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“Cows Save The Planet” by Judith Schwartz: Science or Storytelling?

By   /  February 17, 2014  /  4 Comments

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9781603584326_custom-b283e131a0296780af11bc765548cdac7769800d-s6-c30Just the title made me want to like this book.  When I got into it deeper, there wasn’t much about cows or how they might be able to save the planet.  But the author’s basic premise, that healthy soil is critical to our health and damage to it is tied to climate change, still made me want to like the book. There is so much that could be written about soil and what we can do with it to solve some of the environmental problems we’re facing. As a soil scientist I was excited at the prospect of a book that might explain that clearly and accurately to a more general audience. Unfortunately, that’s not what this book does, and most disappointing for me, it is just as likely to provide misinformation to readers who don’t have a soil or environmental science background.

To understand more about how this book came about I talked with both the publisher and the author.  Judy Schwartz explained that this was a personal journey for her. She wanted to learn more about soil and climate change, and she shared what she learned in her book. While Judy does have experience in journalism, and can spin a well-crafted tale, she doesn’t have a background in environmental sciences. Instead of doing directed research, she seemed to bump into resources.  Thus the book is really just a map of one person’s partial exploration of a topic about which she has an incomplete understanding. She writes passionately about the use of practices which avoid exposing soil, such as cover crops and grazing, to build organic matter in the soil. But she also takes the reader through chapters on carbon where she discounts the greenhouse effects of methane (which, pound for pound has 20 times the effect of carbon dioxide on climate change), chapters on water where plant transpiration is purported as the reason for rainfall over landlocked areas (when basic texts explain that evaporation, topography, and wind currents are a big part of the equation), and the water cycle is distorted or altogether ignored.

watercyclesummaryFor the reader who might catch these problems and want to check the author’s sources, or even just read more about the individual topics, there’s another issue with the book.  There are no notes referencing her sources of information, and the bibliography is a very short two pages. Judy and her editors, I was told, decided to forgo including notes or citations for the reader because they can be distracting.  What I found distracting was that some of the claims made seem either too good to be true or simply misrepresented. Without references and data, the anecdotal evidence she provides is flimsy, especially when compared to the bodies of data that contradict much of what she writes.  So I can not ascribe much to these anecdotes. 

When Judy and I spoke, she referred to alternative ideas as exciting advances and innovations. She took pleasure in relying on folks as experts who disagreed with, or ran contrary to, established science.  While some of their ideas are interesting, and practices such as no-till and cover cropping are vitally important, there was a lot of time spent on ideas that seem unlikely, and even contrary to simple science that has been tried and proven.

This isn’t the only book out there purporting to share science with the general reader.  I was surprised to learn that social scientists have many of the same problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s books that I found with Cows Save the Planet.  Their critiques of his books say he “cherry picks” his research to fit the story he wants to tell.  In response Gladwell says “I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research…for ways of augmenting story-telling.”

While story-telling is an important part of opening a reader’s mind to new ideas, when telling a story that purports to be about science, if the author only uses information he or she likes, the result may be nothing more than a pleasant fiction, and at the worst could send readers in bad directions. When an author is purporting to write about science, he or she has a responsibility to the reader to provide enough information to fact check for him or herself.

Judy described feeling a great sense of urgency given the state of climate change on the planet.  I agree with her that climate change is a real and present challenge for all of us, and soil has a place in our efforts to address it. This is a very important topic, and as she points out, managing the soil to increase organic matter is a win-win for farming and climate change. But the story told in Cows Save the Planet doesn’t solve the problem; it just paints a pretty picture.  When your house is burning down, you hurry to get out. But rushing into an untested solution is misguided and potentially dangerous.  If you’re looking for solutions that you can implement today, I’m am truly sorry to say that this book isn’t the answer.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.


  1. I’d like to point out that none of the commentators picked up the most important revelations in “Cows Save the Planet.” No mention of Allan Savory’s work in showing how to restore grasslands using holistically managed ruminants. Since 40% of the earth’s surface is made up of grasslands, and nearly all of them are losing soil and organic matter (carbon) into the air, this is a huge opportunity.

    Another omission is Judith’s highlighting the soil building efforts of growers like Dan Kittredge of http://www.bionutrient.org using readily-available (and low-cost) soil amendments like quarry rock dust and sea water to feed soil organisms the minerals they need to flourish. This turns agriculture (including organic) on its head. Stop focusing on feeding plants – feed the soil biology the minerals and organic matter they need, they in turn will furnish plants what they need to flourish, increase yield and be naturally resistant to pests and diseases. Best of all, healthy soils yield “nutrient-dense” food and forage. Healthy soils = healthy plants = healthy people & animals. This is how humans can build agricultural soils and manage cows on grasslands. Judith Schwartz’s book is an exploration into the people, most outside academia, who are taking action to restore our planet and grow food so nutritious (and delicious) that people will suffer many fewer degenerative diseases we now accept as part of life.

    While you commentators bemoan the lack of scientific attributions in “Cows Save the Planet” we here in Madison County, VA will take Judy’s inspiration (and Dan Kittredge’s methods) and build our soil quality to grow the best, most nutrient-dense, and tasty food (including meat and dairy) money can buy so our local farm economy will grow and thrive (and provide our children good paying jobs).

  2. Bill Elkins says:

    Yes, there’s story telling , but it is interesting for me to get background info- on some of the less well known folks who are studying stuff that is indeed germane to farmer-ranchers. I don’t know how much of the new info- that she provides has been digested and critiqued by scientists, and obviously it has raised doubts for Rachel and Jim, but perhaps we should not rush to judgement and shoot the messenger. Rachel seems to have missed at least one key reference for “A New Water Paradigm” by some Slovakian scientists –seek and ye shall find. It’s there and interesting to me at least.

  3. Chip Hines says:

    Rachel, it is nice to see your by-line again. Your thoughtful book review, combined with Jim Gerrish’s comments, are much needed to help people to see through the mish mash of scientific studies.


  4. Jim Gerrish says:

    Interestingly enough, this was the book I was reading on the trip when I shared the podium with Kathy Voth at the Southern Indiana Grazing Conference a few weeks ago. While I found some of the out-of-the-ordinary ideas shared in the book to be intriguing, there were other sections that literally made me cringe. Like Rachel, while it is a catchy title, I found little in the book that the average grazier could either take home and use on the farm or honestly use in conversations with the anti-livestock crowd. My suggestion is read it for entertainment, not enlightenment.

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