I have been fascinated by the permanence and healing power of grassland for 15 years now. If we respect the great original wisdom of the prairies, I’m convinced we can heal the wounds inflicted on the American landscape by industrial agriculture.
But in America, the question is always does it scale up? This is the critical test of any potential solution to a major environmental problem. Is a given practice feasible, and are there mechanisms for spreading it to cover a whole landscape?
I first had a hint as to how this might work for America’s farms when a friend explained to me why he chose to raise bison for slaughter, marketing the meat with the guarantee the animals had eaten nothing but native grasses. He thought if he could make such a model pay on his own land, he could do more to save native landscapes than any amount of activism, litigation or regulation. Profitable solutions self-replicate. Like viruses, they creep from one farm to the next, eventually exploding in exponential growth. They scale up.
Now there is big news on this front. A diverse collection of pioneers across the nation is raising not bison, but mostly grass-fed beef and dairy — an enterprise that can scale up quickly. They have a working model. It is not unrealistic to expect that we as a nation could convert millions of acres of ravaged industrial grain fields (plus millions of acres of land in federal conservation programs that cannot currently be used for grazing) to permanent pastures and see no decline in beef and dairy production in the bargain.
Doing so would have many benefits. It would give us a more humane livestock system, a healthier human diet, less deadly E. coli, elimination of feedlots, a bonanza of wildlife habitat nationwide, enormous savings in energy, virtual elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on those lands, elimination of catastrophic flooding that periodically plagues the Mississippi Basin, and most intriguingly, a dramatic reduction in global warming gases.