"Giving up grassland usage by ruminants is not a good idea".
An Eco-Plea for Cows and Ruminants
Two thirds of all agricultural land in Switzerland and worldwide is permanent grassland. Only with ruminants is it possible to make adequate use of the vast grasslands. Prerequisites are proper husbandry and appropriate nutrition for the animals.
What happens when ruminants digest plants? The gas methane (CH4) is produced, which they secrete along with the CO2. Both are among the greenhouse gases whose emissions we would like to and must reduce.
Why do ruminants benefit the soil?
Ruminants - cows, goats, sheep - preserve grassland as a living carbon reservoir with diverse plant populations. Climatically and topographically induced, it can often hardly be used in any other way than with ruminants. The complete abstention from animal products is therefore not an option. And not to keep any cows either. Because in a well-managed cyclic economy such as organic and biodynamic agriculture, ruminants can do a lot to bind carbon. The manure of the ruminants is turned into a good organic fertilizer, ideally in the form of compost.
Manure compost contributes to propagation of humus in the soil and to the stabilisation of the soil through the formation of clay-humus complexes. The formation of humus fixes carbon (C) in the soil and removes it from the atmosphere. The soil is thus stabilised and is much less exposed to erosion, i.e. soil loss due to water or wind. When ruminants graze, they also work the plant remains into the soil with their hooves, where they rot and form humus.
Green alder is a killer of biodiversity
Where grassland use in the Swiss Alps is abandoned, green alder (Alnus viridis) covers the entire area and does not allow forests to grow. This shrub is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and is therefore extremely competitive, endangering biodiversity and the landscape. Green alder releases nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere, which is 300 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and 12 times more harmful than methane. In the Alps, abandoning grassland usage by ruminants will become another major environmental problem.
Only ruminants and horses can break down grass in large quantities with the help of microorganisms in their digestive organs and feed on it. They produce milk and ultimately also meat from the grass, which is indigestible for us humans. They are not our food competitors, such as chickens and pigs, whose forage areas can also feed humans.
If we set up animal husbandry properly and in accordance with the animals, the ruminant fodder does not compete with the farmland. It is available for the production of cereals and vegetables for human consumption. When ruminants graze on pastures and also feed on grassland in winter, for example in the form of hay, they do exactly what they should. Then they live in a cyclic system that promotes carbon fixation in the soil and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
What suits the animals is good for the environment
Model calculations of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) show: With a globally implemented organic agriculture and the associated animal husbandry and land use described above, all humans can be fed by the year 2050.
However, this is only possible if we no longer feed the animals with grain - as is the case today in conventional agriculture and to a lesser extent also in organic agriculture -, keep far fewer pigs and poultry and change our eating habits (see article by Adrian Müller on page 3).
Everything would be simple: if the animals could live and eat the way they need to, the economics would work most efficiently, we would reduce emissions, improve and stabilise the soil and feed people well. These are not utopias: There are many companies that are already working in this way today. We encourage them and motivate others to do so when we buy their products: In Switzerland, Demeter and organic farms work according to these ideals.
Dr. Anet Spengler Neff, PhD Agriculture, Dipl. ETH Zürich, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitutes für biologischen Landbau - FiBL)
1) H.-J. Hülsbergen, G. Rahmann (ed.), Klimawirkungen und Nachhaltigkeit ökologischer und konventioneller Betriebssysteme – Untersuchungen in einem Netzwerk von Pilotbetrieben, (Climate impacts and sustainability of ecological and conventional operating systems - studies in a network of pilot farms.) Research results 2013-2014 Braunschweig: Johann-Heinrich-von-Thünen-Institute, 175 p, Thünen Rep 29, doi:10.3220 / REP_29_2015
2) A. Muller, C. Schader, N. El-Hage Scialabba, J. Hecht, A. Isensee, K.-H. Erb, P. Smith, H. P. S. Makkar, P. Klocke, F. Leiber, P. Schwegler, M. Stolze, und U. Niggli, Impacts of feeding less food-competing feedstuffs to livestock on global food system sustainability, 2015, J. R. Soc Intercace 12:20150891
3) A. Muller, C. Schader, N. El-Hage Scialabba, J. Brüggemann, A. Isensee, K.-H. Erb, P. Smith, P. Klocke, F. Leiber, M. Stolze, und U. Niggli, Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture, 2017, Nature Communications, 8, 1290; DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-017-01410-w / www.nature.com/ncomms/ (Nature communications)
4) C. Gazzarin, T. Haas, P. Hofstetter, M. Höltschi, Frischgras mit wenig Kraftfutter zahlt sich aus (Milk production: fresh grass with very little concentrated feed pays off); 2012, 8, Agrarforschung Schweiz 9 (5), 148-155.