Taking a Bite Out of Biodiversity

IN THE REVIEW “STATUS AND ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST CARNIVORES” (10 January, DOI: 10.1126/science.1241484), W. J. Ripple et al. claim that meat consumption by humans is one of many threats to carnivores and biodiversity. We argue that human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity.

Livestock production accounts for up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface, making it the single largest anthropogenic land use (1). Meat and feedstock production is rapidly rising in biodiversity-rich developing countries. For example, in China, animal products currently constitute ~20% of diets, but this amount is expected to increase to ~30% or higher over the next two decades (2). For China to attain a level of carnivory similar to the United States, its projected 1.5 billion inhabitants would increase consumption of animal products by almost 30% (3). Given current trends, 1 billion additional hectares of natural habitats—an area larger than the United States—will be converted to agriculture by 2050 (4).

DSC01358

Free ranging cattle in Galicia, NW of Iberian Peninsula.

Substituting meat with soy protein could reduce total human biomass appropriation in 2050 by 94% below 2000 baseline levels (5) and greatly reduce other environmental impacts related to use of water, fertilizer, fossil fuel, and biocides. Soy protein production for global livestock markets is the second leading cause of Amazonian deforestation after pasture creation. Eliminating livestock and instead growing crops, including soy protein, only for direct human consumption could negate future agricultural land expansion, while increasing the number of calories available for human consumption by as much as 70% (6)— enough to feed an additional 4 billion people, exceeding the projected global population growth of 2 to 3 billion (6). This savings in land and calories is due to eliminating the loss of ~90% of the energy available in plants during the conversion to livestock (7).

We argue that reducing and maintaining animal products to even 10% of the global human diet would enable the future global population to be fed on just the current area of agricultural lands. Without a global decrease in per capita meat consumption by humans, the loss of natural habitats, large carnivores, and biodiversity is certain to continue.

BRIAN MACHOVINA* AND KENNETH J. FEELEY
Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, USA. *Corresponding author. E-mail: brianmachovina@gmail.com
edited by Jennifer Sills

References
1. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and
options” (FAO, Rome, 2006); http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
2. M. A. Keyzer, M. D. Merbis, I. F. P. W. Pavel, C. F. A. van Wesenbeeck, Ecol. Econ. 55, 187
(2005).
3. S. Bonhommeau et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 20617 (2013).
4. D. Tilman et al., Science 292, 281 (2001).
5. N. Pelletier, P. Tyedmers, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 18371 (2010).
6. E. Cassidy, P. C. West, J. S. Gerber, J. A. Foley, Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 8 (2013).
7. H. Charles et al., Science 327, 812 (2010).

Downloaded from http://www.sciencemag.org on February 21, 2014

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Alpine grazing: does it reduce blazing?

A large body of evidence shows that it does not
Synthesis by Dr Richard Williams, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre, and Imogen Fraser, The University of Melbourne

There have been recent calls by the Victorian Mountain Cattlemen’s Association to re-introduce cattle grazing in the Victorian Alpine National Park to reduce fire risk.

Strong evidence gathered over many years convincingly shows that cattle grazing in the Australian high country does not reduce the risk of fire.

Reintroduction of cattle to the Alpine National Park is extremely unlikely to reduce fire risk, but is highly likely to damage sensitive alpine soils and vegetation.

The Victorian Mountain Cattlemen’s Association has called for the re-introduction of cattle grazing in the Victorian Alpine National Park to reduce fire risk, based on their view that ‘alpine grazing reduces blazing’. However, a substantial body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence indicates that alpine grazing does not reduce fire risk.

Cattle on the Bogong High Plains following the 2003 fires. Photo Carl-Henrik Wahren

Detailed studies of the 2003 and 2007 fires in the Victorian Alpine National Park showed that cattle grazing had little or no effect on occurrence and/or severity of fire in the alpine vegetation above treeline, and in the surrounding subalpine woodland and montane forest. Flammability depended largely on vegetation type. For example, the 2003 fires on the Bogong High Plains burnt 87% of closed heathland and 59% of open heathland, but only 13% of grassland; grazing did not reduce the incidence of fire in any of these vegetation types.

Cattle graze selectively and this partly explains why grazing had little effect on the patterns of burning. On the Bogong High Plains detailed studies have shown that cattle prefer to graze on the grasses and herbs of the more open vegetation types such as grassland and open heathland, and avoid eating the tall shrubs of the closed heathland. Long-term monitoring on the Bogong High Plains for over 50 years has shown that cattle grazing has not reduced the cover of tall shrubs that dominate the most flammable vegetation – closed heathland.

Victoria’s alpine vegetation is resilient to large fires and there is no apparent conservation imperative to mitigate the extent or severity of large fires. Livestock grazing, on the other hand, has well-documented negative impacts on the conservation values of Australia’s rare alpine and subalpine ecosystems. There is therefore no scientific basis to support the re-introduction of cattle grazing to reduce fire risk in Australian alpine and subalpine ecosystems.

Hot Topic Lead Author:
Name: Dr Dick Williams
Email: dickwilliams1955@gmail.com
Phone: 61-404958679

Original source and access to all the papers related here: https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/node/6540

Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong.

By James Williams

Smoke from a power generating station billows into the air over grazing cattle.
Allan Savory’s livestock hypothesis hinges on what he calls “holistic management and planned grazing.”
Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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 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 theAfrica 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.

Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html

Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk

“We were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again.” That’s what Allan Savory had to say at TED about science’s view of desertification, a form of land degredation in which land loses its vegetation and bodies of water1. For years, scientists have believed that overgrazing by livestock is a major cause of desertification, and Allan Savory shared this opinion as a young biologist. Now Savory argues that we can prevent desertification by grazing more animals, with their movement carefully planned to mimic nature.

TED curator Chris Anderson dubbed Savory’s talk the highlight of the year’s conference and the official TED Twitter feeds described the talk as “profound and important.” Predictably, the talk was cheered by pastured meat enthusiasts, with Michael Pollan appearing ready to recant his advice to eat “mostly plants”:

Savory’s talk was also well-received in typically level-headed corners of the Twittersphere, with Discover Magazine calling it “one of the most thought-provoking” talks of the year, and Michael Shermer declaring it “moral progress in climate change.”

As C.J. Hadley’s profile in the February 2000 issue of the journal Rangelands makes clear, Savory has led an interesting life. He was born and raised in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), and worked in biology, military, politics, and other fields. Once a staunch opponent of grazing, he came to believe that we need more cows rather than fewer. As he told Hadley, “Severe grazing is absolutely essential to maintain biodiversity.” Overgrazing, he argues, is not the cause of desertification, arguing that grasslands have historically evolved with grazing animals. He now believes that the problem is poorly-planned grazing, and he now advocates for “holistic management and planned grazing” in order to address “all of nature’s complexity and our social, environmental, economic complexity.” According to Savory, well-planned grazing promotes plant growth, and the action of animal hooves on the soil improves the soil’s absorption of water. These ideas support the view that well-planned animal grazing can prevent and reverse desertification, thereby helping to combat climate change.

Savory fled Zimbabwe for Texas in the 1970s. In 1984 he and his wife, Jody Butterfield co-founded the non-profit Center for Holistic Management (later renamed the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management and then the Savory Center and then Holistic Management International) to promote his approach to cattle grazing and land management. In 1992, the couple founded the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, which aimed to promote the same methods in Africa. More recently, Savory and Butterfield have left Holistic Management International to start the for-profit Savory Institute, another organization devoted to promoting Savory’s Holistic Management methods. 2

Savory’s methods have found little support from mainstream science. The same issue of Rangelands that featured Hadley’s profile of Savory also included an article by Jerry L. Holechek and others, which attempted to review the evidence for a number of Savory’s claims. Their review of studies from 13 North American sites and additional data from Africa found little evidence for any of the environmental benefits which Savory claimed for his methods. Moreover, the research consistently indicated that “hoof action from having a large number of animals on a small area for short time periods reduced rather than increased infiltration,” seemingly contradicting a key assumption of Savory’s methods.

In a letter to the editor of Rangelands that June, Savory dismissed Holechek’s findings, pointing out that the cited studies considered “short duration grazing” schemes rather than the Holistic Management methods for which Savory advocated. He explained, “The work Holechek et al. describe is unlike any range management practice I have ever advocated…In fact I have consistently stated that all grazing systems and rotations, including short duration grazing, will fail.” 3 As Savory explained in 1983, a key difference between short duration grazing and Savory’s Holistic Resource Management is that the latter method is “time-controlled,” adjusting grazing periods in accordance with the rate of plant growth.

Savory went on to describe what he identified as the only research trial ever conducted on his methods, which took place in Zimbabwe in the 1960s. The experiment, known as the Charter Grazing Trials and undertaken with Savory’s involvement, tested the claim that “we could double the stocking rate on any land under conventional management, improve the land and make more profit” with Savory’s methods. Savory reports, “The only trial ever conducted proved what I have always advocated and continue to advocate when livestock are run on any land.”

In general, it is unlikely that a single study on a few plots of land will definitively prove a statement about “any land.” Moreover, while I haven’t seen the original papers (which were published in the Zimbabwe Agricultural Journal), Holechek summarized the published work in a later issue of Rangelands, finding relatively weak support for Savory’s methods.

A further complication with the Charter Grazing Trials is that, as Savory’s letter notes, it tested “the planned grazing process then called short duration grazing, but today called Holistic Planned Grazing.” Indeed, Savory wrote in his 1983 Rangelands piece, “For those without a deep knowledge of Short Duration Grazing, I am extremely familiar with this grazing system as I developed it.”

The best I can do to make sense of all this is to put everything in the context of Savory’s explanation of his method. In his 1983 article in Rangelands, Savory explained that the best analogy for what was then called the “Savory Grazing Method” was a computer:

If you know what you want to do with the computer and you feed in the right information it will aid you in achieving the result rapidly and surely. If some factors change and you observe the changes and feed in the new information the computer will again aid you efficiently in getting to your goal.

Thus, it is not necessarily contradictory for Savory to claim to have developed short duration grazing, that short duration grazing doesn’t work, and that the methods for which he has always advocated have been proven to work. The key is that the method that would become short duration grazing was the output of Savory’s “computer” when he fed in the information that was relevant to that situation. 4

That said, this ought to serve as a warning against the folly of claiming a single study as proof of anything. If the Charter Grazing Trials are proof of something, why is it not short duration grazing which was validated by its results? It is, after all, the method that was employed in the study. For Savory to now say that short duration grazing is a failure, he has to concede that a single study doesn’t prove the effectiveness of a method on “any land.”

Holechek’s 2000 article also claims that Savory had “expressed doubt that holistic resource management could be validated experimentally.” While I was not able to find a precise reference for this claim, Savory did not deny it in his response, and elsewhere he has expressed some reservations about scientific testing. For instance, in Hadley’s (mostly favorable) profile, he made it clear that he saw little use for the scientific method:

You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries. But the scientific method protects us from cranks like me.

While the intended irony of this statement has not escaped me, it’s hard to read it without concluding that he sees the scientific method as an obstacle to progress, rather than a tool for achieving it.

That is problematic because the scientific method is what will tell us whether Holistic Management works. Savory would like us to graze more cattle to fight desertification and climate change, even as scientific evidence indicates that his “solution” will actually exacerbate these problems. If we were to employ Savory’s methods on a large scale and they were to succeed in stopping desertification, that would constitute excellent experimental validation of those methods. 5 If we can’t experimentally validate his methods, then we cannot know them to work in real life, either. It is thus perfectly reasonable to ask for evidence on a smaller scale before we try such a thing, particularly as existing evidence indicates that this would make the problems worse. As Chad Kruger writes, “Being ‘unconventional’ is not, in itself, a problem, but when what you are arguing for is unconventional, you’d better ‘bring data.’”

It is also important to note that for all Savory’s insistence that his methods work, it has been associated with a number of failures. For instance, Hadley mentions a test farm in Zimbabwe, which collapsed as soon as Savory fled that country. Whereas those on the farm blamed the collapse on drought, Savory blamed on their lack of proper planning in his absence.

This is typical of Savory’s response to failure. The fault never lies in his methods but in people’s implementations of them. For instance, in a 1990 paper in the journal Ecological Economics6, Savory explains away “15 years of frustrating and eratic [sic] results” with the admission that “we had confused the integrated approach with the holistic approach, thinking that the terms were synonymous,” emphasizing that “the breakdowns we were experiencing were not attributable to the basic concept being wrong but were always due to management–of the people and the finances.” 7 Even after Savory realized that “the integrated approach and the holistic approach were opposites,”8 he had to struggle with “understanding not only what ‘holistic’ meant, but even more difficult, how to apply such an approach in day-to-day management.” Even when his own implementation of his own ideas leads to failure, he believes that the problem isn’t that the methods were flawed but that he didn’t fully understand them.9 It is this kind of convoluted reasoning that allows him to claim that his methods work.

In a review of Savory’s 1988 book Holistic Resource Management, M.T. Hoffman wrote “The apparent inconsistencies and lack of definitions (eg. for concepts such as complexity, stability, resilience, diversity and production which have a number of different meanings in the ecological literature), render it frustratingly difficult to compare his [Holistic Resource Management] approach with the broader literature.” Imprecise language doesn’t just make it hard to compare Savory’s methods with the existing literature. It also makes it nearly impossible to evaluate his approach scientifically because it allows Savory to blame any failures on a misunderstanding of the method. So long as nobody can understand Savory’s ideas, those ideas can’t be tested or disproven. In this framework, problems are solved not by trying different methods but by developing a “better” understanding of the existing one. It is therefore little wonder that after members of the Department of Range and Forage Resources at the University of Natal – Pietermaritzburg–Savory’s alma mater–met with Savory, they reported that it would be “extremely difficult” to test Savory’s ideas because “it would be difficult to evaluate even a short-term research endeavour (of 5 to 10 years), as the approach taken by Holistic Management proponents would surely have changed by then, as it has in the past.”

Changing one’s mind in response to new evidence isn’t bad at all. Indeed, it’s the scientific thing to do. However, that is not the kind of change that one finds in Savory’s writings. Savory insists that he’s been correct all along and that his evolution flows naturally from an improved understanding of his own bulletproof ideas. Whereas the scientific method lends itself well to self-correction, Savory’s vague language and inconsistency will lead to trying many different things without reason to expect improvement.

Savory argued at TED that Holistic Management “offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity.” What Savory does not tell us is that there is the distinct possibility that if we try to implement those ideas, we will fail. In this case, he will tell us that we misunderstood his ideas. How comforting it will be to know that his ideas were correct, as they always have been!

In December, TED responded to concerns that independent TEDx authorized events were “dragging the TED name through the mud” by sending a letter to “the TEDx community” warning that bad science could lead to revocation of the TEDx license. The letter also included some advice for identifying bad science. I can’t help but think that Savory’s work should have raised concerns for anybody familiar with that list. At the least, Savory’s work “has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” much of it “is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others,” it comes from an “overconfident fringe expert,” and it uses imprecise vocabulary to form untested theories.

Of course, TED has no contractual incentive to apply the standards it sets for TEDx organizers to its own talks. However, the letter emphasizes that “your audience’s trust is your top priority,” and I think it’s fair to ask what TED did to respect that trust in this case. Did they research the science behind Allan Savory’s ideas? Are they satisfied that his talk amounts to “good science”? If Savory’s talk had run at a TEDx event, would that event’s license have been revoked? Now that TED has reined in TEDx, perhaps its next move should be to look in the mirror.

Further reading


  1. An earlier version stated that desertification was “a form of land degradation in which land turns to desert.” Chris Clarke’s excellent takedown of Savory’s talk taught me that this wasn’t right.
  2. Although the reason for Allan Savory’s departure from Holistic Management International is not clear to me, Butterfield has edited Savory’s Wikipedia page to remove references to Holistic Management International, which seems to hint at less friendly relations between the organizations.
  3. Curiously, Savory’s 1978 article “A Holistic Approach to Ranch Management Using Short Duration Grazing,” published in the Proceedings of the First International Rangeland Congress devoted several paragraphs to explaining short duration grazing, not once mentioning that it would fail. Instead, the article stated, “An immediate doubling of production is not uncommon on ranches which were considered fully stocked before changing to short duration grazing.”
  4. Savory has used a number of terms for his methods over the years, including short duration grazing, Savory grazing method, holistic resource management, holistic management and holistic planned grazing.
  5. This would not necessarily confirm that Savory had identified the correct mechanisms by which Holistic Management worked. It would merely show that they worked.
  6. An earlier version of this post included a link to the wrong article here. I corrected the link at 7:30PM on April 4, 2013.
  7. I added the end of this sentence post-publication (March 12, 2013 around 2:00AM PDT), starting from “emphasizing” because I thought it improved clarity. 
  8. Savory goes on to write, “Since then an Englishman (Goldsmith, 1988) came to the conclusion not that [holistic and integrated] are opposites but that the integrated approach is still disciplinary while the holistic approach is non-disciplinary. I prefer his description which I think is more accurate than my own.”
  9. In the language of his analogy, Savory points out that early computers were capable of performing computations correctly, but it was hard to achieve accurate results because the machines were not user-friendly.

Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene: Commentary on Savory TED Video

Guest post by Jason West and David Briske

Allan Savory delivered a highly publicized talk at a “Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED)” conference in February of this year (2013) entitled “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.” Here we address one of the most dramatic claims made – that a specialized grazing method alone can reverse the current trajectory of increasing atmospheric CO2 and climate change.

The talk was attended by many conferees and has since been viewed on the TED website over 1.6 million times. It has received substantial acclaim in social media, some of which is available at the Savory Institute website, but it has also received considerable criticism (of particular note is ablog post from Adam Merberg and an article in Slate magazine. Although these criticism quickly followed Mr. Savory’s presentation and are broadly supported by the available science, his sweeping claims have continued to resonate with lay audiences. An apparent example is his invitation to deliver a speech to Swiss Re during their 150 year anniversary celebration in London in September, in which he is quoted as saying “…only now due largely to my TED talk on the desertification aspect of the global problem, was the public becoming aware of such hope in a world so short on solutions…”.

As a result of the continuing discussion regarding this presentation, we felt compelled to interpret these claims within the context of Earth System science to facilitate broader discussions and evaluation. It is important to recognize that Mr. Savory’s grazing method, broadly known as holistic management, has been controversial for decades. A portion of this controversy and the lack of scientific support for the claims made for his method on livestock productivity and grassland ecosystem function may be found in peer-reviewed papers (e.g. Briske et al. 2008). This presentation, however, argued for an additional application to climate change.

We focus here on the most dramatic claim that Mr. Savory made regarding the reversal of climate change through holistic management of grasslands. The relevant quote (transcript by author from video provided on TED website) is as follows:

“…people who understand far more about carbon than I do calculate that for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, for their children and all of humanity…”

While it is understandable to want to believe that such a dramatic outcome is possible, science tells us that this claim is simply not reasonable. The massive, ongoing additions of carbon to the atmosphere from human activity far exceed the carbon storage capacity of global grasslands.

Approximately 8 Petagrams (Pg; trillion kilograms) of carbon are added to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel burning and cement production alone. This will increase in the future at a rate that depends largely on global use of fossil fuels. To put these emissions in perspective, the amount of carbon taken up by vegetation is about 2.6 Pg per year. To a very rough approximation then, the net carbon uptake by all of the planet’s vegetation would need to triple (assuming similar transfers to stable C pools like soil organic matter) just to offset current carbon emissions every year. However, the claim was not that holistic management would maintain current atmospheric CO2 levels, but that it would return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Based on IPCC estimates, there are now approximately 240 more Petagrams (Pg) of carbon in the atmosphere than in pre-industrial times. To put this value in perspective, the amount of carbon in vegetation is currently estimated at around 450 Pg, most of that in the wood of trees. The amount of carbon that would need to be removed from the atmosphere and stabilized in soils, in addition to the amount required to compensate for ongoing emissions, to attain pre-industrial levels is equivalent to approximately one-half of the total carbon in all of Earth’s vegetation. Recall that annual uptake of carbon is about two orders of magnitude smaller than the total carbon amount stored in vegetation.

At a global scale, grasslands are generally distributed in regions of low precipitation across a wide range of temperatures, with precipitation particularly limiting grassland productivity. Within a zone, grassland carbon cycles respond significantly and sometimes dramatically to fluctuations in inter-annual precipitation. This is because soil water is essential for vegetation to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis and it also drives variation in microbial processes that affect the loss of carbon from soils. Consequently, soil water availability represents a much greater limitation to maximum carbon storage in global grasslands than does grazing management. Grasslands represent approximately 30-40% of the planet’s land surface and only a fraction of annual global productivity and carbon sequestration (~20% of global carbon stocks). It is simply unreasonable to expect that any management strategy, even if implemented on all of the planet’s grasslands, would yield such a tremendous increase in carbon sequestration.

Humanity faces many challenging problems in this period of human domination of planet known at the Anthropocene. These problems, including that of climate change, require efforts to find solutions in all sectors of society and that we engage in diverse and dynamic dialogue about potential solutions, including those that may lie far outside the current mainstream. However, potential solutions must be assessed with a dispassionate and rigorous treatment of risks, benefits, and costs. We should pursue solutions that are most likely to succeed on the basis of scientific validity and societal acceptance . Extravagant claims like those in Mr. Savory’s TED video must be weighed against known physical realities to credibly serve society.

Rangeland management strategies appropriately emphasize conservation of previously stored soil carbon, rather than sequestration of additional carbon, based in part on the limitations previously described. Emphasis should be placed on climate change adaptation, rather than mitigation as advocated by Mr. Savory, to support the well-being of millions of human inhabitants. Mr. Savory argues that we adopt his grazing method as a simple solution to resolve a key Anthropocene contributor – the ongoing perturbation of Earth’s carbon cycle. The appeal of this claim to casual observers is enhanced in that it does not require humans to face any tradeoffs. The implication is that we can continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon into the atmosphere because application of holisitic management on the Earth’s grasslands provides a ‘silver bullet’ that will sustainably solve the climate change problem and provide abundant livestock products as well. We would be thrilled if a simple solution such as this existed. However, it clearly does not, and it is counter-productive to believe that it does. Humanity must look beyond hope and simple solutions if it is to successfully navigate its way through the Anthropocene.

Source: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/cows-carbon-and-the-anthropocene-commentary-on-savory-ted-video/

Dogs ease Namibia’s cheetah-farmer conflicts

Gobabis, Namibia – Winding through the parched Namibian farmland, Bonzo, an Anatolian shepherd dog, has a singular focus: protecting his herd of goats from lurking predators.

He pads along, sniffing the air and marking the scrubby landscape, just like a bodyguard ready to ward off any threat to his charges, which he considers family.

“They’re not pets. They’re not allowed to be pets,” said Bonzo’s owner farmer Retha Joubert.

The breed descends from ancient livestock dogs used thousands of years ago in what is now central Turkey. And they not only save sheep and goats, but have handed a lifeline to Namibia’s decimated cheetah numbers by reducing conflicts between farmers and predators.

“The dogs are protecting the flock in such a way that the farmers don’t have to kill predators,” said Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) which breeds the dogs near northern city Otjiwarongo.

“It’s a non-lethal predator control method so it is green, it’s happy, it’s win-win.”

The concept is simple.

The dogs are placed with a flock when a few weeks old to bond with the livestock. They live permanently with the animals, loyally heading out with them every day to deter hunters, and bedding down with them at night.

Marker’s centre started breeding the livestock dogs to promote cheetah-friendly farming after some 10 000 big cats – the current total worldwide population – were killed or moved off farms in the 1980s.

Up to 1 000 cheetahs were being killed a year, mostly by farmers who saw them as livestock killers.

But the use of dogs has slashed losses for sheep and goat farmers and led to less retaliation against the vulnerable cheetah.

‘Fight to the finish’

“We see about 80 to 100% decrease of livestock loss from any predator when the farmers have the dogs,” said Marker.

In the last 19 years, around 450 dogs have been placed with farmers and more than 3 000 farmers trained.

There is now a two-year waiting list for the dogs – either stately Anatolian shepherds or Kangals – and the programme has expanded to other countries with predators.

For Joubert, staying up late at night worrying about her sheep and goats coming home is a thing of the past.

Her farm near Gobabis, east of the capital Windhoek, lost 60 animals in 2008.

But the arrival of Bonzo, her first Anatolian, as a puppy five years ago has slashed losses to just one animal last year.

Joubert is now training four-month-old Kangal !Nussie – whose name starts with the exclamation point typical of Namibia’s Nama people – to follow in Bonzo’s footsteps.

The fluffy-coated pup is learning the ropes by going out with a flock every day on a leash with a human herder and beds down in the animal enclosure at night. She gets half an hour in the evening to play in the yard.

“She must associate herself with the goats, she must be a goat, she’s part of a group, that’s the main thing I think to make them to protect the animals,” said Joubert, who is deeply proud of her dogs.

The dogs’ presence and intimidating bark is usually enough to deter predators, who would rather opt for prey that does not have a guardian.

But they will attack if a hunter does not back off.

Bonzo for example, has killed jackals, who attack in packs and a young, weak cheetah.

“If indeed they do come in, the dog could and would fight to the finish,” said Marker.

Altercations between the dogs and cheetahs, though, are rare and those who target livestock are usually desperate, such as being wounded.

But working in Namibia’s tough landscape takes its toll.

Bonzo has been bitten by snakes, stung by a scorpion, attacked by baboons and now has tongue cancer from exposure to the relentless sun.

Ironically, despite cheetahs being seen as livestock killers, analysis of their droppings has shown only five percent had preyed on farm animals.

“They do occasionally take livestock,” said Gail Potgieter, a human-wildlife conflict specialist at the Namibia Nature Foundation.

“But the perception that any cheetah is going to start killing livestock as its main diet is very wrong.”

Cheetah numbers hit a low of 2 500 in 1986. But the population has now potentially reached nearly 4 000 – the biggest wild cheetah population in the world.

Cheetahs still face threats on game ranches, where they eat valuable animals, and on cattle farms where the dogs are not suited.

But for small stock farmers, they have proven their worth.

“For the type of livestock farming that’s going on in Namibia, it’s definitely one of the most promising solutions that they have,” said Potgieter, who used to manage the CCF’s dog programme.

In Gobabis, Joubert, needs no convincing.

“I will always have dogs here,” she said

Source: http://www.news24.com/Green/News/Dogs-ease-Namibias-cheetah-farmer-conflicts-20130827

Snow leopards and wild yaks becoming ‘fashion victims’

Surge in global trade in cashmere is driving up goat numbers, leaving less grass for antelopes on whom the predators depend by 

endangered snow leopard in Hemis National Park, Jammu and Kashmir province, India

A remote camera captures an endangered snow leopard in Hemis national park, Jammu and Kashmir province, India. Photograph: Steve Winter/NG/Getty Images

Snow leopards, wild yaks and other iconic wildlife on the world’s highest mountains and great steppes are becoming “fashion victims” of the surging global trade in cashmere, new research has revealed.

Scientists found wildlife being driven to the margins of survival by the “striking but unintended consequences” of huge increases in the numbers of the goats producing the luxurious lightweight wool. The herds eat up the grass that previously supported antelopes, wild asses and their predators. Further problems were retaliatory killings of leopards and wolves by herders after livestock attacks, the killing of wild animals by herders’ dogs and the transfer of disease from livestock to wild animals.

“In the absence of commitment across global and local scales, this iconic wildlife will cease to persist as they have for millennia, concluded an international team of researchers in the journal Conservation Biology. “Rather than serving as symbols of success, these species will become victims of fashion.” The study showed that 95% of all the forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India was consumed by goats, sheep and other livestock, leaving just 5% for wild animals.

endangered snow leopard in Hemis National Park, Jammu and Kashmir province, India

Snow leopards and other iconic wildlife are suffering unintended consequences of fashion fad. Photograph: Steve Winter/NG/Getty Images”They are really on the margins,” said one of the team, Charudutt Mishra at India’s Nature Conservation Foundation and a previous winner of a prestigious Whitley award. Among the wildlife being squeezed out are the Przewalski horse, bactrian camels, Tibetan antelopes and siaga.

“But it is not an easy issue because producing cashmere does benefit local communities and economic development is essential,” said Mishra. “I care about the snow leopard but I also genuinely care about those people and their livelihoods. The solution is about empowering them.” Examples of small projects that have helped so far, he said, are paying bonuses for cashmere goods produced by communities that do not shoot snow leopards or poach wild animals, improvements to the corrals in which the goats live to prevent leopards killing them and vaccination of goats to prevent the spread of disease. In Pakistan, an insurance scheme for livestock has reduced retaliatory killing of snow leopards.

: goats and sheep in predator-proof corral

Mixed herd of Pashmina (aka Changthangi), other goats and sheep in predator-proof corral, implemented through Snow Leopard Conservancy programme, in Ladakh, India. Photograph: Chinch Gryniewicz/Getty Images

Mishra said there was time, though not much, to make such schemes more widespread and protect the wildlife. He said it was not difficult to persuade communities of the need for conservation: “You don’t have to preach, people inherently see the value.”

The UK is among the top four importers of Mongolian cashmere, a trade which has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. In Mongolia alone, numbers of domestic goats have grown from 5 million in 1990 to almost 14 million in 2010. Ninety percent of cashmere comes from China and Mongolia.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/23/snow-leopards-yaks-cashmere-gaots-fashion?CMP=twt_gu