attention to how their behavior has an impact on the land. Many of these species are looked upon as if they don’t belong there are filling or performing ecological functions that have not been accomplished since the end of the Late Pleistocene in Australia when they lost their megafauna thousands of years ago.
Coming up, Judith talks about how under grazing or resting the land too much can be harmful. She also talks about her explorations around the world and what she’s learned about nourishing the soil.
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Talk to us a little bit about undergrazing or resting the land too much. Can you address that?
I have been to Zimbabwe and I did see that land. I spent eight days with Allan and Jodi, his wife. I could see it was wonderful. Allan is a master tracker. He can read the landscape like no one else I have ever seen. That was wonderful because I could see from many angles evidence of the improvement of the land. An example was the extent of flooding. He took us to the parkland where you could see that because of the debris that was held up on branches, the floodwaters were several meters high in the rainy season because it wasn’t being held on the land, whereas the debris was only up to our knees at Dimbangombe at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management.
When someone can show you and you understand in a visceral way, it stays with you. I remember he turned the jeep that we were riding, and he said, “On parkland, the water would have been higher than this vehicle.” I’m standing there and I’m pretty short. That means that would be over my head. I have also had opportunities to go to other game parks in Southern Africa because my husband is from South Africa so we have gone several times. The more I learned about land, the more I could see the suffering of the land. That includes undergrazing.
One way to think about undergrazing is that it’s a suboptimal disturbance or it doesn’t have enough animal impact. All of the ways that I mentioned that the actions of the animals can enhance the landscape by cycling moisture, nutrients, carbon, and energy, that when there’s not enough animal impact, then it’s much more stagnant. You are not getting that cycling.
One result of that is that the vegetation doesn’t get pressed into the soil. It doesn’t become incorporated into the soil. That in itself is huge because then you have decaying and drying out plant matter sitting on top of the ground that has several outcomes or consequences. It’s blocking the sun from any new vegetation that’s trying to grow. It’s also dried out. If a fire comes by, it’s going into flames.
It’s like kindling.
It’s keeping everything stagnant so important cycling doesn’t occur. That’s dried out, then the soil beneath gets dried out. When the soil gets dried out, then you start losing the life in the soil. As that plant matter decays, it is also throwing carbon up into the atmosphere because it’s getting broken down again like Allan said, biochemically. It’s oxidizing. Fire is one form of oxidation and the breaking down of biomass without it being incorporated into life forms is another form of oxidation.
You mentioned water and how the soil is rich on Allan’s property and that it can retain the water. The soil you are describing that’s undisturbed, I imagine you would get a lot of runoff because it’s like the soil is more like dirt but can’t hold the water.
You are losing more soil and then you have got bare soil. We don’t often recognize this but bare soil absorbs heat. When you have plants on soil then those plants are cycling moisture. They are transpiring and that’s a cooling mechanism, whereas when you have solar energy and sunlight beaming down on bare soil, it heats right up. Above a certain temperature, something like 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not that hard for bare soil to get to, then you start losing microbes. Microorganisms start dying. What I’m describing is the process of desertification.
The less healthy the soil is, the less healthy we are as a planet, but as people because let’s say we try to get some crop from that degenerated soil. It’s not going to have the same nutritional inputs because there’s less organic matter in the soil.
What often happens is to make up for the lack of life in the soil that processing is outsourced. We outsource those processes to chemicals. We are pumping chemicals into the soil to try to get something that looks like a crop. As we know, many of our crop seeds are engineered to be able to grow in spite of those conditions as we know with Roundup crops that are designed to withstand the onslaught of those chemicals.
It reminds me of years ago and they are probably still doing it. They noticed that there were poor conditions in some of the slaughterhouses and feces were getting mixed into the ground beef. Instead of cleaning up the slaughterhouses, they started irradiating the meat to get rid of the effect of the feces. In a way, when you talk about these chemical inputs, it’s like we are detached from nature that we think, “Here’s an idea. We have messed this up, but let’s add this on top of it. We are making a continual stacked-up mess.”
I remember it was a real revelation to me when I was researching Cow Save the Planet, the book on soil when I was talking to a farmer who made the observation that the nutrients, magnesium, calcium, and all of these minerals that are in his children’s multivitamins are what’s in the soil. When we test our soil to see whether it’s in good condition to give us healthy crops, it’s interesting to think about the parallels between the body of the Earth and our bodies.
You mentioned a little bit about carbon and I feel like we need to sequester more carbon again because we are disconnected from nature, people don’t realize that regenerative farming does exactly that. Can you talk to us a little bit about what we are talking about here and what are other ways to sequester carbon that could benefit the planet?
That’s where I came into the whole topic of soil. It was pointed out that over time more carbon has gone into the atmosphere from disturbing and mistreating the soil compared to the burning of fossil fuels. Now it’s much more a factor of fossil fuels, but over time that has been a huge source of carbon in the atmosphere and it still is. At first, I was thinking more in a linear sense like, “Let’s get carbon in the soil.” I started to explore how that was done.
As time has gone on, I see more than the drawing down of carbon into the soil needn’t be the goal in and of itself as much as it is a byproduct of working in harmony with nature, because that is what nature does. I fear sometimes that if that is looked at as a goal in and of itself, then sometimes we end up missing some of the other aspects of good regenerative farming approaches such as managing biodiversity.
It reminds me of when we teach children and public schools especially, we teach them to do well on the test. They do well on the test. They get an A, but did they absorb the information? Did they learn other skills along the way of teamwork and curiosity? Did we cultivate those things in them? If we are only focused on one singular goal, we might be missing other things in the process.
Sometimes the goal of a healthy Earth, we get caught up in getting an A on the test of sequestering carbon and the extreme version of that is, “Let’s bury carbon. Put it all in a box and underground.” Whereas if you look at the whole system, you want that carbon in life forms. We want more life, and carbon is the embodiment of that life.
That’s a beautiful way to put it. You say in the subtitle of your book that Cow Save the Planet and it’s an improbable way to heal the soil and the planet and that there are other improbable ways. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What are some of the improbable ways to heal the soil and the planet?
It’s a funny question because it doesn’t feel improbable anymore. That was a reflection of my sense of awe and surprise at how central soil is to getting back in balance with nature. I was still in a state of, “That’s amazing.” An example is biodiversity. It was such a surprise to realize that biodiversity starts in the soil because back then biodiversity, that would be, we need to have polar bears, penguins, and all these animals. We do, but we create the conditions for enhanced biodiversity by beginning in the soil and recognizing that 95% of land-based biodiversity is in the soil. There are species we don’t even know that haven’t even been identified.
I was thinking of fairy penguins and different things like that, but it’s fascinating. It’s a whole wild world down there.
We keep learning more and so much that we are learning now is also about the fungal life in the soil and how central that is to sequestering carbon. It’s not just that one function of sequestering carbon, but rather what that means. It’s not an end in itself, but mycorrhizal fungi, the root-centered fungal networks are moving that carbon around to serve all the plants and life in the soil. I remember, being awed about the biodiversity in the soil and how soil scientists talk about soil megafauna. That amused me to think of an earthworm as megafauna from the standpoint of the soil, when you are talking about these tiny creatures, then an earthworm might look like an elephant to a microbe.
I wish we could keep going on and on, but I feel like we need to wrap up a little bit, but let me ask you this. You suggest that healing the soil can address much more than what we perceive as climate change. What are some of the other tough issues that can be impacted by regenerating the soil?
You mentioned our health because the food that we eat can only be as healthful as the soil on which it has grown, then the animals that we consume can only be as healthy as the soil that’s nourished them through the grasses forms that the animals eat. Good health starts in the soil.
To get specific, let’s say a chicken eats the earthworm and the earthworm ate some other microbe. Let’s say that the first microbe wasn’t in the best situation because we have added all these chemical inputs. That little microbe isn’t that great. The earthworm isn’t feeling that great because it ate that, then the chicken eats the earthworm, then we eat the chicken. It’s going to have a ripple effect on us.
The way that it would play out is that the chemicals would throw off the balance of microbial life in the soil. For example, for certain microbes, you might have overgrowth, and then for other microbes, you have fewer of them. That might be how that played out. You might have fewer earthworms surviving, or maybe the bugs that the chicken ate. They’d be less healthy or when they are used to having a balanced diet of bugs, they might only have one bug.
The chemicals would throw off the balance of microbial life in the soil.
I felt like that illustration was a little bit like the house that Jack built. The straw from the donkey and the donkey from the garden. I don’t remember the whole children’s poem, but in other words, if there was no earthworm even to be packed on, the chicken would suffer. If we ate the chicken, we would be suffering too. That’s the idea. I want to pose to you the question I like to pose at the end of the show. If the readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
Be in tune with your body or what your body needs because so much in our food system is hijacking our sense of taste and energy that it leads us to crave fast energy rather than more sustaining energy. I would add to that also, pay attention to your body in the landscape, to spend time outdoors, in nature, in a way that you are paying attention to where you are and giving yourself a chance to feel at home there.
That in itself, I find enhances not only my sense of well-being but my clarity about what I need. I hope that doesn’t sound too abstract. We are creatures of the land and we evolved in the context of our landscapes. Often, we forget that because we are inside or we are rushed. Think that we have so much to learn and benefit from by paying attention to our surroundings and allowing ourselves to find a home there.
We are creatures of the land, and we evolve in the context of our landscapes.
We are all interconnected. Thank you for that reminder that this planet is our home. Thank you.
Now, for a show review from Bzygutis. It’s called Informative and Empowering, “I love this show. It takes big health ideas and puts them into easily digestible episodes that Hilda hosts swell.” Thank you so much. I appreciate your review. You too can leave us a review. It warms our hearts over here and lets the world know that the show is worth reading. Go to Apple Podcasts, click on Ratings and Reviews, and give us as many stars as you’d like. Thank you so much for reading. Stay well and remember to keep your feet on the ground and your face to the sun.
- Cows Save the Planet
- Judith D. Schwartz
- Far Side
- Joel Salatin – Past Episode
- Offally Good Cooking
- Liver Lover Challenge
- Optimal Carnivore
- Apple Podcasts – Wise Traditions
- Cows Of Our Planet
- Dr. Lawrence Palevsky – Past episode
About Judith D. Schwartz
Judith D. Schwartz is an author who tells stories to explore and illuminate scientific concepts and cultural nuance. She takes a clear-eyed look at global environmental, economic, and social challenges, and finds insights and solutions in natural systems. She writes for numerous publications, including The American Prospect, The Guardian, Discover, Scientific American, and YaleE360. Her latest book, “The Reindeer Chronicles”, is a global tour of earth repair, featuring stops in Norway, Spain, Hawai’i, New Mexico, and beyond.
Judy has a B.A. from Brown University, an M.S.J. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern. She lives and works on the side of a mountain in Vermont with her husband, author Tony Eprile, and cherishes visits from their musician son, Brendan. When it snows, she cross-country skis, and when ski season is over, she’s in the garden. Three times a week she trains in Uechi-Ryu karate, and has reached the rank of Nidan. Whatever she’s doing, she will stop to listen to the song of the hermit thrush.
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