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Eat more meat and save the world

By   /  September 1, 2014  /  7 Comments

Allan Savory tells us that increasing livestock numbers can reduce desertification and reverse climate change – but where is the scientific evidence? In this article, the author describes what he found when he asked this question. We found it very interesting, and thought you would too. It’s sure to bring up some lively and worthwhile discussion, particularly around the idea of Holistic Management, its definition and how it is implemented.

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It doesn’t matter how often miracles are disproved; our willingness to believe in them remains undiminished. Miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels, miracle financial instruments, miracle profits: the continued enthusiasm for these claims reflects the triumph of hope over experience.

Click to see the Ted Talk

Click to see the Ted Talk

Here’s another one: a miracle technique that allows us to reconcile our insatiable demand for meat with the need to protect the living planet. Better still, it proposes, eating meat could actually save the biosphere. A TED talk which makes this claim has been viewed 2.6 million times.

Over the weekend in London, the author of this talk, Allan Savory, convened an international conference, in which a long list of speakers lined up to insist that his methods have been vindicated.

I was intrigued by his TED talk, in which he screened astonishing before-and-after pictures purporting to show the transformative impacts of his technique. Mr Savory maintained that without grazing by livestock, grasslands turn to desert. He claimed that he had reversed desertification by raising the number of cattle and goats by 400%, grazing them intensively for short bursts in small paddocks and then moving them on.

By this means, he said, the hooves of the animals break up what he calls the “cancer of desertification”: the crust of algae that forms on bare soil in dry areas. Breaking it up, he claimed, encourages the growth of grass. By trampling vegetation and coating it with manure, the livestock produce a mulch that ensures the soil absorbs and retains more water.

As a result of this transformation, we can do something astonishing:

“we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, for their children and all of humanity.”

Mr Savory’s grazing technique, which he calls “holistic management”, could, in other words, reverse not only desertification but also climate change – while permitting us to keep consuming vast quantities of meat. No wonder it has been received with such enthusiasm.

I would love to believe him. But I’ve been in this game too long to take anything on trust – especially simple solutions to complex problems. So I went to the library and started reading. A large number of academic papers have been published in response to his claims, testing them by means of experimental and comparative studies. The conclusion, overwhelmingly, is that his statements are not supported by empirical evidence and experimental work, and that in crucial respects his techniques do more harm than good.

new review of experimental results, in the journal Agricultural Systems, has this to say about Savory’s claims that his intensive rotational grazing (IRG) can regenerate grassland:

“The vast majority of experimental evidence does not support claims of enhanced ecological benefits in IRG compared to other grazing strategies, including the capacity to increase storage of soil organic carbon. … IRG has been rigorously evaluated, primarily in the US, by numerous investigators at multiple locations and in a wide range of precipitation zones over a period of several decades. Collectively, these experimental results clearly indicate that IRG does not increase plant or animal production, or improve plant community composition, or benefit soil surface hydrology compared to other grazing strategies”

Another review article, in the International Journal of Biodiversity, found that grazing by livestock in arid places is more likely to destroy grass and other vegetation than to protect it:

“Published comparisons of grazed and ungrazed lands in the western USA have found that rested sites have larger and more dense grasses, fewer weedy forbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground, and better water infiltration than nearby grazed sites.”

Among these sites was a ranch in Arizona whose vegetation, Savory had claimed, had become “moribund” and increasingly sparse since grazing there had ceased. In reality, there has been a massive increase in both plant cover and plant diversity on this site since the livestock were removed.

As for the claim that the algal crust is the “cancer of desertification”, it appears to be just the opposite: a rich, diverse and ancient ecosystem in its own right, that stabilises the soil, increases organic matter and absorbs water. These crusts are “fragile, highly susceptible to trampling, and are slow to recover from trampling impacts. Loss of these crusts results in increased erosion and reduced soil fertility.”

Overall, it concluded,

“Ecologically, the application of Holistic Management principles of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils, water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing systems.”

So what exactly do Allan Savory’s dramatic pictures of transformation show? As they are uncaptioned and not linked in his presentations to scientific studies, it’s hard to tell. Many factors affect the way vegetation changes in arid places. Do these shifts really depict the results of the application of his techniques, or something else entirely?

As for the claim that Holistic Management can reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to RealClimate.org, he’s wrong by orders of magnitude. Just to balance current carbon emissions, the uptake of carbon by all the world’s vegetation (not only grasslands) would have to triple. But Savory says he can go beyond that, and his technique can bring atmospheric carbon “back to pre-industrial levels”. As RealClimate puts it, “science tells us that this claim is simply not reasonable.”

Far from grazing helping to store carbon, it seems to have the opposite effect: the evidence strongly suggests that livestock reduce carbon storage rather than raising it. In terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, the intensive grazing of cattle on grasslands can be even worse than producing them in feedlots.

While Allan was in London, I managed to secure a telephone interview with him, to ask him about these challenges. It did not go well. He began by comparing himself to Galileo, which is never a good sign, and it went downhill from there. I have learnt to be suspicious of people who give long, distracting, irrelevant answers to simple questions. Apart from Ian Plimer, I have never come across anyone who does it to greater effect.

I asked him about that ranch in Arizona, and the claim that he was diametrically wrong about what had happened to the vegetation once grazing had ceased. He launched into a long disquisition about a court case in Namibia. After several attempts I at last managed to break in, to remind him I’d asked about a ranch in Arizona. It was as if he registered the name of the state and nothing else: he started talking about the quality of the state’s scientists, its rifle ranges and its tortoises.

I asked him about his carbon claims. He told me it wasn’t he who had made such claims, but other people who knew far more about it than he did. Could he give me the names of those people?

He gave me a long, rambling answer about the different impacts of land management around the world, climate change, fire, poverty, violence, red meat and veganism. I tried and tried again. At last I managed to bring him round to the question, and extracted some names from him. So where had they published their calculations? They hadn’t.

His staff later sent me an article on the issue published on the Savory Institute’s website, but – as far as I can tell – nowhere else. There are no named authors. If you intend to make a massive and extraordinary scientific claim, and build your position around it, you had better ensure that it has been properly tested, which is why the peer review process exists.

Broadly, however, his theme was that what scientists were studying was not the entirety of Holistic Management, but only one aspect of it:

“It’s like having a plane that flies that lands on three wheels, and we’ve only had wheelbarrows or tricycles for centuries and so people are studying the tricycle and saying well it’s got three wheels, and it we cannot make it fly; it can’t fly. How come the plane the can fly when it’s also got three wheels?”

Allan referred me to a paper he’d written, which he said, explains the science and methodology of holistic grazing. This paper (again apparently unpublished except on his website) explained the lack of scientific support for his claims as follows:

“Holistic Management does not permit replication. Because of this fact we can only validate the ‘science’ used and monitor or document ‘results achieved’. Note: This point is critical to understanding the great difficulty reductionist scientists are experiencing trying to comprehend holistic planned grazing – because no two plans are ever the same even on the same property two years running, planned grazing cannot be replicated which reductionist scientists do to try to understand the ‘science.’”

It then contended that:

“The only independent assessment of all available critics and their citations was done by Chris Gill. Gill, involved in management and with a liberal arts education, studied every citation he could locate and who in turn those authors cited. As he reports not a single paper discrediting Holistic Management actually studied, or even attempted to study, holistic planned grazing.”

Unfortunately Savory gives no reference for this assessment. In the academic literature, I’ve been unable to find a paper on the subject by anyone called Gill. Elsewhere, all I have been able to locate is a 3-page magazine article by Chris Gill, reproduced on Savory’s websites. It contains no references, no data and no links to any experimental or empirical research. If this is “the only independent assessment of all available critics and their citations” that Savory will accept as valid, I think it might tell you something about the substance of his claims.

It all reminds me, I’m afraid, of the way in which certain evangelists for alternative medicine operate.

For example:

English author George Monbiot writes a weekly column for the Guardian.  He has written a number of books, including "Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain" (2000) and "Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding." In his website bio he says "Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency."

English author George Monbiot writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has written a number of books, including “Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain” (2000) and “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding.” In his website bio he says “Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.”

– Savory maintains that it’s not the claims that are wrong but the scientific process by which they are assessed. (In one interview he says “you’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything.”)

– He claims that “reductionist science” doesn’t understand what Holistic Management involves, which is why it fails to measure the outcomes properly. But, as Adam Merberg points out, his account of what Holistic Management means appears inconsistent and poorly defined, which “allows Savory to blame any failures on a misunderstanding of the method.”

– As scientific studies don’t produce the results he wants, he relies instead on testimonials.

– He diagnoses normal conditions as deadly pathologies (“the cancer of desertification”) then claims to have found a cure for them.

– He makes claims about his techniques which are not only implausible but appear to be scientifically impossible.

It seems to me that there’s a fairly solid rule, that applies to almost any question: what you want to believe is almost always wrong. If something sounds too good to be true, that’s because, in nearly all cases, it is.

This article was reprinted with the permission of George Monbiot.  It was originally published on the Guardian’s website, 4th August 2014
Also available at monbiot.com.

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7 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    This is a post from Christopher Gill who was having trouble getting this post to appear. If you try to post a comment and do not hear from us, please let us know. We are unclear what Mr. Gill’s problem with posting was, and so need more input to know how to fix it.

    Thanks!

    Kathy

    Dear Mr. Monbiot,

    I am the Christopher Gill you discuss in the article above. I am a Texas businessman with a liberal education: I graduated from Le Rosey in Switzerland and also the Wharton School. In reading the excerpt from your website bio I would say that we are pretty much on the same page in terms of what we claim to think.

    My family ranches 32,000 acres in far-West Texas where we practice holistic management. Cattle’s grazing is a very important practice in maintaining a bio-diverse wildlife population. In reference to your skepticism, this is empirical experience, as I understand it.

    Some years ago Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in conjunction with every major wildlife agency, state and federal, in the United States published a paper called “Habitat Guidelines for Mule Deer” which said that what we do with cattle harms desert mule deer.

    This paper, a small book really, referenced many studies, which in turn referenced many other studies. So I read them all and I discovered that none tested planned grazing. So, I wrote a series of letters to the authors, which deconstructed every one of those studies in terms of whether or not they had ever tested Alan Savory’s grazing precepts, which we have employed with such success. There is no way the authors could have read the articles and reached a different conclusion: sloppy scholarship, upholstering their reference section with unread citations.

    I am not an academic, and by the way that is an important credential. Nor, as you suggest, am I an evangelical, or advocate for alternative medicine or any other wacky doctrine or practice. I’m a pragmatic businessman and wildlife advocate completely fed up with the wreckage being done to the environment by the agribusiness companies and their cronies in the governments, agencies and universities. Unlike them, I get no money for what I have to say on this.

    I have a blog, which is found at http://www.circleranchtx.com. The paper which Savory referred and much more is published there.

    The specific paper is here: http://circleranchtx.com/tpwd-mule-deer-habitat-advice/

    I am familiar with the other studies that you cite, and are referenced in readers’ comments, and know that they did not disprove Savory for the simple reason that they did not test planned grazing. The agencies, universities and other organizations whose approval of Savory and like-minded practitioners you apparently require, notwithstanding your declared suspicion of their motives, methods and outcomes, would never publish any paper written by me that discredits their pseudoscientific methods and sloppy scholarship.

    Cattle are just one of many animals that are necessary for the health of the habitats that they occupy. Habitat decline is blamed on “invasive species,” including cattle and many others. In fact, habitat decline, also known as desertification, coincides with the removal of herding ruminants whose combined grazing and hoof action naturally “tilled” the soil, and, tended and fertilized the plants. Although much desertification is rightly blamed on poor ranching and agricultural practices, the root cause of grassland desertification worldwide is the decimation of large herding animals, their predators and cousin creatures essential to ecosystem health.

    Biodiversity – the diversity of life forms – is essential for ecological health. For the plant community to be healthy, it must be impacted by a wide variety of animal life. For the animal community to be vibrant, it must be supported by a wide variety of plant life. And neither can live without abundant soil life. Animals, plants and healthy soil in harmony determine whether water, minerals and sunlight can be used by what is called the ecosystem, food chain, web of life, or Mother Nature.

    Any English gardener will recognize the commonsense in the foregoing, which in a nutshell summarizes what Savory says.

    Planned grazing is not a grazing ‘system’ at all. It is a decision-making process, which applies these insights. It works for us at Circle Ranch, and for thousands of others on 40-million acres worldwide. It will work for anyone who understands the insights and troubles him or herself with the necessary planning.

    Christopher Gill
    San Antonio, Texas
    http://www.circleranchtx.com

  2. Jess Jackson Jr. Grazing Specialist NRCS Iowa says:

    I’ve had many conversations with the research community over this issue. My concern is that by the time all other variables are held constant so that only one can be studied – the research is so artificial that it can be invalid. 5 steers on 10 acres isn’t the same as 200 pair on 200 acres grazing 3 acres per day (Wallaces Farmer Magazine October 2010.)

    Working with tens to hundreds of acre grazing systems over half of the Iowa I’ve seen intensive grazing systems in the humid midwest increase biomass production, animal numbers carried and increase profit. A systems approach is not a method used by the scientific community but it is the normal methodology for many other sciences. High Intensity grazing works.

    Here are the caveats. These systems require a very high level of management effort and commitment. They are different in the Mexican highlands, the upper midwest in the U.S. and in Wales due to vegetative, soils and weather differences. Yes those are all broad categories and that is why I contend that these systems work only with high levels of management. Those who work at the plant all week and want to manage a grazing system on the weekends are not candidates for these systems.

    The comment about livestock losing condition can be true depending on management. I was taught to call this high intensity – low frequency grazing and that is does great things for the vegetation but is hard on animals. Mob, SDG or high intensity grazing can benefit both the vegetation and the animals but there is a fine line. No grazing research is abundant and clear that no grazing can be as detrimental as overgrazing from an environmental standpoint.

    I cannot say that Mr. Savory is completely accurate but I have seen over 30 years that much of what he says can be true if the grazing systems are applied as prescribed. You cannot use a crescent wrench as a hammer or screwdriver for long with messing something up. Each of the 15 or so grazing systems are tools that are specific and must be tailored to the environment.

  3. S. Simpson says:

    While I cannot substantiate any of the claims attributed to Savory in this article, one thing is clear: Monbiot has very little (no?) understanding of what Holistic Management is. HM is not simply a way to graze animals. It is very much more than that. A look at the book on the topic reveals that, of its 600+ pages, a mere 23 are devoted to Holistic Grazing Planning (which, it is important to note, differs from rotational grazing in a number of ways). The rest examine what is really at the heart of HM – goal setting, decision making, and planning. Certainly not as sexy as saving the world with more cattle, but important nonetheless.

    As a practitioner of HM for more than five years, I can honestly say that HM has changed the way we farm. HM has given us a way to articulate what it is, exactly, that we want; it has given us a way to make more informed decisions when dealing with an ever-evolving system; it has allowed us to look at financial planning in a new light; and along the way, it has changed a few paradigms in our thinking. We would not be the farm (or the people, for that matter) that we are today without HM.

    I have to admit that I am a little disappointed that On Pasture would reprint Monbiot’s article here. While Monbiot criticizes Savory for being grandiose, nebulous, and perhaps a bit hollow, I would say that his article comes across the same way. I’ve come to rely on On Pasture for thought-provoking and scientifically accurate articles and feel that Monbiot’s article here does nothing to advance my knowledge of grazing. For those interested in understanding what HM really is, I encourage you to read up on the topic and not let Monbiot’s article deter you.

  4. James says:

    In response to George Monbiot’s article “Eat More Meat and Save the World.”

    It’s instructive to point out the article starts out with the poisoning of the well fallacy by calling Holistic Planned Grazing “a miracle technique.” A miracle is: “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a super natural cause.”
    In reality Holistic Planned Grazing is hardly a miracle. More accurately it’s a methodology that’s been developed over decades of trial and error and continues to be improved upon today.

    The author’s primary objective is to show there is no scientific evidence that supports Allan Savory’s methodology of Holistic Planned Grazing as being valid. So does he accomplish his goal? Let’s look at the evidence.

    1. What was the author’s methodology? He went to the library and looked for academic studies refuting the Holistic Management methodology.
    2. What was his conclusion? “Overwhelmingly” the author says Allan Savory’s statements are not supported by empirical evidence and experimental work, and his techniques do more harm than good.

    The word “overwhelmingly” means:
    “so great as to render resistance or opposition useless: an overwhelming majority.”

    It certainly sounds like the author has put the final nail in the coffin for Holistic Planned Grazing. What was the “overwhelming” i.e. majority evidence?

    In looking at the efficacy of Holistic Planned Grazing on the land the author links to TWO studies that dispute Savory’s claims. The second of the TWO articles makes a mistake in comparing rested land to grazed land because it compares traditionally grazed methodologies not Holistically grazed land therefore that point is invalid. If the land was Holistically managed and the rested land performed better then it would be valid – that was not the case.

    The third and final majority critique came from an article published on the real climate.org website. However the article was not published in a peer reviewed journal so according to the author’s own methodology it should be dismissed.

    My primary critique of this article is the contradiction in the author’s methodology. He accuses Savory of rejecting science yet only provides 2 academic references to refute Savory’s claims and calls the evidence against Savory “overwhelming.”

    The author’s dismissal of any science, studies, or test trials that are not published in academic journals is illogical when looking at the reality of the academia. The author uses the fallacy of Appeal to Authority to dismiss Savory’s research. This is quite ironic considering the overwhelming evidence the shows rampant fraud in academic journals and state funded science. To dismiss Savory’s evidence because it has not been published in circles that have been exposed as compromised does little to disprove the validity of Savory’s claims.
    Here are links to a few articles on this topic:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1994041/
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0005738
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2012/nov/02/scientific-fraud-good-science
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02698595.2010.522411#.VAglgmSSxqs

    My Personal aka non-scientific experience with Holistic Planned Grazing is as follows:

    I spent 5 weeks in Australia studying Holistic Management working with one of Alan Savory’s students. I lived and worked on his farm which was surrounded by farms grazing with set stocking or few paddock shifts – nothing like what Holistic Management suggests. I saw first hand the abundance of wildlife drawn to the ecosystem created at the farm I was staying at compare to the surrounding farms – which translates to more revenue in various ways, and the pastures were night and day in comparison. I was there in the middle of the hot season and while all the surrounding farms were basically dirt and stubble the farm I was on had stockpiles of grass, although it was high in fiber and low protein due to the season and dryness there was grass and a variety of native perennial grasses to boot. I attended a two-day seminar with 10 farmers from different parts of South West Australia who had transitioned from traditional grazing to Holistically Planned Grazing and all were showing improvements on their land and bottom line.

  5. Bob Linlead says:

    Mr.Monbiot I invite you to our ranch in central Mo. 50 AU for years 3 years after initiating high density grazing ranch carries 100 AU. If you are not pleased with Mr Savories work please read Grass Productivity by Andrea’ Viosin he calls this rational grazing and in my opinion is the true father of this grazing technique.

    There are 3 ways to save this planet and it’s human population. All work to correct the carbon,the water, and the mineral cycle.
    1 Rational grazing
    2 Cover crops
    3 Biochar

  6. JC says:

    Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat. And even though Savory’s Grazing Trials took place during a period of freakishly high rainfall, with rates exceeding the average by 24 percent overall, the authors contend that Savory’s method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.”

    http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/11/12/allan-savory-myth-and-reality/
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/17/adam-merberg-on-grazing-and-allan-savory-and-ted/

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