Wednesday October 23, 2019
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Combating Overgrazing To Fight Climate Change: Ranchers

Financial incentives might help other ranchers make changes, he adds.

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Grasslands and the soils beneath them act as giant carbon sinks, the report notes. Flickr

Meredith Ellis gets a bit rapturous about the little patch of earth under her feet.

When she bought this northern Texas land several years ago, it was overgrazed and overrun with weeds. Now, she’s thrilled to find a dark green blob of fungus she rolls under her sparkly-nail-polished thumb. She picks a tiny patch of the green moss from between clumps of tall brown grass gone dormant with the fall chill.

“Look at all these little bits of biodiversity,” she said. “That’s like a little fantasy world going on in there.”

Bringing it back has been a labor of love — love of the G Bar C Ranch where she grew up, and for the 4-year-old son she’s raising here.

“Everything I do, I think about him now,” she said. “I think about his future, and what is this world going to look like when he’s my age?”

Ellis worries about the droughts, floods and other calamities he may face from climate change. She wonders if there even will be enough food to go around.

It’s a big reason why she raises her cattle a bit differently than most.

The differences not only help to combat climate change. They also provide more clean water. They can even save ranchers money. And if one project goes forward, farmers may get financial rewards for making the changes.

Meadows vs. lawns

Ellis’s fields look like meadows. Her cattle forage among an assortment of thigh-high native grasses.

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Many of the steps ranchers could take to earn ecosystem service credits would help their bottom lines on ranch anyway. VOA

Other ranches nearby look like giant lawns. Cows have grazed the grass monocultures nearly down to the ground.

The difference matters, says rangeland scientist Jeff Goodwin with the Noble Research Institute, because the native grass is “not only feeding this cow herd. It’s also feeding the underground herd: the microbes, the biology in the soil. That’s what really makes that soil an active, living, breathing system.”

It’s a system with the potential to remove tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The more forage production that we’re getting, the deeper the root systems, the more carbon we’re sequestering out of the atmosphere,” Goodwin added.

That’s increasingly important. Scientists warn that the world needs to do more than just stop producing greenhouse gases in order to avoid the worst of climate change. Carbon dioxide needs to be actively removed from the atmosphere in order to keep the planet from potentially catastrophic warming.

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Bufflo Ranch. Flickr

While engineers puzzle over high-tech solutions, a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says nature offers tools that are ready to go today.

Valuable ecosystem services

Grasslands and the soils beneath them act as giant carbon sinks, the report notes.

But not if they are overgrazed.

Around the world, one estimate says, about 200 million hectares are overgrazed, an area roughly the size of Mexico.

One study estimates that optimizing grazing could cut greenhouse gas emissionsby about 89 million metric tons, roughly the same as permanently parking 19 million cars.

Plus, overgrazed land erodes more easily. That’s a double whammy. Ranchers lose fertile soil, and it ends up muddying drinking water downstream, which increases the cost to make it tap-ready.

On the other hand, healthy grassland soils that store carbon also store and filter water.

Those benefits should be worth money, Goodwin said. They’re known as ecosystem services, and the Noble Research Institute is working to develop a marketplace for them. Ranchers would earn credits based on their soil’s carbon content and its water storage and filtration capacity.

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Horse Ranch. Flickr

Some major food and beverage companies are interested in the market. Many have set goals to improve sustainability up and down their supply chains.

“There’s not really a solid path forward” for many of them to meet those goals, Goodwin said. “We feel like we’re sitting in a very good position to be able to provide that opportunity.”

All profits from the soil

Many of the steps ranchers could take to earn ecosystem service credits would help their bottom lines anyway.

“A lot of people want to talk about soil health building as a thing to do for the environment. But really, it’s something we need to be doing for our profitability as well,” said Michael Vance, managing partner at Stark Ranch, a short drive from Ellis’ operation.

“All your profit comes from the soil,” he added.

He stood in a field where cattle had recently been grazing, but you’d never know it. The grass still stood tall. His neighbors don’t understand why he doesn’t let the cows graze it all the way down. They think he’s wasting it.

Also Read: Climate Change To Get Worse in The Future: Study

“We get phone calls where people want to drive a bailer in here and bail up this grass, but they don’t realize the positives that come by leaving it standing,” he said.

The field grows more grass when cattle are moved off it sooner. That means Vance buys less feed.

Even if it’s more profitable, it’s not easy for people to change their ways, and ranchers are a conservative bunch.

“You realize things that you were raised doing, things that your dad and your granddad did, maybe weren’t the best things to do,” Vance said, “from an environmental perspective, maybe from even a profitability perspective.”

Financial incentives might help other ranchers make changes, he adds.

The Noble Research Institute plans to launch a pilot ecosystem services market in 2019 and is aiming for a full rollout in 2022. (VOA)

Next Story

Climate change, Pollution Causing Irreversible Damage to New Zealand’s Marine Environment

Agriculture, forestry and urbanization are increasing the amount of sediment, chemicals and plastics flowing

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Climate Change, Pollution, Damage
FILE - Activists march on Parliament to protest a lack of action on climate change, in Wellington, New Zealand, Sept. 27, 2019. VOA

Climate change, pollution and fishing are causing irreversible damage to New Zealand’s marine environment and putting many birds and mammals at risk of extinction, according to a new report from the nation’s Ministry for the Environment.

The report said New Zealand’s coastline, which stretches for about 15,000 kilometers, is also under increasing pressure from development and shipping. Agriculture, forestry and urbanization are increasing the amount of sediment, chemicals and plastics flowing into the oceans, and contaminating the coastline, it said.

The report said 90 percent of the country’s seabirds and about a quarter of its marine mammals are threatened with extinction, and that 16 percent of New Zealand’s fish stocks had been overfished.

“The sea is a receiving environment for what happens on the land, so our activities on land from the mountains to the sea are having an impact on what we are seeing in the marine environment; growing cities, forestry, agriculture — all delivering increasing amounts of sedimentation,” said Vicky Robertson, New Zealand’s secretary for the environment.

Climate Change, Pollution, Damage
The report said New Zealand’s coastline, which stretches for about 15,000 kilometers, is also under increasing pressure from development and shipping. Pixabay

Warmer seas

The report also confirmed that New Zealand’s sea temperature had risen and was consistent with the global average. It also found sea levels were rising faster than before.

There was a warning, too, that New Zealand could expect more frequent marine heat waves, similar to those in 2017 and 2018, and ocean acidification.

For the first time, data from citizen scientists were used in the government report. Community groups were instructed about how to collect robust data.

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The next official marine environment report is due in three years.

New Zealand is a grouping of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, southeast of Australia. It has a population of 4.5 million people. (VOA)