Guest post written by: Conor O’Higgins
I have some breaking news from the organic food revolution: we’ve discovered the solution to global warming and water scarcity. Is it a new kind of solar panel? Is it reforestation? Is it a new subsidy plan? Nope. It’s wolves. That’s right – wolves.
In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Since then the rivers have filled back up, erosion has decreased and biodiversity has increased. And in 2011, a paper was published in Science claiming that by eliminating top predators, we’ve released more carbon into the atmosphere than we have by burning fossil fuels.
What’s going on here and what does it have to do with paleo diets? The answer is simple enough: in paleolithic ecosystems, grazing animals didn’t live on farms in isolation. They lived in the wild, and wild herbivores have something in common. Picture zebra in the Serengeti. Picture caribou up north. Picture the wild horses in a Budweiser commercial. These three pictures have one thing in common: the herbivores bunch together very tightly. Why? Because it’s harder for a predator to attack a herd than a loner. When those wolves were put into Yellowstone, the elk started to bunch up like this for protection, and the ecology of the park changed. Ripple and Bestcha coined the vivid phrase ‘the ecology of fear’ to describe this effect predators have on herbivores.
When herbivores bunch together and graze intensively, rather than extensively, four things happen:
Each patch of grass only gets grazed a few days a year. The other 360+ days, it rests and grows.
On those days when the mob is on the grass, it gets a shit-ton of fertilizer.
The mob of animals mow the herbage down to a fine stubble. Plants like to keep their roots in proportion to the bit above ground, so when the animals mow the grass, the roots drop off. They then decompose and this enriches the soil.
The animals stomp on the ground and break it up, allowing rain to seep in better (775% better according to one study).
I’ve yet to meet the rancher who loves nature so much that he lets wolves or lions roam among his cattle, but there are farmers who corral livestock into a small ‘cell’ of grass at very high densities with electric fences. After 1-3 days grazing, the herd is moved to the next cell, mimicking the grazing pattern of animals threatened by predators. This farming technique goes by more names than Prince: mob-grazing, cell-grazing, managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), or animal tractors (because the animals mow and condition the ground like a tractor).
When mob-grazing has been put to the test, like in this experiment, the grass grows thicker, the ecosystem is tougher and more resistant to drought, and the soil grows instead of being eroded.
Any grass-fed system is much better than a grain-fed one. I was pretty amazed when to read in this study that when scientists switched cows from grain to grass diets, the levels of E. coli in their guts fell 1000-fold in just five days! As for the effect on human health, this study writes: “Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef”.
Mob-grazing takes things a step further. It gives all of the benefits of extensive grazing, and more. It is closer to the paleo-ecosystems our ancestors evolved in, and more productive.
Conor’s mission is to feed the crew of Spaceship Earth. He has designed a permaculture farm in Guatemala, started an urban garden in Dublin, set up a gourmet mushroom cultivation project, and managed an aquaponics system in Haiti.