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Allan Savory’s Fantasy Thrills Ranchers, But He’s Wrong

Rated: D

Article Review:

"The Heretic: Livestock Is The Only Hope For A Dying Planet"  -  Feb 18, 2015

Allan Savory has made a career claiming that beef can reverse global warming. His working hypothesis—and do note, it is nothing more than that—is that repopulating desertified landscapes with cattle would revive grasslands, sequester carbon, and, no joke, save the planet.

For decades his message has skirted the periphery of legitimate science, a largely unknown if renegade idea. But, thanks to a TEDx platform, Savory’s message has recently gone viral among a vocal subculture of beef eating environmentalists who, science be damned, want to be assured that they are not walking contradictions.

Skewed by Savory’s fantasy, media coverage of Savory has generally been atrocious. A typical example came just this past week in an alternative paper serving residents of Marin and Napa counties. The short piece celebrates Savory’s hypothesis by quoting Savory himself (“we have no option left but the use of animals  . . . There isn’t an alternative”) and two ranchers. “That whole idea is incredibly revolutionary,” says one. “We’re very much aligned with Allan Savory’s teachings,” says the other. Well, yeah.

The only evidence of any opposition to Savory is a quote from me: “There’s no such thing as a beef-eating environmentalist.” But this assessment is immediately followed by Savory saying, “Every time some scientific insight has come about that is counterintuitive or that goes against the beliefs of society you always get this behavior.”

And that’s it.

What’s missing in so much of the Savory coverage is evidence. Had the reporter, Stett Holbrook, consulted with established environmental scientists, rather than act as a stenographer for Savory’s propaganda, he would have had a very different story to tell. That story, in part, is elaborated in the critique I did of Savory in April 2013 in Slate, a version of which follows.

In addition to my story, I’d urge readers and journalists to see this piece, and this, as evidence that Savory’s fantasyland would be a hellscape.

Why Savory is Wrong

When Allan Savory finished his TED talk early last month, foodies worldwide collectively salivated. In roughly 22 minutes, Savory, a biologist and former member of the Rhodesian Parliament, challenged the conventional wisdom blaming livestock for the degradation of global grasslands into hardpan deserts. It has long been a basic tenet of environmentalism that 10,000 years of overgrazing has caused this desertification. Environmentalists insist that to restore degraded landscapes, we must reduce the presence of cattle, eat less meat, and allow ecosystems to repair themselves. Savory, who admits that he’s suggesting “the unthinkable,” wants humans to do the exact opposite: Add cattle to the deserts, manage them with obsessive precision, and eat more meat. Most of the world’s land, he says (at about 18:40), “can only feed people with animals.”

 Savory’s hypothesis hinges on what he calls “holistic management and planned grazing.” These methods are designed to re-enact the movements of the prehistoric herds that once nurtured global grasslands with their manure deposits and “hoof action” (gentle trampling that increases the soil’s ability to hold water). By mimicking the natural symbiosis between plants and animals, holistic grazing would, Savory argues, encourage the regrowth of carbon-sequestering grasslands. These grasses would absorb enough carbon to counteract the methane production that’s associated with cattle husbandry (thanks to cow burps and farts) and halt global warming. (To put that claim in perspective, note that the Earth’s oceans and plants currently absorb only half of the 7 billion metric tons of carbon that human activities release into the atmosphere each year.) In order for Savory’s plan to work, the stocking density of livestock—the number of animals grazing a given area of land—would need to increase, in some cases, by as much as 400 percent. And for ranchers to make a living, they would sell their beef.

Savory’s speech quickly attracted praise. Chris Anderson, the TED host, said to Savory after his show, “I’m sure everyone here … wants to hug you.” Michael Pollan, apassionate advocate of pastured beef, called Savory’s talk the “highlight of TED” in a tweet that provocatively asked, “Eat MORE meat?” The Organic Consumers Association published an article that used Savory’s presentation to assert that “what we need is MORE moving, grazing animals, not less,” and to argue that holistic grazing “would be beneficial for the environment, the health of the animals, and subsequently the health of humans consuming those animals.” The takeaway was clear: If you’re interested in saving the planet, sharpen your steak knives.

Well, not so fast. For all the intuitive appeal of “holistic management,” Savory’s hypothesis is beset with caveats. The most systematic research trial supporting Savory’s claims, the Charter Grazing Trials, was undertaken in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today) between 1969 and 1975. Given the ecological vagaries of deserts worldwide, one could certainly question whether Savory’s research on a 6,200-acre spot of semiarid African land holds any relevance for the rest of the world’s 12 billion acres of desert. Extrapolation seems even more dubious when you consider that a comprehensive review of Savory’s trial and other similar trials, published in 2002, found that Savory’s signature high-stocking density and rapid-fire rotation plan did not lead to a perfectly choreographed symbiosis between grass and beast.

Instead, there were problems during the Charter Grazing Trials, ones not mentioned in Savory’s dramatic talk. 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.”

The extension of Savory’s grazing techniques to other regions of Africa and North America has produced even less encouraging results. Summarizing other African research on holistically managed grazing, the same report that evaluated the Charter Grazing Trials found “no clear cut advantage for any particular form of management,” holistic or otherwise. It noted that “more often than not” intensive systems marked by the constant rotation of densely packed herds of cattle led to a decline in animal productivity while doing nothing to notably improve botanical growth.

A 2000 evaluation of Savory’s methods in North America (mostly on prairie rangelands in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) contradicted Savory’s conclusions as well. Whereas Savory asserts that the concentrated pounding of cow hooves will increase the soil’s ability to absorb water, North American studies, according to the authors, “have been quite consistent in showing that hoof action from having a large number of animals on a small area for short time periods reduced rather than increased filtration.” Likewise, whereas Savory insists that his methods will revive grasses, “the most complete study in North America” on the impact of holistic management on prairie grass found “a definite decline” of plant growth on mixed prairie and rough fescue areas. It’s no wonder that one ecologist—who was otherwise sympathetic toward Savory—flatly stated after the TED talk, “Savory’s method won’t scale.”

Even if Savory’s plan could scale, foodies would still have to curb their carnivorous cravings. The entire premise of any scheme of rotational grazing, as Savory repeatedly notes, is the careful integration of plants and animals to achieve a “natural” balance. As Dr. Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council has shown, symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil, and human buy prednisone and intervention was minimal to none. It is unclear, given that Savory has identified this type of arrangement as his ecological model, how marketing cattle for food would be consistent with these requirements. Cows live up to 20 years of age, but in most grass-fed systems, they are removed when they reach slaughter weight at 15 months. Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological “value” has been exploited undermines the entire idea of efficiency that Savory spent his TED talk promoting.

Further weakening Savory’s argument for the wholesale application of holistic management to the world’s deserts is his distorted view of desert ecology. There are two basic kinds of deserts: genuinely degraded landscapes in need of revival and ecologically thriving ones best left alone. Proof that Savory fails to grasp this basic distinction comes when, during his talk, he calls desert algae crust (aka “cryptobiotic crust”) a “cancer of desertification” that represses grasses and precipitate runoff.  The thing is desert algae crust, as desert ecologists will attest, is no cancer. Instead, it’s the lush hallmark of what Ralph Maughan, director of the Western Watersheds Project, calls “a complete and ancient ecosystem.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Crusts generally cover all soil spaces not occupied by green plants. In many areas, they comprise over 70 percent of the living ground cover and are key in reducing erosion, increasing water retention, and increasing soil fertility.” Savory, whose idea of a healthy ecosystem is one with plenty of grass to feed cattle, neglects the less obvious flora—such as, in addition to algae crust, blackbrush, agaves, and creosote—that cattle tend to trample, thereby reducing the desert’s natural ability to sequester carbon on its own terms. “It is very important,” Maughan writes, “that this carbon storage not be squandered trying to produce livestock.”

Savory’s most compelling and controversial assumption—one that’s absolutely central to his method—is that humans can viably “mimic” (a word he uses about a dozen times in the TED talk) “all of nature’s complexity.” This is a stunning claim. The conceit of mimicry as a virtue of Savory’s technique is challenged in part by the fact that not all deserts rely on the presence of herd animals for their ecological health. In many desert ecosystems, desert grasses evolved not alongside large animals but in concert with desert tortoises, mice, rats, rabbits, and reptiles. It’s difficult to imagine how a human-managed ecosystem such as Savory’s—dependent on manipulating the genetics of livestock, building sturdy fences, manufacturing supplemental feed, and exterminating predators—is more representative of “nature’s complexity” than a healthy desert full of organisms that have co-evolved over millennia.

In 1990, Savory admitted that attempts to reproduce his methods had led to “15 years of frustrating and eratic [sic] results.” But he refused to accept the possibility that his hypothesis was flawed. Instead, Savory said those erratic results “were not attributable to the basic concept being wrong but were always due to management.” In a favorable interview with Range magazine in 2000, Savory seemed unconcerned with the failure of his method in scientific trials: “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries.”

Understandably, given his adherence to scientifically questionable conclusions in the face of evidence to the contrary, scientific institutions have not gone out of their way to work with Allan Savory. As a result, Savory has built his own institutions. From theCenter for Holistic Management (later the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management) to the Savory Center to Holistic Management International to the Africa Centre of Holistic Management, Savory has kept his ideas in motion. Today, Savory, nearing the end of his career, heads the for-profit Savory Institute. Whether desert landscapes or the foundation’s coffers become any greener remains to be seen. In the meantime, the evidence continues to suggest what we have long known: There’s no such thing as a beef-eating environmentalist.






30 Comments on Allan Savory’s Fantasy Thrills Ranchers, But He’s Wrong

  1. Shane Destry // February 18, 2015 at 7:50 pm // Reply

    Thank you James McWilliams for another astute desconstruction of what appears to be a welfare cattleman’s wet dream. According to Allan Savory’s lack of bio-logic, somehow overgrazing cattle who have caused the turning of land into Wasteland can magically be used to renew it – if one ignores the fact that the world is now experiencing increasing drought in areas due to climate change and it wastes enough water to float a battleship in order to raise a thousand pound steer. I guess Savory’s fantasy can be placed on a bookshelf alongside that of the Koch Brother’s entitled How Using Even More Oil Will Mysteriously Reverse The Climate Change Caused By Using Oil In The First Place!

  2. When you can’t/won’t agree with the science then just make up your own. And then build your own institution to prop it up.

  3. Excellent Rebuttal! YOU should give a TED talk

  4. Henry Kimbell // February 19, 2015 at 12:54 pm // Reply

    Savory is delusional, typical of many in our time who choose to ignore the science that doesn’t fit their assumptions and biases. For a data based, science based view of meat productions see, the film.

  5. The article exactly mirrors the problem in reverse….a historian claiming to be a subject matter expert on something well beyond their core competency. Absolutely, a scientific debate on the issue is healthy and important, however, as is often the case it is a situation in which those espousing James’ opinion (I use the word ‘opinion’ deliberately), will cite their science and Allan Savory and those advocating his point of view will cite their science, and we are left no closer to the truth. I choose to listen to scientists who are actually in the field, which here to there is a diversity of opinions. My point is that before anyone throws stones at Savory, I challenge them to read the scientific findings of people like Richard Teague, Texas A&M, (there are others) whose findings show conclusively that Holistic Management can provide positive conservation outcomes, regardless of whether or not it can save our planet from climate change. Beyond the science, logically Holistic Management makes common sense because better planning leads to better results…after all Holistic Management is at its core a decision making framework and management planning tool that considers people, planet & profit, (the triple bottom-line of sustainability) in the decision making process. Even if Holistic Management only made incremental positive change, which at a minimum it does, that is much better than the status quo. The world would be a better place if people with an agenda (e.g. all animal production is bad) would stop throwing stones long enough to consider an alternative point of view.

    • Trevor HISCOX // August 11, 2015 at 10:10 am // Reply

      Come on now, this is not debate, facts, water, land, extra feed, antibiotics additional labour, and transportation farm to farm when sold or need of new pasture, all additional to the cost of production of meat and milk, it does not need a complicated over educated so and so to work out the obvious. Farm crops with a third of the land and feed all well.I say a third because with crop rotation and longer spells of land left wild till next usage would mean all could be organic feed too.

  6. In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act was created to counteract the damage to the American West by free-range Cattle. The desertification of America’s Hot Deserts has not been reversed. blm took over where the TGA left off and the results have been, well…. Unsavory.

  7. Giles Gimball // February 20, 2015 at 11:57 am // Reply

    As a Zimbabwean who was involved with the Charter trials I can vouch that they did take place but were flawed from a very short period into the trial. What you must remember these took place early in the appreciation of what had gone wrong over many years and the methodology of the trial was set down and could not be altered. May I point out that scientist involved in the trial attempted to mimic what was outlined by using a spoon to try and replicate the effect of cattle hooves on the ground – please.
    Advisers have for years reduced stocking rates in an effort to “improve” veld condition only to see it deteriorate further from an original estimate of 1:20 out to 1:50 rendering that ranchland sub-economic. I know of ranchers who have bucked the “advisers” advice and increased short term stocking rates and very soon have found that more cattle have to be brought in to keep pace with the grass regeneration.
    The only way to get cattle to market in the 15 months you claim above in semi arid ranchland is to feed them grain/protein supplements – it is not possible straight off the grass. The residues from this add to the nutrients quite apart from the increased cycling of nutrients from the retention of carbon and water.

    You state that Savory’s hypothesis is flawed, I can see plenty of flaws in your arguement.

  8. Giles Gimball // February 20, 2015 at 12:09 pm // Reply

    This popped up immediately after I’d written the above.

    Seems to discredit what you outline.

  9. I’ve been to Deseret Ranch, where Savory’s model has been implemented. It was badly degraded in the mid 20th century, with the help of livestock. It’s now amazing. Desertification has been reversed. I saw more coyotes and prairie dogs in a matter of hours than I’d seen in my entire lifetime. Abundant perennial grasses. The place has been recognized now by Audobon for its abundant bird species and population. More sage grouse than anywhere in the state. It works.

  10. Objective Observer // February 20, 2015 at 2:27 pm // Reply

    All of these rebuttals to Savory always refer to either Holechek’s 2002 paper or Briske’s later one. Though the problem with both Holechek and Briske’s papers is that neither actually looked at holistically managed systems. Instead both Holechek and Briske looked at short duration rotational grazed systems. Here’s a critical response to Holechek and Briske’s papers-,%20RegardingHolechekSavory%20v4_0.pdf

    What’s interesting is that many of these critiques, including this one, come from the abolitionist vegan camp who will disregard anything that will work against their food ideology. Cattle don’t only help sequester carbon via healthy soils, but healthy soils also contains soil bacteria called methanotrophs that breakdown the methane expelled by cattle…so it’s no wonder why the greater number of ruminants (bison, megafauna, elk, camels, giraffes, etc) that existed never caused global warming since they were part of intact ecosystems with healthy soils.

  11. Objective Observer // February 20, 2015 at 2:30 pm // Reply

    PBS also recently broadcast this wonderful video on this topic


  12. imteresting article you post. In Australian there is a lot of published research supporting Holistic Management, including university publications. Training in Holistic Management is supported by many State Governments, it is seen as a viable alternative to conventional land management. It’s also represented a positive response to climate variability through a Planned approach to land management. It’s has wide support from commercial farmers, some whom have been managing for over 25 years and have made great changes to their land, business and lifestyle.

  13. Most of academia has tried for years to disprove Alan Savory’s “hypothesis” by “scientific” methods which were neither on large enough of a scale nor followed the methods properly. Of course these things were pointed out in Richard Teague’s study of holistic management at Texas A&M

  14. If Savory were the charlatan you want him to be, his ideas wouldn’t have survived and spread over 50 years. They work, and I’ve seen ample evidence that the grazing principles can be used to regenerate degraded land. I’ve also seen plenty of examples of his ideas being misconstrued (sometimes not helped by Savory, who admittedly got a bit hyperbolic in his TED talk).
    As a previous poster said, the core tenet of Holistic Management isn’t grazing management, it’s a decision-making framework that asks you to consider, among other things, what sort of environment you want to live in and how you’re going to support that environment. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen a cattle producer write, “I want to live in a flogged-out landscape with fouled waterways and starving cattle. And no biodiversity”. HM helps producers understand that they want a healthy environment, and they work towards that, sometimes imperfectly, but often with terrific results – especially from better management of cattle grazing.
    So, “there are no beef-eating environmentalists”, are there? I raise beef cattle (and not coincidentally eat beef). Cattle run on one-fifth of the land I own (managed a la Savory); the remainder is kept as pristine forest that contains a number of rare species. A beef producer I have been visiting has lifted the number of bird species on his farm from a handful to 125 at last count. His work began with a Holistic Management course nearly 20 years ago. He, and others I know like him, don’t go round hanging their egos on being “environmentalists”, but they are working with the Earth in mind.
    Ideology clearly tramples the need for truth in this article. Unfortunately, the ideologues at the other end of the spectrum do the same thing, ensuring that many genuine solutions to what ails the world aren’t heard above the shouting.

  15. So – to be clear -the only evidence being cited by those who back up rotational or continuous grazing is the one guy from texas A&M (Teague) who states that the evidence provided by Briske and Holechek is misrepresented – is that correct?

  16. “If Savory were the charlatan you want him to be, his ideas wouldn’t have survived and spread over 50 years”
    This is ridiculous – slavery lasted in north america for 245 years -sexism still exists today. Just because we “own” and do what we want with animals – and have been for many years – does not make it ethically correct. It certainly doesn’t mean we should continue to do it.

  17. Peer reviewed scientific studies are not well suited to the incredible variability required for holistic land management. Teague has done the best job so far by looking at ranches that are comparable but have been managed differently for a number of years. We manage different areas of our ranch differently from day to day and year to year, which makes a traditional study exceedingly difficult. Variables include temperature, moisture, plant species,number and maturity of animals, soil, and previous management. What we can do is monitor over multiple years factors such as changes in soil permeability (which determines how much of our moisture is effective), plant species, forage productivity, percent of forage harvested, ground cover, grazing exposure, and rest. Any results we get will nevertheless be written off as anecdotal because they were not obtained by the rigorous scientific testing that no one has yet figured out how do under real-world conditions where changes are often made on a day to day basis as the result of subjective observation.

  18. The ideas have spread because they ARE ethically correct for the land. As Gary Howie mentioned, normal scientific methods are useless for studying holistic management. Your holistic plan is like plasma and constantly changing to fit the environment from season to season and at time from acre. This blog post will give you an idea of just how well it can work when a person is dedicated to holistic management.

  19. Regardless of this method being a back way into more cattle grazing I see this as ruinous for wild herds in the USA and I mean our wild horses and bison. Wild horses already do a wonderful job of small recoveries on the tiny bits of land the underpopulated herds still have and that have been forcibly shared with beef and sheep. If we are to save our wild herds they do need more numbers and a way to migrate and to be wild. They are natural restorers and they can help do this while recovering from the assault on them by BLM and their cronies. Y to Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) is a wildlife corridor that would be a dream for conservation if not fort the huge spurt worldwide to trophy hunt which has infected the USA again and is as repugnant as ever. If it is wild don’t touch it! Protect and preserve the wild. It is going fast.

  20. And it high time for us to try this with only wild herds and motion to simulate predation. We need to save our wild horses and bison. This could save them if it is based on wild herd grazing then when wild herds are big enough to be herds they will restore more grazing lands. Most of our horse herds are no longer viable and only a few states now have over 2 or 3 thousands of animals and most have no more than 1000 wild horses and burros in the state as opposed to millions of cattle and also in contrast, millions of domestic horses. Our wild ones are going so fast! PZP-22 is harsh and will cause infertility from 1 to several doses. This is not how to management our wildlife. More horses will help restore more overgrazed lands. We have so few in the wild now it may be too late.

    • There are no wild herds of bison. The ones in Yellowstone are welfare buffalo, dependent on being fed hay to survive where they are. All of the wild animals which once migrated have lost that instinct so your theory is blown before you start. Heck, the elk that once migrated the plains with the bison are now mountain animals.

  21. The “wild herds” are made up from the descendants of domestic horses which were stolen from ranchers through the original wild horse and burro act.

    Furthermore, the ONLY way the Savory methods work is through planning and constantly moving the herds. They seldom (if ever) graze the same place two consecutive days, and may go a year or more before grazing the same ground.

    When Savory says “mimic nature,” he is not talking about the nature of today, but nature as it was when our herds migrated on their own. they haven’t done that for over 100 years as civilization has totally changed their behavior.

  22. Savory’s system of high density rotation grazing simply doesn’t work in most arid environments. Ranchers who tried it in the American Southwest faced economic ruin because they couldn’t raise their herd numbers as Savory promised, and could not pay their bank loans for HRM’s improvements. HRM requires the the use of extensive fencing, and that is expensive for large commercial operations.
    On a practical level regarding predators, Savory says leave them alone. Well, guess what, most HRM ranchers ignore that, and still kill them.

  23. Mark,
    Ranchers did go broke in the southwest United States trying Savory methods, BUT they only PARTIALLY followed them by increasing numbers but not gauging their grass properly. I have NEVER seen a ranch that follows the system with the required flexibility that didn’t increase forage and carrying capacity.

    As far as using fences,you don’t need them if you change your stockmanship techniques to allow your cattle to act as a herd. When you do this, you reduce your labor (not to mention fuel bills) to almost nothing. The following video was taken two years ago on a ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico. In eight years this ranch went from running 100 head, feeding and weaning early, to running 528 cows, and holding calves over until they were 10 months old. This is despite 3 out of the 8 years being drought years.

  24. Here’s a link to a paper by Mike Hudak that also refutes Allan Savory’s ideas.

    From Wikipedia: Michael John Hudak is an environmental researcher and author, Sierra Club activist, radio broadcaster, and public speaker concerned with the environmental damage that ranching inflicts on US public land. He is an author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching and its companion series of web-based videos. In 1999, he founded the nonprofit Public Lands Without Livestock.

    • If Mr. Hudak was actually doing research he would not still be attempting to dismiss Alan Savory’s methods. In addition to the Millions of acres where desertification has been reversed by by his methods, Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A& M has also done research showing not only that the methods work, but also describes why “researchers” such as Hudak reach inconclusive results.
      You (and Mr Hudak) would be doing yourselves a favor by looking at newer research such as that done by the Soil Carbon Cowboy Coalition so you can see just how far off your”knowledge” is.

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