This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
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, a passionate 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.
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