A wildly popular TED Talk given by Zimbabwean ecologist and "livestock" farmer Savory (who previously incorrectly blamed elephant herds for destroying African grasslands and had 40,000 of them slaughtered) in which he claims that his method of holistically grazing ruminants mimics nature and will save the planet.
Other ranchers and graziers like Joel Salatin promote rotational grazing and "regenerative" methods.
A certain school of ranchers believe meat is essentially a byproduct of the important and even necessary environmental services they are ostensibly providing by grazing domesticated ruminants in very specific ways. However, the science doesn't support this idea. In fact, more than one extensive review has found the opposite to be true; that these methods don't compensate for the damage they cause, let alone provide benefits. (Yet Savory insists, “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything.”) Plant-based regenerative methods embraced by many veganic farmers (with far less publicity, sadly) include no-till farming, organic annual cropping, compost, biochar and terra preta, perennial crops, agroforestry and more.
Understanding the mentality
Before addressing the logic behind these claims, it's important to note that no amount of refutation seems to deter those making them. This is because, to paraphrase Nassim Nobari of Seed the Commons, these ranchers seem to feel that ruminants and other animals can't possibly exist in nature unless they are being micromanaged and commodified.
The mentality of these modern-day graziers is not unlike that of those who saw the colonization of the West through ranching as their divine right and duty. They are essentially repackaging the Manifest Destiny for this century to profit from animal use along with astounding amounts of land. They maintain their presence and that of their cows is indispensable (even though they didn't exist in North American before colonization), and nothing can seem to make them believe otherwise.
Consequently, the meat-eaters who lionize these ranchers seem to be relieved they can absolve themselves of responsibility for the environmental damage entailed by traditional animal production/consumption.
However, even if these claims were true:
The scope of the problem is far bigger than could be mitigated by this "solution."
These systems are not a scalable or affordable meat source for the masses.
These systems don't impact the production of non-ruminants like chickens and pigs, who respectively can't obtain more than 15% and 25% of their dietary needs from pasture and rely on feed for the rest, which takes us back to the waste of secondary crop consumption.
These movements tell us that we need ruminants to save the soil and that the only way for that to happen is for ranchers to graze cattle, while wild ruminants like horses and native bison are systematically massacred because they compete for land and resources.
There remains no need for people to kill and eat the animals performing these allegedly planet-saving services.
“Even if it works, regenerative grazing isn’t necessary: We can create veganic systems that emit less carbon, create less conflict with wildlife and still regenerate soils.”
The following is an overview of the problems with these claims, as summarized in Volume 2014 of the International Journal of Biodiversity article Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems:
Ecologically, the application of HM principles of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils, water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing systems. Contrary to claims made that HM will reverse climate change, the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year.
It goes on to note that the studies supporting these methods have generally come from the Savory Institute itself or anecdotal accounts of practitioners. Yet: "Leading range scientists have refuted the system and indicated that its adoption by land management agencies is based on these anecdotes and unproven principles rather than scientific evidence.”
Additionally, this review found that holistic management approaches actually result in:
Reduced water infiltration into the soil
Reduced forage production
Reduced soil organic matter and nitrogen
Reduced mineral cycling
Increased soil bulk density
And not only are greenhouse gas emissions vastly larger than could be stored by such methods, they wouldn't be sequestered in the soil long enough to make a dent. Says Gidon Eshel, research professor of environmental physics at Bard College, of these systems:
What's the length of time this carbon is going to remain sequestered in the soil and not return as gas to the atmosphere? The answer is a year to 10 years. In very rare cases, it’s a century. That's not the scale of the problem. If we stopped emitting anything right now, it would take almost a million years for the earth to readjust to where we started from before the industrial revolution.
A new 2-year study citing 300 sources thoroughly rejects these methods once and for all. "In other words, grazing livestock – even in a best-case scenario – are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock."
Advocates of these grazing systems are always creating false dichotomies that position grazing domesticated ruminants as a necessity. Here are a few examples:
Domesticated ruminants or monocropping: The idea that we must either graze animals for meat or rely on monocropping ignores the fact that most monocropping occurs solely to grow livestock feed, as well as the fact that regenerative veganic methods have long existed. No animal inputs were used in North America before the colonists arrived, and the milpa system (based on corn, beans, and squash) fed what was likely the densest population on the planet at the time. Today the veganic movement is thriving and growing in popularity.
Domesticated ruminants or no grazing benefits: Wild horses are also beneficial because they restore checks and balances in the ecosystem. Bovines have no upper front teeth so when they yank grass out they usually kill it, and their digestive system does not retain seeds in their droppings. Wild horses, on the other hand, "clip" grass when they graze, allowing the grass to grow back, and their digestive system means seeds are deposited in their fertile droppings. Yet their systemic mass removal from public lands, and often their subsequent slaughter, happens at the behest of cattle ranchers.
Domestic cattle or no ruminants will exist: Ruminants can and should exist without being controlled by people – and having ruminants in the ecosystem doesn't mean that humans have to eat them. Bison are routinely slaughtered because ranchers don't want them mixing with their cattle. Projects like Rewilding Europe and Project TaurOs are reintroducing existing primitive cattle, bison, and tarpan breeds into ecosystems. In North America projects like these could reintroduce bison and antelope and mustangs rather than domesticated cattle and allow their associated bird and predator species to return. A vegan shift would negate the need to use these lands for food production, or to eat the animals in or out of rewilded areas.
Cult of Personality
Allan Savory speaks in superlatives, saying things like, "There is only one option—I'll repeat to you, only one option—left to climatologists and scientists" and "There is no other alternative left to mankind." He says his methods will work even in times of drought, crisis, and war. Yet he is vague about specifics. He says people who fail at his method, nearly all, just aren't doing it right, and scientists reject it because they just can't "comprehend" it. Researchers have found his "grandiose and unsubstantiated" claims to be "the exact opposite of correct" to the point of being exhausting. "And no data. He makes claims, and shows pictures." He can even get away with ordering mass elephant slaughter, carried out all for nothing. Plus, he promotes his own alternative facts over science.
Yet his followers seem to love him all the more for all this arrogant boasting and showboating. Sound familiar?
Moving in the wrong direction
Furthermore, if we could bring ourselves to recognize that these animals have even the slightest amount of moral worth, rather than putting so much effort into trying to find complex ways to continue to keep using and killing them as an unnecessary food source for which humans have no biological need, we would be doing everything in our power to move beyond hurting them and help make a plant-based shift a reality.
Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems (International Journal of Biodiversity)
Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour (Terrastendo)
Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk (Inexact Change)
Saving the World With Livestock—the Savory approach examined (Comfortably Unaware)
A Call to Counter the False Solution of Regenerative Grazing (Seed the Commons)
Anything Cows Can Do, Elk Can Do Better (In These Times)
A forest garden with 500 edible plants could lead to a sustainable future (National Geographic)