The Bovine Practicum: Dear Oxford Scientists: Regenerating Soil is What’s Essential, Not Avoiding Meat

Cows are SO bad… according to some researchers.
But are they really?? This guy doesn’t think so…
and probably doesn’t care!

by Karin L | October 16, 2018

I’ve gotten to that point in time–or maybe my life–where I just cannot go reading a study and believe it to be factually true. I honestly don’t care how many authors have signed their names to it, or whether it hails from some prestigious university or not. What I care about the most is the content of the study, what it’s actually saying, and what the whole context and its purpose for being published actually is.

That’s how I approached this brand new study that was put out by a number of scientists from Oxford University that I was made aware of thanks to some friends through both the Soil4Climate group and Ethical Omnivore Movement. Really, it wasn’t the study itself that got my attention, but rather an article from The Guardian with the stark, attention-grabbing headline, Huge reduction in meat eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown. The first thought I had was, “Oh Lord, here we go.”

After reading the article, and grinding my teeth to the kind of message they relayed from the paper itself, I thought I’d better give the actual study a read-through as well.

Holy hell…

Springmann et. al. (2018)’s “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits” was this so-called “the most comprehensive analysis of the food system’s impact on the environment,” according to Damian Carrington, author of The Guardian article.

Oh, I so strongly disagree.

But first let me summarize the contents of the study. That is, without my own bias and harsh critique, coming up next.

The authors are suggesting a push for more and/or better technology to be much more precise in the application of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers for crops. They also, rather ambiguously, suggested that we need to reduce food waste in a significant manner. Their final suggestion was that everyone should adopt a more “flexitarian” or should I just say vegan/vegetarian diet, where, “…the average world citizen needs to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling consumption of beans and pulses and quadrupling nuts and seeds.” Within all that, they also made quite an effort to blame livestock for most all environmental problems, especially when it came to greenhouse gas emissions.

This paper, believe it or not, is actually a study that is funded by the largest food corporate giant, Nestlé, and others, primarily through their EAT Forum. In my professional and personal opinion, this “study” is merely a means to extend and affirm the giant corporation’s stranglehold on the global food market.

I found that this study was much more of a speculative “scientific” piece, with no real substantial solutions that held merit or had any practical applications. In layman’s terms, it was more fluff than stuff. While it really was, though rather loosely, based on the current issues that are occurring with today’s food system, the conclusions they arrived at where so incredibly dubious and full of holes it was rather laughable, and shamefully so. Much of their methods and proceeding conclusions were derived only from poorly designed computer data models that completely ignored–whether that was deliberate or not, I’m thinking it could be the latter–some major inputs that would drastically affect the outputs in their models.

The thought processes that created the very context of this report was highly reductionist and mechanistic. That, considering the fact that the paper seemed, at least to me, an excuse to cling on to the intensive, inefficient industrialized agriculture practices, was hard to ignore. The paper also entirely and intentionally ignored a growingly significant branch of agriculture that has proven through practicality on millions of acres, not merely through theoretical over-simplified computer models, that regenerative agricultural systems, including advanced adaptive grazing practices and no-till polyculture cover cropping practices, has (and continues to) restored soil health worldwide and provides a completely new revolutionary framework unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

We know the other context for this “scientific” paper: Nestlé has its fingers in many holes, and certainly must feel threatened by this new grassroots agricultural framework. Why? Because this incredible agricultural advancement that goes far beyond new technology to satisfy the same old paradigm of Henry Ford and Justus von Leibig leads to an astoundingly enormous cut in their profit margins. They know that if more and more people get on board with growing their own food, sourcing local regeneratively-produced meats and produce from local farmers, Nestlé and its many brands will collapse like a deck of cards. And they are scared sh*tless about it. That’s why they’ve formed the EAT Forum, and why they’ve produced this report and purposely went about to demonize meat and elevate veg[etari]an diets as “more healthy.”

Really, when we get down to the barebones of it all, it’s merely a marketing ploy to, as someone said on Facebook about this same paper, “…extend and consolidate Nestlé’s stranglehold on its ability to profit from marketing their ultra-processed food products worldwide… [and] to push the food system towards foods with high markups that will maximize Nestlé’s profitability.”

To some of you this may sound like some conspiracy theory thing to wave off, but if you think about it, much of it really makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

For me personally, it really casted an enormous amount of doubt on the efficacy of industrialized agriculture and its ability give any hope in hell of saving our sorry asses when our day of reckoning finally comes.

Want an even blunter opinion from me? I think that study is absolute insanity, and so utterly asinine on many levels it’s amazing these people that dared to attribute their names to this paper think that anything they suggested will actually work in reality. Honestly, you simply cannot come up with any real solutions sitting in an ivory tower staring at computer monitors with fancy modelling graphics without getting your boots dirty.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me take the time to explain a bit more about why Springmann et. al. (2018)’s “options” for the environment are so very wrong.

Stop Ignoring and Abusing the Soil

When a paper that is supposed to be “the most comprehensive analysis” on the impact of the food system on the environment bears only one tiny mention of the word “soil,” and confines that mention only in their “Uncertainty” section where it’s tied to their questioning of the validity and plausibility of soil carbon sequestration, it is most definitely not a comprehensive analysis. This study deliberately ignored a fundamentally important piece of the puzzle, and could only tout the “importance” of better and more advanced technology for more judicial means of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer application.

I also noticed that there was absolutely no mention about the effects of tillage on the soil and the surrounding environment downhill, even downstream, either. It seemed to me that the soil didn’t matter one iota to them. Not even the soil biota, the earthworms, the mycorrhizae, or even the effort to build back organic matter that has been so depleted from repeated tillage practices for the past century and then some.

This is so utterly shameful and disappointing for a paper that is supposed to be “the most comprehensive analysis” of the impacts of the food system on the environment!! Honestly, does the soil not matter as being an integral part of the environment?? Doesn’t it bear sufficient importance to actually be much more front and centre than technology, demonizing meat and livestock, and even food waste??

I certainly think so, and I encourage everyone reading this, who have gotten this far with me, to do the same.

Beautiful Soil

Soil is the very skin of the Earth, the most crucial part of Life itself, that bridges the gap between the biotic (plants and animals) and the abiotic (rocks, water). It is made up of both minerals from beneath the surface that are brought up by geological and physical workings of the Earth, and the decomposed or decomposing material of plants and animals. Plants, for the most part, are the greatest soil builders, with the help of animals, and especially protozoa including bacteria, fungi and archaea. These microscopic organisms have formed mutually beneficial partnerships with plants’ roots, where they actively run a bartering system. Plants receive necessary nutrients that only the microbes can break down with their enzymes, and in return give these microbes liquid carbon for energy. Plants that die get turned into organic matter, then eventually soil, just as animals that have died will (as well as their manures), and act to feed the next generation of life.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. It’s absolutely the most perfect, complex, organic, natural system that anyone could ever dream of, with a healthy balance of dark (death) and light (life), and is completely self-sustaining. It’s not something that needs fixing by human hands, it doesn’t require fertilizer or tillage or pesticides. It is perfect the way it is.

And yet we humans just had to go and mess it all up.

I won’t get into the boring details of the history from when we humans went from hunter-gatherer to agricultural masters, because that will just take up too much time, and detract from what I want to say. But, the very thing is is that we’ve been mistreating the soil for a very long time, and it has lead to the demise of various ancient civilizations of yesteryear. David R. Montgomery’s book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is a very good book to read on that topic. I have no doubt that it will be the demise of this current, albeit far more global civilization if we don’t do anything to fix our mistakes.

The Problem with Tillage

The rule to solving a problem is figuring out how it was created in the first place, and why. Let’s start with tillage. Tillage is any kind of soil disturbance, whether it be light like harrowing that just scratches the ground, or deep tillage like with a subsoiler that goes down up to two feet deep for the purpose of breaking up hard-pan. Plowing, cultivating and discing are also methods of tillage.

All of these mechanical disturbances introduce oxygen into the soil, particularly the methods that disturb only the top two to six inches. Introducing oxygen into what is normally a largely anaerobic system wakes up and encourages the proliferation of aerobic bacteria. These bacteria quickly set to work consuming organic matter, turning them into plant-available nutrients, particularly nitrogen. This is so that any annual plant seeds (which we like to call “weeds”) which may have been laying dormant in the soil for many years and are stimulated into germinating by this soil disturbance, have these readily-available nutrients to quickly grow and protect the soil from any potential losses like erosion. These annuals stay and keep producing seed until they are eventually taken over by perennials.

Before I get into the cropping aspect, I just like to say that mechanical tillage “stirs” up the soil, breaking up aggregate structure to more powder form. Soil that has no particular aggregate structure, especially one that has been formed by the roots of plants for many years, is more conducive to erosion and compaction. Erosion, because the destroyed aggregate structure gives much more surface area for much smaller particles, meaning that water takes a lot longer to percolate or infiltrate down into the soil horizons. Therefore, water is more likely to run off instead, leaving only the top few inches wet, and bone dry underneath. Compaction, because these soil particles are more apt to stick together, and be pushed together when heavy equipment go over it, creating more of a platy or blocky structure instead of a normal and natural cylindrical soil structure. Compaction may not be seen at the top 6 to 8 inches of the soil, but there’s more than likely going to be hard-pan just about a foot down where most tillage equipment, and no crop roots, can reach.

With crop production, tilling *temporarily* eradicates competition from other plants (all in a perfect world), creating a “clean canvas” for seeding annual grains and legumes into. That’s actually not true. Tilling stirs up dormant annual forb seeds (again, we love to call them “weeds”) to germinate and quickly cover the soil. This “infestation” is detrimental to the ultimate goal of getting a clean grain crop off, and bad to the conventional farmer, but a good thing on Nature’s terms. I always chuckle at the surprise that farmers I talk to get when I tell them they’re always going to have a seed bank in their soil.

The sown crop takes advantage of the temporary lack of competition and the nutrients released by the bacteria consuming the organic matter to give a bumper crop. This production boost is only temporary. The soil basically cannibalizes itself out of increasingly less organic matter, and with the regular tillage activity before seeding and after harvesting, there is also a lot of loss of topsoil from erosion by wind and water. Quite frankly erosion still also happens while the crop is in the ground, just not as heavily as in the spring and post-harvest.

This has been going on for many decades now. There are pictures and reports of as much as 6 feet or more of topsoil that has been lost from tillage. Many farmers are no longer farming topsoil, but actually subsoil, the B (and maybe some in the C) horizons instead of the OM and A horizons. How depressing is that? Not only that, but the southwestern states, as well as other parts of the world undergoing desertification, are seeing massive dust storms the likes of what was seen during the Dirty ’30s.

That soil that gets eroded away doesn’t come back, folks. It goes into waterways and fills up streams and rivers, choking them with fine soil particulate. This gets carried all the way out to the ocean. Tiny soil particles picked up by the wind are carried for miles upon miles, and deposited elsewhere. All, lost from its original source forever.

Since a lot of precious topsoil and organic matter is all but gone, which is that natural “skin” that bonds plants with the microbe community so that plants can easily get nutrients without human assistance in the form of fertilizers, in order to keep growing crops on this naked, hungry, thirsty, and feverish soil, regular fertilizing from pelleted or liquid petroleum-sourced fertilizers is needed.

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