I have long maintained that pastured cows are no answer at all to the environmental catastrophe of beef production. In fact, it may even be worse. Integral to this mission has been the effort to push back against the grass-fed guru Allan Savory, whose rotational grazing fantasies have been nicely packaged as reality and shot into the bullseye of public opinion through that glitzy marketing move known a as a TED talk. I took on Savory over a year ago here at Slate.
As I summarized:
In roughly 22 minutes, Savory, a biologist and former member of the Rhodesian [now Zimbabwean] Parliament, challenged the conventional wisdom by blaming livestock for the degradation of global grasslands into hardpan deserts. It has long been a basic tenet of environmentalism that... 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, "can only feed people with animals."
The piece made an impression in some quarters, but overall it seems to have done little to dampen the glee of Savory's absurd thesis that we can save the planet by eating beef. But a piece in yesterday's Guardian by the popular environmental writer George Monbiot may have the heft to push Savory's crackpot thesis into the dustbin of bad ideas. The article covers the same ground I covered in Slate but incorporates new research (like this journal's takedown of the idea of rotational grazing regenerating the grassland, or this one's) and a phone interview with the Savory to hammer home the fact that the man is loony. Mobiot writes:
He began by comparing himself to Galileo, which is never a good sign, and it went downhill from there...
I asked him about his carbon claims. He told me it wasn't him who had made such claims, but other people who knew far more about it than he did. Could he gave me the names of those people? He gave me a long, rambling answer about the different impacts of land management around the world, climate change, fire, poverty, violence, red meat and veganism. I tried and tried again. At last I managed to bring him round to the question, and extracted some names from him. So where had they published their calculations? They hadn't.
His staff later sent me an article on the issue published on the Savory Institute's website, but - as far as I can tell - nowhere else. There are no named authors. If you intend to make a massive and extraordinary scientific claim, and build your position around it, you had better ensure that it has been properly tested, which is why the peer review process exists.
As advocates for animals it is essential that we work to highlight the inherent environmental flaws of beef production, flaws that persist irrespective of the method of domestication or farm size. Of course, I'm concerned with the end of all animal agriculture, but at the moment the grass-fed hypothesis is stunned and staggered. Apologies for the pugilistic metaphor, but as a fan of boxing I declare it's time to deliver this dangerous thesis a knockout punch.