Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Protecting the future of cattle on land

It'll take new thinking: Part science, part art, part marketing

Posted: July 16, 2013

Get ready for a new level of understanding of the role of cattle in the world's landscapes. It'll be driven as much by art as science. It will belong as much to the people who can create the language and imagery necessary to tell this story as it does to scientists and their facts and equations.

It will be critical to gaining the broader understanding and necessary respect for a prosperous livestock industry according to long-time researcher Henry Janzen. A well-recognized scientist based at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Lethbridge Research Centre he has spoken extensively internationally on related land use topics.

Not surprisingly, Janzen believes that we have to re-tune the way we think if we want to ensure a future for livestock production. Livestock's role, like many land use debates, tends to get polarized into whether livestock are good or bad. Like the food versus feed debate or greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint.

It really needs to be bigger than that, he says. "We have to start with the land and ask ourselves what we want from it. What does it do for us? What do we expect our successors will want from that land? Having done that we have to ask how livestock fit. How can we manage livestock to enhance expectations of the land unit? And not just the soil but land in the broad sense, the trees and vegetation on its surface, the water than runs across and through it, the air above."

"The bottom line is we need fresh perspective so that the people buying beef at a supermarket in downtown Calgary or Toronto know the story that goes with it," says Janzen. "We need that to ensure sustainable cattle production systems for future generations."

Four cornerstones

Public interest in cattle-on-land discussion will be driven by urgency in food production, Janzen believes. Cultivated land on the planet now amounts to only a fraction of a hectare per person, and that value will dwindle further as population grows. Grassland acreage dramatically overshadows cropland today, much of it land that should never be cropped.

As a starter to this new conversation he identifies four aspects of grassland culture that can act as cornerstones to more effective storytelling and imagery.

First, land is a receptor and redistributor of solar energy, the ultimate fuel for all life. Second, it is a "renewer, a restorer, a rejuvenator" and the nutrients and other elements on the planet need to be ever recycled, ever re-used. Third, land is a keeper, a repository, nature's memory. It is the carrier of sustainability, preserving vitality, resilience through time. Finally, land is our own habitat, our home as human beings.

With that as a framework, the challenge is to pick topics that will resonate with people. He sees examples emerging in the public's language and landscape.

Biodiversity. There is more and more the concern we are losing biodiversity, losing species. "One of the things we are going to be looking at as a society and as scientists is how to restore that biodiversity," says Janzen, "and how better to do that than to get animals back on these landscapes. Especially on the margins, beyond the croplands themselves to the edges, the marshes and areas where livestock and forage provide some degrees of biodiversity."

Preserving soil quality. How do we preserve the quality of the soil? People know one way to do that is to include perennials. Many of these are forages. "If you grow forages then you need livestock," he says.

Defining human value. Land is human habitat. "It's our home, where we derive not just physical sustenance but also things, like aesthetic value, places to go to restore our minds," he says. "I think animals have a place to play from that perspective. Of the landscapes we enjoy, many are populated by some of our domesticated animals."

Putting numbers to values

As well as images and language, society needs to find ways of assigning value to these intangibles, says Janzen.

"We know the easily measurable ones like economics and greenhouse gas emissions but we don't quite know how to capture or explain the value of biodiversity. How do we put in words, images, expressions or stories the aesthetic value of a floral array in a well-kept pasture, of a songbird nest in unplowed land, or the thrill of seeing a newborn calf. These are real benefits that are way beyond the greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint and nitrogen contamination.

"It's never a simple case when you deal with ecosystems. Grass, cropland or whatever - it's always a tradeoff. There are always benefits and potentials challenges. In debates we tend to oversimplify. In ecosystems when you oversimplify sometimes you may get the wrong answer."

Holos can help

One partial hope for new horizons in landscape measurements is the Holos greenhouse gas (GHG) calculator designed by scientists to measure whole farm GHG emissions. That tool is already being adapted to consider other components, says Janzen, and part of the long-term aim is to quantify and include in Holos some of these other currently less tangible measurements such as biodiversity.

At this stage it is conceptual, he admits, but maybe some scientific and artistic ingenuity can come together to help Holos users to think also of these other considerations, that just because some practice has a slightly lower carbon footprint does not mean that it's necessarily the better one as we consider how best to use a piece of land.

Thinking long-term

One other point is long-term perspective.

Cropping research has long had long-term research plots, like the ones in place at Lethbridge operating for the past 100 years, but there are not enough long-term livestock research plots.

Land is a continuum that spreads across the terrestrial landscape, but land also connects across time, says Janzen. People are there only for a time but land persists. So the notion of choosing our practices not only for this unit of time but that we are managing for a generation or five generations as well has practical consequences.

"We don't have that many places where we are able to measure over the long-term what is happening to these livestock dominated lands. Are they winding down or are they building up?

"We need to measure things like soil and plant biodiversity, plant populations and if we don't do that over decades and generations, how do we really know what we are doing to these lands or what some of these global changes are really doing to our lands."

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Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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