Managing the Microbiome or How Beef Production Can Be Good for the Climate
Jun 20, 2018
In an EconTalk podcast recently Russ Roberts interviewed Moises Velasquez-Manoff titled "Cows, Carbon Farming, and Climate Change"
There was a lot of interesting talk about the role of the microbiome and to me the over arching theme is that managing the microbiome can be key in making livestock and crop production more sustainable and productive.
See also: https://www.realagriculture.com/2018/01/microbiome-a-growing-term-that-could-improve-agriculture/
One important theme you can pull out of this is something we already know in agriculture - beef production can be good for the environment and allows us to produce healthy food from land otherwise unusuitable for about any other type of production:
"about two thirds of what we do with land in the world is grazing it. Just like one third of that is actually used to grow crops. Because, most marginal land is used for grazing--like the hills and stuff, you can't plow up. That's just--you let cows roam on it; and especially in poor countries, you are able to get another protein source from that grass, that land from which otherwise you wouldn't be able to get anything from"
The big idea is that intensive grazing and management of beef cattle can create optimal conditions for the microbiome leading to increased production, reduced resources, and reduced carbon emissions. All good for the planet.
"So, there is this whole microbiome in the ground--I mean, this whole ecosystem really in the ground, that's being fed--the plants are basically working as pumps. Carbon pumps. This is how it was described to me by, I think, Whendee Silver, I remember. But, the purpose of the plant in this big ecosystem is to just pump sugar into the ground, or other kinds of carbon, long carbon chain molecules, that are then consumed by this incredible array of life in the soil, that then returns other nutrients in exchange for those sugars. But that is the carbon pathway of how you get carbon from the air into the ground--is, basically, by passing it through all these life forms. And huge chunk of those life forms are microbes. In the soil. So, basically, healthy soil is basically about a healthy soil microbiota"
This does not even get into the managing the microbiome within the rumen. The discussion goes on to discuss management practices for crop production - things like crop rotation and cover crops. Things that are not so uncommon but we often hear critics of agriculture act as if these are new things greedy ag businesses want to keep secret. Or that they are things only 'small' 'local' or 'organic' producers can do. The podcast dispels that myth:
"these guys are not California hippies. They are sort of middle-country, just regular farmers just looking for ways to do things. I mean, farming is a difficult business. The profit margins are so, so slim. Right? And so, anything you can do to keep more of the money that you generate is good. And what these guys do, it sounds like I've talked to a few of them, is that by focusing soil health, they reduce their pesticide use, their fertilizer use, their herbicide use."
I don't like everything that goes said and unsaid in this discussion but its all worth a listen.