Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


cattle-pasture

(PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Our Planet’s Destiny Lies in Its Pastures

• May 07, 2013 • 6:02 PM

(PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Cattle aren’t bovine planet-wreckers, they’re our green buddies. But that counter-intuitive land management message has lots of haters.

A couple of times in the past we’ve written about the work of biologist Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean wildlife ranger turned rancher whose land management of Southern Africa’s dry savannahs attempts to mimic the wild herds that the captive ones supplanted. As Judith D. Schwartz wrote for us in 2012:

Savory developed a land management process, holistic management, that challenged the conventional belief that grazing can only harm land. The key, said Savory, was to manage livestock to mimic the behavior of wild herds, intensively grazing (and defecating on and trampling upon the ground) and then moving on (as if driven by predators) so that no plants are overgrazed. This rejuvenates the soil so that it retains water and supports a diversity of plant species.

He’s been promoting holistic management since the 1960s, and his message of the benefits of short-duration grazing (a term he rejects as not reflecting all facets of his practice, such as proper timing) has swung in and out of vogue ever since. But mainstream awareness of Savory’s practices took off after he won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for developing a “solution that has significant potential to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems,” in this case desertification. Savory’s TED talk in March has harvested a million-plus views on the TED site and 380,000 more on YouTube and his ‘eat more beef to reverse climate change’ message has proved popular with some foodies (but not with others).

Meanwhile, statements like “severe grazing is absolutely essential to maintain biodiversity” have been music to the ears of some who bridle at cows-are-evil environmental notions and/or often reject anthropogenic climate change even as they like showing how easy it is to remedy. (Ironically, Savory’s message could also be distilled as we could use more predators, which wouldn’t go down too well with his backers in the wolf-phobic American West.)

With new-found acclaim comes new-found criticism, or in the case of an exhaustive take-down of Savory’s claims from Slate’s James McWilliams (“dead wrong” appears in the subhead), a catalog of old criticisms. In 2000, for example, five scientists led by range ecologist Jerry L. Holochek assessed the status of short-duration grazing in the journal Rangelands. Holochek and co. appreciated that the “controversy” surrounding Savory had prompted better examinations of grazing practices. They even agreed that in a few scenarios—such as not cramming as many cows on the land as possible—Savory’s theories might pay dividends. But on the whole, they were unimpressed:

We find it interesting that government agencies so readily accepted Savory’s theories and aggressively encouraged use of short-duration grazing. Grazing research that was available by the late 1970’s already refuted much of what Savory contended but it received little consideration by many ranchers and government-employed range managers. History shows that it’s human nature to believe a good story rather than pursue the truth. Many ranchers undoubtedly found the prospect of much higher profits through use of Savory grazing methods most appealing. However, scientific investigation has disproven many of the early claims for short-duration grazing.

In the same issue of Rangelands with Holochek’s piece, a profile of Savory (reprinted from the previous year’s Range magazine) saw him acknowledge, and then dismiss, his detractors and their claims that his methods either didn’t work or didn’t work widely enough:

I am an environmentalist and I’m trained conventionally as a scientist so I grew up hating cows, believing all the conventional myths. But then, from my own work and the work of others, I found that we were wrong. So I changed. Now, until more people change, the land will keep deteriorating. They will publish photographs of improved riparian areas, claim successes, get awards, but let time pass and you will find that I am right.

That was more than a decade ago, and time has neither proven him right nor comprehensively wrong (recent criticisms range from his methods aren’t scalable to he hates the desert). If anything, his insight—and at its core it is an insight—may suffer from the habit of overreach, overstatement, and sound-bite generalization fostered by years of trying to shout just a few decibels louder than his naysayers. Frankly, the TED experience in general amplifies that and makes complex ideas easy to caricature: We’ve got the cure for climate change! And drought! And biodiversity! And food shortages! And it’s cheap and profitable!

In Schwartz’s just released book, Cows Save the Planet—guess on which side of the controversy Judy falls!—Savory and holistic management are major characters. Judy paints a sympathetic portrait of Savory, and notes how his 6,500-acre test plot, the Dimbangombe Ranch near Victoria Falls, has revived (more livestock, higher crop production, better groundwater management) under the tender caress of Savory-administered holistic management and the end of frequent uncontrolled grassland fires.

Judy notes that holistic management has a lot of moving parts; detractors tend to bite down hard on one part and dig in. But nature has even more moving parts, which makes mimicking it a trial.

Perhaps a sense of humility, as demonstrated by this family in Judy’s book, might help those who try:

When [U.S. rancher Ron] Goddard first learned about Holistic Management and its framework for the interplay of livestock, land, and water, his response was “This makes so much sense—everybody’s going to be doing it.” He found, however, that in most ranching circles it was a tough sell. “Allan Savory said that first your neighbors will think you’re crazy. Then when you’re doing well they’ll drive past your place and not look,” says Goddard. “We don’t hang out in the bars and coffee shops in town around here so people can tell me how stupid we are. We help our neighbors and they help us and we’re social and go to church. But we don’t tell anyone they should do this.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.