I've Got Beef with the NY Times (Conclusion)

This is the conclusion to my series on the NY Times' latest beef hit-piece "Save the Planet, Put Down the Hamburger"

If you missed it you can click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Today I want to offer a perspective on cows and carbon, that might be different than what you're hearing from other people in the regenerative agriculture world.

It's become very fashionable to talk about how grass-fed cows can actually sequester more carbon than they emit.

Is it true that properly managed cows can sequester carbon? Absolutely.

Soil can hold a lot of carbon, and we have a lot of degraded soils.

With proper grazing you can restore those soils to their former glory (they were mostly built by wild ruminants, like bison, to begin with).

But at the end of the day. That's an agricultural solution to an agricultural problem.

Restoring soil carbon is critical for its ability to grow nourishing and bountiful food, retain water, and support diverse ecosystems.

But it is a drop in the bucket compared to extracting and burning fossil fuels.

And by focusing so intensely on the CARBON CARBON CARBON of it all, we agree to play a game with rules set by technocrats and corporations.

Once we agree to that, it's a death spiral.

Because with enough corporate money, a single variable can always be solved for (or at least the data can be manipulated).

There are already studies indicating that no-till row crop planting can sequester some carbon.

But they achieve that by killing the last crop with herbicide, and then planting into it without tilling up the soil.

So sure, the soil isn't mechanically disturbed. And the dead crop and its roots will provide some soil carbon.

But is that the food you want to eat?

Is that the world you want to live in? Even if it manages to sequester a tiny bit of carbon every year?

Of course not.

But by ceding the terms of the discourse. By simplifying everything down to emissions. That is the world we will get.

We need to promote a fundamentally different vision of the world (at least the agricultural world).

One where cows are not judged for the sins of oil companies.

Where their report card is not based on sequestering carbon that we sucked out of the earth and burnt.

One where we celebrate the other things. The beautiful things. Things that don't pack neatly onto a spreadsheet.

Now that I'm a dad, I'm entitled to bouts of reminiscence.

And I can remember a time not long ago when "environmentalism" encompassed a beautifully complex web of factors.

But more and more, year by year it feels like we are losing sight of that complexity.

Instead that web of life is being reduced to little more than emissions and sequestration.

When we moved to our farm, we inherited a corn field that was dead. The soil felt like a parking lot. I literally dribbled a basketball on it.

4 years later the fields are lush. The soil is moist and spongy. It teems with worms, roots, bugs, and countless microbes.

Undoubtedly our soil carbon has risen.

But why focus on that? Why fixate on the single data point that Monsanto or Cargill or JBS can scheme their way into competing with us on?

Why not focus on the booming bird population?

Or the total absence of chemicals.

The dozens of native species, plant and animal that suddenly abound.

The fact that it doesn't flood like it used to.

Why not the unparalleled quality of the food we produce?

Why agree to play the game by the rules that billion dollar companies WANT?!

When we have the ability to play a different game. To paint a different picture. To write a different narrative.

One that you can see and hear and smell, and understand immediately.

And one that can't be manipulated by a corporate data scientist.

That's why I try so hard to avoid the "our cows sequester carbon" rhetoric that is getting so popular.

Not because we don't. We absolutely do.

But because it's asinine.

It patronizes you.

It belittles the totality of the work we do in partnership with the cattle.

And every time the words cow and carbon appear in a sentence together, I feel like it makes some corporate PR team's job a little easier.

I hope that this made as much sense as it does in my head.

I'm not saying not to worry about carbon, or that cows can't help the situation.

Just that it's not what we should be focusing on. There is so much more to the beautiful human-ecosystem interaction that is agriculture.

And that focusing on other pieces of the puzzle, can make the future much more hopeful.

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