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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.

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