A thoughtful new piece published online by Aeon calls for a reboot of how the nation’s livestock farmers do business.
Grassland 2.0 calls for our livestock farmers to also become grass farmers. It is a re-invention of a very old wheel: the idea that animals and pasture can work together as a kind of ecosystem.
The campaign comes out of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is described on their website as a “collaborative group of farmers, researchers, and public and private sector leaders working to develop pathways for increased farmer profitability, yield stability and nutrient and water efficiency, while improving water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and climate resilience through grassland-based agriculture.”
The Aeon describes how farmers today have achieved maximized yields in livestock production by reliance on three key “intensive practices”:
- Genetic tweaks of plants used for feed and the animals themselves
- Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and “growth compounds”
- Concentrating livestock operations.
But, all three come, in turn, have two big downsides: 1) the resulting profits generally end up in the pockets of suppliers and not farmers, and 2) the “devastating environmental degradation” associated with these inputs is passed on to society (Jackson, 2020).
But, if we “recalibrate our expectations about the role of farming and food in our lives” and give up our current tendency to “squeeze every possible harvestable unit from the land,” we can find another way.
In a Grassland 2.0 system, “farmers are compensated for building and storing carbon and nutrients in soils, providing habitat for wildlife, contributing to bucolic landscapes, and perhaps, reducing their yields” (Jackson, 2020).
From a land management perspective, Grassland 2.0 does away with confinement livestock operations by allowing animals to graze on “well-managed grasslands.” Improving soil quality and practicing place-based regenerative agriculture can allow livestock farmers to support their animals from the land, rather than relying on grains and other external resources to feed stock.
These grasslands not only keep livestock fed and producing healthy milk and meat, they also provide a whole host of other environmental and social benefits (Jackson, 2020):
- Climate resiliency
- Water quality
- Flood mitigation
- Promote biodiversity
“It is wrong,” the piece claims, “to attack these sustainable practices as ‘uneconomic’ when we consider the ways in which government props up current extractive farming practices” (Jackson, 2020). In particular subsidies for crops like corn and soy have to go and be replaced with those that incentive regenerative approaches and healthy foods and farms.
It feels like progress that reputable agriculture programs are promoting sustainable techniques. The increasing damage caused by herbicide use and practices that deprive soil of nutrients is causing more and more people to ask “What’s next?” for agriculture.
Randall Jackson, “A vision for agriculture,” Aeon, Date Published: March 17, 2020; Date Accessed: March 27, 2020.