Interview, photos and video by Erik Hoffner, World Ark contributor

Think for a moment about the pressing challenges the world faces: poverty, hunger, political instability, war and climate change. Loss of topsoil is seldom included in that list, even though it plays a lead role in all of them. Some experts estimate that this thin life-giving layer of the planet is in danger of disappearing within 60 years due to erosion and desertification, and with it, our ability to grow food. Statistics like this drove author Judith Schwartz to write Cows Save the Planet, and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth.

Cows Save the Planet

WORLD ARK: How did you settle on that name for the book?

JUDITH SCHWARTZ: I couldn’t come up with a title with the word soil in it that didn’t sound like a yawn—or that would capture the attention of people who aren’t already thinking about soil, like farmers or ecologists. Then I saw a comic book of my son’s, called Cows of Our Planet by Gary Larson, and I thought, “Cows SAVE the Planet”—that’s it! I liked that it alerted readers that they’d encounter some surprising, counterintuitive ideas that would counter common assumptions. And, of course, it’s a nod to holistic management, which I discuss a lot in the book.

WA: It seems like you had a lot of fun writing it.

SCHWARTZ: Absolutely, it was like seeing one world open up after another. I met so many people with different approaches to improving soil, resulting in greater yields. And relatively quickly! Several people I talked to were able to build several inches of topsoil in a single season, through careful stewardship. 

WA: That’s good news, given how much topsoil we’re losing globally.

SCHWARTZ: Yes, we’re generally not aware that humanity is suffering from a serious loss of agricultural soils, and also grasslands, where soil is losing its life and desertifying. In many places, several tons of soil are lost in making a single ton of grain, and this has everything to do with how we manage our land and livestock. The good news is that this can be reversed relatively quickly. Nature has a desire to heal itself, while using lots of chemical inputs on agricultural land actually works against nature.

WA: How so?

SCHWARTZ: The [chemicals] destroy the resident microorganisms. An example is using fungicide on a crop, because that interferes with the good fungi in the soil, which play a huge role in the resilience of plants. The fungus and the plant work together to share nutrients, sugars and water, while storing soil carbon.

WA: What have you seen that works better?

SCHWARTZ: Techniques like permaculture and holistic management work with nature. Soil is the hub of so many ecological processes like energy, water, carbon and nutrient cycling. Restoring any of these processes can bring the others into balance, too. For example, by bringing more carbon into the soil, more water can be held in it.

WA: How can cows be part of the solution?

SCHWARTZ: Cows, or any livestock like sheep or goats or horses, have an impact on the land. That can be positive or negative, and it’s a matter of how those animals are managed.  Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist and park ranger in southern Africa, developed holistic management. When big game parks were established there, he and his colleagues noticed that some of the land was in really bad shape, so they concluded that there were too many animals and that it needed a rest, so they removed the herds. But the condition of the land only deteriorated further, along with the bird life and plants, and this was really a paradox.

Then Savory studied how grazing animals—antelope, giraffe, zebra— behaved when there were predators around. They would bunch up a lot, and although those areas would look trampled, what he found was they were aerating the soil and pushing dead grasses into it where they could decompose and build new soil. At the same time, their hooves were pressing seeds into the ground, leading to germination of a larger diversity of grasses. Plus the presence of the predators ensured that the herds were never in one place for so long that they could overgraze the grasses.

WA: So holistic management aims to mimic that?

SCHWARTZ: Exactly; livestock are managed in a way that mimics herds in the wild. This involves very precise movement of the animals, and this can be done on any scale. I was talking to someone last night who has been doing this with two animals on a quarter acre. Out in Montana, one ranch I visited was managing 30,000 acres this way.

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WA: Another solution you talk about in the book comes from Burkina Faso. Can you describe the building of zai pits?

SCHWARTZ: It’s a traditional means of keeping water on the land. Where it has become dry, plant-less and lifeless, you dig pits in the ground that allow water to pool instead of stream off. And what this one man, Yacouba Sawadogo, started doing was combining this with the addition of a little bit of compost in each pit, which stimulated the life in the soil. By the way, there’s a great film about him called The Man Who Stopped the Desert. His neighbors laughed at him, but the increased water and food for microorganisms in the soil created a ripe environment for plants.

WA: So you can grow plants in these shallow pits?

SCHWARTZ: Yes, and once you have plants, that cools the soil underneath them, which is also important because when soil temperature gets to a certain point, microorganisms die and you lose the life in the soil. When you have bare soil with a lot of sun beating down, the soil also dries out and it becomes a vicious cycle, the cycle that drives desertification. Plant cover cools the soil, and then you get bigger plants, and brush, and then you get little microclimates. In that particular case in Burkina Faso, eventually even trees grew, and that led to a transformed landscape.

WA: What can World Ark readers do to help build soil?

SCHWARTZ: As individuals, we can do our best to see that through our engagement with agriculture in what we buy and consume, how we vote and what we support, we promote restorative agriculture. That also means home composting and avoiding putting pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides on lawns and in gardens, as those are destructive to soil organisms, and therefore soil.