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August 02, 2007

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Last week I sat-in on a discussion…

Last week, I sat-in on a discussion about carbon sequestration. You’ve heard about carbon sequestration. It’s a hot topic now that the world has finally agreed that humans are contributing, big time, to climate change. The term is often found in concert with the concept of striving for carbon neutrality. You know, like Al Gore buys carbon off-sets from an exchange in Chicago so he can still fly around in a jet and remain Carbon Neutral – in other words – doing his part to keep the planet from warming up. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are not alone.

That is why I sat quietly and listened to Allan Savory – land management sage and originator of Holistic Management International, Russ Miller – Ted Turner’s main ranch manager, and a couple of real smart guys from World Wildlife Fund. I remained very quiet so no one would glace at me with even a hint of a question in their eyes.

And here is what I think I heard: As a buffalo producer I am really a harvester of sunlight. Well, it’s not really me that’s doing the harvesting. The grass sucks up the sunlight and runs it through its special chemical process – photosynthesis. One of the elements needed for photosynthesis is – and here is an important part – CARBON dioxide. Ah ha, the same stuff that is building up in the atmosphere and a main cause of global-warming. The plants “breath” in this carbon dioxide, process it, separate the carbon from the oxygen, and spit out the oxygen which we, of course, need to live. The carbon is taken out of the air. The grass SEQUESTERS the carbon in its leaves and roots. Plants ARE carbon. So are the things that eat them. Buffalo are carbon. Whatever carbon stays in the plants, and the animals that eat them, stays on Earth. The day that that carbon gets into the atmosphere to warm the Earth, is the day Buffalo will fly. (So to speak.) The point is that the carbon that becomes the plants and animals on this ranch is no longer in the atmosphere. It can’t contribute to global-warming.

Of course plants are carbon, I’m thinking, it’s all that plant material that got buried and compressed millions of years ago that turned into oil and coal – hydrocarbons. Of course. When we use those hydrocarbons in our cars, tractors, and factories we put the carbon back into the air and create the greenhouse effect that is warming the Earth. So anything we can do to encourage plants and animals to sequester carbon on Earth is good for the planet. Allan Savory said that buffalo were a sensational way to sequester carbon. All the other guys that knew something agreed. But they shot down a rumor that has been going around that people could get paid significant money for simply encouraging their grass to sequester carbon. The rural myth is that ranchers could simply let their grass grow and be awarded credits that factories, or people like Al Gore, could buy to off-set any carbon damage that they might be doing. Turns out that that won’t work unless you can prove that you are increasing your grasses ability to sequester. Just letting it sit does not yield a net gain in sequestered carbon. If you increase your grasses ability to sequester carbon and can document it, you will currently get only 37 cents per acre per year – not enough to cover costs.

But, said all the experts, there is still great anti-global warming value in raising buffalo if they are grass-fed. Grass-fed buffalo are carbon that has cost nearly nothing, in terms of carbon released into the atmosphere, to sequester. What carbon is in that buffalo is stuck here on Earth where it belongs and can’t get back into the atmosphere until its next trip around. So why, you ask, does it matter that the buffalo eaten by some healthy person are grass-fed? The answer lies in the fact that factory fattened animals have a great carbon deficit due to the amount of hydrocarbons used to produce the grain and other feed that they are fed, the energy used to move all that weight around, methane (another greenhouse gas) that rises ominously from feedlots, and lot of other related energy expenditures. I was assured that raising buffalo in that way contributes mightily to global-warming. Buffalo raised only on grass do not need to buy carbon credits from the Chicago exchange. They are naturally better than carbon neutral. Would that be carbon positive or carbon negative? I forgot to ask.

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