In the face of overwhelming global concerns ranging from the environmental consequences of our agricultural system to a struggling economy, Courtney White offers what could be a practical guide and a glimmer of hope. In his book “Grass, Soil, Hope,” White suggests that in order to confront climate change and economic crises, we merely need to reconsider how we treat the soil and the farmers behind our food.
In his eloquent forward, Michael Pollan endorses the book for its virtues as a real-world model for consumers and farmers alike. Pollan says, “Courtney White’s book points to a very different idea of intensification—one that also brings forth more food from the same land but, by making the most of sunlight, grass, and carbon, promises to heal the land at the same time. There just may be a free lunch after all. Prepare to meet some of the visionaries who have mastered the recipe.”
Unlike many environmental activists, for White, this “free lunch” includes meat on the plate. In his recent presentation as part of the State of the Rockies project at Colorado College, White said, “nature has always farmed with animals.” He asserts that American grasslands have evolved to depend on the grazing migration patterns of large mammals, such as bison and elk, which have now been replaced by cattle.
In contrast to the popular environmental belief that the cattle industry is a dominant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource depletion, White believes that certain ranching techniques can allow us to effortlessly protect soil and ultimately use the grazed grasslands to sequester carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
A cattle rancher himself, White gives several examples of farmers all over the world who are coming up with new ways to produce meat while increasing the carbon retention of soil and profitability of their land. Some of these techniques are somewhat surprising, as they contradict the basic tenants of our agricultural system. One prime example is the no-till farming strategy, which protects the microbial activity that is destroyed by plows.
“Grass, Soil, Hope” offers a bounty of simple action steps towards a more sustainable meat industry. From rotating pastures for grazing, to using mulch to cover agricultural fields during winter months, to increasing income for ranchers who use these responsible practices.
White’s argument is well informed and hopeful in its assertion that by building topsoil, taking care of our waterways, and supporting organic and soil-conscious agricultural systems, the apocalypse we are all preparing for can be painlessly avoided. White states that it has often been asserted in the scientific community that by increasing the carbon retention of soil by two percent, we could offset 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, so the carbon-conscious action steps that White offers to cattle ranchers are productive in many ways.
However, White’s vision isn’t pure utopia in reality. The methane that is produced by the cattle industry may be more harmful than carbon, an issue that is never addressed in White’s book. According to Environmental Working Group, methane is 25 percent more potent to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide that is the focus of this book. Aside from the frequent flatulence of cattle that produce large amounts of methane, compost, one of White’s solutions as a useful protective cover for carbon emitting pastures, also produces methane and nitrous oxide, another harmful greenhouse gas.
It is also questionable whether ranchers can rotate small numbers of cattle on their land to the benefit of the grasslands while simultaneously meeting the high demand for meat worldwide. Pasture rotation requires more land, but where is all this land going to come from? White’s guide fails to provide answers to when these strategies may reach dangerous tipping points. However, the solution for a “free lunch” that White offers us is still a productive and accessible tool for reimagining our food system.
White attempts to include every type of citizen in his movement towards sustainability. Whether you are an urbanite or a cattle rancher, White believes that any lifestyle can be altered to decrease the carbon footprint of agriculture. He says that no matter who you are, “carbon is part of your life.”
White asks farmers and rural residents to sequester carbon in soil through “backyard management” and suggests that consumers in urban settings investigate where their food comes from and vote with their dollar to support sustainable food producers. He encourages people to get involved in their local food systems, buy produce and meat from farmers’ markets, learn about nearby organic family farms, and grow their own food in backyard and urban gardens.
“Grass, Soil, Hope” offers just that—hope. Even though it is arguable whether animal agriculture can be sustainable in any context, White gives readers a narrative and guide that inspires activism and awareness for every demographic. We are all responsible for the welfare of the environment through our necessary involvement in a food system that is embedded in agriculture. White’s encouragement to be proactive about that involvement, no matter how distanced you may feel from the actual farms, is a valuable message for anyone who eats.