Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


A recent article published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has created consternation in a small part of the livestock and climate change war. The Guardian, which often writes negative pieces about the concept of livestock farming, rather curiously reported that a small herd of wild European buffalo in the Romanian area of the Carpathian Mountains could “store two million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to the emissions of 1.88 million average U.S. petrol cars a year”. Nobody quite believed the figures and arguments reverberated as to whether this was a peer reviewed paper or not – a big issue in times of so much fake news.

A week ago, all became clear. We were told: “The research authors have since retracted these figures, which were due to a coding error. The correct figure is that bison could store 54,000 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to the emissions of 43,000 average U.S. petrol cars.”

While this sounds much more reasonable, it all misses the point. Although making some comparisons can be useful in supporting climate understanding, these quick and easy ones are always dangerous. The 2006 FAO paper Livestock’s Long Shadow was promoted with exactly the same comparison of livestock versus transport to condemn livestock in a way that it has struggled to recover from, despite it now being freely admitted that the comparison was in no way like-for-like and the paper was otherwise loaded with inaccuracies.

Paywall protection

Secondly, since we can gather from this academic paper, hidden behind an expensive paywall, it is really about a different subject altogether. Rather than a specific focus on biogenic or anthropogenic emissions, GWP100 or GWP* and the like, it is looking at whole system carbon balances and the speed of nutrient recycling.

Back in 2008, Graham Harvey took us down this path with his book The Carbon Fields, which I continuously return to as he explains the synergy gains from livestock on long-term grassland. The herbs and plants that grow amid the grass have longer roots and survive and recover faster from drought or flood conditions. They also hold more carbon in the soil.

Buffalo and bison carry large numbers of seeds in their hair, sowing the next generation of grasses, herbs and wildflowers each spring. Professor Frank Mitloehner describes them as climate heroes due to their beneficial impacts on carbon capture, biodiversity, and nutrient enrichment of soils. This is explained as a mixture of evenly grazing grasslands, recycling nutrients which fertilise the soil and compacting the soil to prevent carbon from being released. Researchers say that, with buffalo having been part of the Carpathian ecosystem for millennia, or more likely millions of years, their removal upsets the delicate balance, causing carbon to be released.

This study is part of a bigger programme to better understand the impact larger animals have on the carbon world. They kept the forest opened up, creating pathways for smaller animals and reducing the scrub that accelerates wildfires, and speed up the overall nutrient cycle in an unexpected number of ways. Their presence can accelerate the warming of the land after winter frosts and extend the length of the spring season. Overall, the study shows that the large animal presence alters the dominant pathways of control over carbon storage and capture.

This arises via direct, consumptive effects and especially via indirect, non-consumptive pathways by instigating faster nutrient recycling. This leads to a quantitative change in the ecosystem’s carbon balance, enhancing the amount of carbon captured and stored in the ecosystem. According to the study, the indirect pathways appear especially important in enabling these effects because of their sensitivity to the structure of the ecosystem’s food chain. The modelling shows that animals could play a larger role in ecosystem carbon cycle than previously thought.

Rewilding

This was never a battle about methane but an effort to provide guidance for further empirical research aimed at quantifying animal-mediated control of carbon cycling and to inform the development of nature-based climate change solutions that leverage animal influence on the whole carbon cycle. The Global Rewilding Alliance has been working with Yale University for three years to develop new methods of predicting the additional carbon captured if a landscape or seascape were rewilded.

There are now around 7,000 buffalo/bison free ranging across Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Slovakia. This study relates to a reintroduction in Romania a decade ago by Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania. There are now a number of such projects helping large herbivores to make a comeback plus much smaller ones in Western Europe. The brand Patagonia supports one in the United States.

The climate head of WWF Netherlands, Maheen Khan, was quoted as saying: “These astonishing results show the potential for reintroduced wild animals to supercharge the ability of ecosystems to draw down atmospheric carbon.”

These grazing animals are wild, but it is a clear message that both types of rewilding and regenerative farming with grazed livestock offer a real option for policymakers in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.