How methane emitting cattle can actually help solve Australian bushfires
The full article was originally published on IOTA Untangled. Read the full article here.
The news of Australian bushfires is heartbreaking. And the Australian PM’s respons is infuriating. Not just in regards to the direct measures taken, but also as to the cause of the fires and its future mitigation. All the more because there are solutions that not only protect the environment against such disasters, but bring economic benefits as well.
The irony is that the solution has already been shown to work in Australia. It involves cattle, and contrary to what you might think, this solution reduces greenhouse gasses overall. And with the help of autonomous robots and sensors we can scale it to epic proportions that just might help humanity avert climate disaster.
A profitable existing solution to flooding, drought and wildfires
There’s a story from a book from 20091 that has always stuck with me as an example of how restoring the ecosystem can be financially sound. It even relies on large amounts of cattle as an unexpected yet environmentally safe co-conspirator. The book is called An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson, and could be described as a journey exploring the possibilities of future technology.
Coincidentally the chapter that tells the story is available as a free sample from the author’s website. The chapter starts with the prophetic words “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Topsoil is a subject we’ve covered on our website before. We cannot stress how important topsoil is to us – not only to the environment and all its effects – but for the most to our food supply. Without topsoil water and fertilizer are next to useless for growing crops.
Economically storing carbon (& water) in grassland
“‘Imagine if you could take billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, safely, effectively, economically and immediately,’ says Tony as we get underway. ‘Imagine if you could do it in a way that also increases biodiversity, boosts food security, reverses the advance of the desert, and improves rural communities.’“
The paragraph above describes why you should read the whole chapter. The shortest conclusion I can think of is this:
A wildlife expert called Allan Savory pioneered a farming method that mimics cattle’s natural grazing patterns, without the need for a natural predator. Australia doesn’t have natural predators, and because of that cattle grazes in an unnatural way, resulting in topsoil dying off. Because of this the ground is unable to hold on to rain water. This causes both extreme flooding and long droughts. And now extreme bushfires.
How do they make cattle graze naturally?
You should really read the chapter. I’m certain it’s the best thing you’ve read this decade2. But in short the new farming method uses mobile fencing to make cattle form a natural herd. This forces the animals to behave like they would with a potential predator nearby. The fencing now makes sure cattle grazes grass to the ground, before moving on to fresher pastures3. By doing this, new grass has room to grow, keeping the circle of life going4. Without this close grazing, old longer strands of grass fall flat on the ground and prohibit grass from sprouting again. Farmers who follow this method sell off all traditional farming equipment and instead use motorbikes to move the fences.
A perspective on the numbers involved
I really urge you to watch the video above. It puts a perspective on the very large numbers involved in sequestering carbon in order to lower CO2 in the air, plus better water management as an added benefit. It also addresses that while cows emit methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas, that does now make cows bad per se. We’re dealing with a systematic problem here, and focusing on details can leave you blindsided.
Lovell makes a good point that the best way to store carbon requires sunlight and green leaves. Plants can pump carbon into the ground better than any machine we could make. Using plants would be magnitudes more effective than any technological carbon sequestering solution. Globally we have 5 billion hectares of grassland that we can do something with. And if we change the management, we change the land.
What autonomous machines can do here
In the book the couple buys mobile fencing and two motorbikes to manage their land differently. They move the fencing on a daily basis, enforcing natural grazing patterns. It is labour intensive, and limits the solution to human capacity. But instead of making humans do the hard work, can’t we have a machine do it instead? Bolting a pole to a robot with caterpillar tracks and a solar panel should not be too hard. Or have one bot that gradually moves fences around during the day. I’m not suggesting a solution as much as pitching the idea of automating this rather mundane task.
A more interesting task would be mapping the grazing patterns. Moving the fences is probably less complex than knowing where to move it. This is where autonomous sensors would shine. We could have a network of environmental sensors constantly measuring temperature, air humidity, soil moisture, and CO2 levels for instance. But also more specialized data like grass length, topsoil biomass, and nutrient content.