Why The Slate Article About Allan Savory Is Dead Wrong

If you Google search for “Allan Savory” you will find two articles on the first page which seem to discredit Allan’s work.

The first article is by George Monbiot of The Guardian, entitled “Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle”.

Hunter Lovins has already written a response to that article in The Guardian: “Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world”

The second article that you will find, “Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong” by James E. McWilliams, has not been responded to, as far as I can tell. So I have decided to respond to it here.

The main push of James’s article is that there is no evidence to support Allan Savory’s claims and that there is actually evidence discrediting Savory’s claims. Both of these assertions are “dead wrong”.

My post “Evidence Supporting Holistic Management” might have cleared things up for James if it had been around at the time.

This issue is very important to me, so I am going to examine James’s article point by point. Here we go…


*Read James’s full article here. 

After a few paragraphs outlining Savory’s TED talk James’s counter points begin….

Part 1

“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.”

We’ll discus the Charter Grazing Trials in more detail later on. But the point James is making here seems to be that proving something works on 6,200 acres is not good enough to prove that it works all around the world. A valid point.

But there is a huge problem with this argument: Holistic Planned Grazing is currently being used on over 40 million acres worldwide. It is not just a theory based on a single trial done decades ago. It is being used by thousands of producers all over the world with great success:

Part 2

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. “

*See my post in the comment section for a great analysis of the Charter Grazing Trials by one of the scientists involved.

This section is based entirely on the article “Short Duration Grazing Research In Africa”. So let me address the flaws in that article itself:

  1. The article referenced has already been discredited several times. (reference)
  2. Allan Savory’s grazing methods have been adapted and improved over time. The version most commonly used today (called Holistic Planned Grazing) was only developed in the late 1990s. So the grazing method Savory used during the Charter Grazing Trials (called Short Duration Grazing) was inferior to the one he now advocates.
  3. Savory’s goals during the Charter Grazing Trials were to “double the stocking rate …. improve the land and make more profit”He achieved all of those goals except “improve the land”. The land stayed the same (see below for an explanation). Had he been trying to reduce feed inputs or maximize individual animal performance he could have done so, but that was not the purpose of the study.
  4. The supposed “other African research on holistically managed grazing” is no such thing! Anyone with even a basic knowledge of “holistically managed grazing” will instantly recognize that the methodologies referred to in the article do not even remotely resemble “holistically managed grazing”. Rotational grazing is not Holistic Management. 
  5. Despite the fact that Short Duration Grazing is inferior to the methods that Allan Savory was advocating in his TED talk (Holistic Planned Grazing), the article actually found many benefits with Short Duration Grazing… something James failed to mention:
    1. ” During the 7 year study ranchers would have averaged 6% more total income per year with the Richman Savory and 26% more income per year with the Poorman Savory than the controls.”
    2. ” Some form of rotational grazing is essential to obtain maximum production.”
    3. ” Beef production per acre was 40% higher for the Richman Savory than Control 1 and 29% higher for the Poorman Savory than Control 2.”
    4. The lack of change in rangeland quality was because the rangeland was already very healthy: “This [study] possibly does not pertain in severely degraded veld (rangeland).” (“severely degraded” is exactly the type of land Savory is talking about in the TED talk)

Not only is the article referenced by James severely flawed, but to take it as the final word on Holistic Management would be to ignore the vast majority of the relevant evidence which overwhelmingly supports Savory’s claims.

Part 3

“A 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.”

This section also relies on a reference article which has been thoroughly discredited here. 

There are many problems with the reference article. But the most glaring problem is that the article is, once again, not an evaluation of Holistic Planned Grazing but an evaluation of Short Duration Rotational Grazing. An entirely different way of managing livestock. Allan Savory is vocally opposed to Short Duration Rotational Grazing, especially when it is used in Brittle Environments. 

Part 4

“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.””

If you read the source article for his quote you will find that the statement “Savory’s method won’t scale” is actually the author’s summary of the following quote from FinchJ:

“Like it or not, industrial man has wrecked havoc upon the biosphere. [Savory’s holistic management] is not the only option, globally, for combating climate change. But it is the best option we have to restore the grasslands of the world. It is not appropriate everywhere, but the principles can be applied even in humid regions (see the Salatin’s Polyface farm). We cannot magically increase the population of wild ruminants to their pre-decimation levels over night. Even if we could, the process of removing man from the land we have taken would take even longer than breeding them! While I am all in favor of returning much of these grasslands to their former, pre-livestock condition, I think it will take time.

Implementing HM globally is just one of many steps along the way to patching up this biosphere with the parts we have yet to eliminate.”

Hmmm, “won’t scale” isn’t exactly what I think the original author was trying to say. Not to mention that the statement is backed up by exactly zero evidence.

Savory’s methods are currently being used on 40 million acres worldwide. All of that has happened in roughly 30 years. How is that for scale?

Part 5

“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. “

Hard to know where to begin with this paragraph…

I think James is confused about the mechanisms through which cattle can regenerate landscapes and store carbon in the soil (I have talked about these mechanisms here and here).

The dead carcasses of cattle are not necessary to regenerate land and reverse desertification. All of the grassland restoration being done on millions of acres worldwide is being done by working ranchers. All of them are selling their livestock for meat, because they have to. This is clear evidence that ecosystem restoration can happen even when the nutrients contained in the bodies of dead livestock are removed from the land.

The ‘ecological “value”‘ of cattle is not determined by their lifespan, it is determined by the number of living, trampling, grazing cattle on a given area and by the quality of their management.

A cow will produce 5-6% of her body weight in manure every day. So a 1000lb yearling being transported to market at 15 months old has already deposited about 20 times its body weight in manure on the land. The nutrients contained in the bodies of cattle are insignificant compared to the other ecosystem services provided by cattle.

Part 6

“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.””

There are two points worth addressing here. First James asserts that the hard “crust” on desert soils is preferable to the grassland that could exist otherwise. Then he asserts that “the desert’s natural ability to squester carbon” is more important than what can be achieved with livestock.

Grassland or "cryptobiotic crust"?
Grassland or “cryptobiotic crust”?


The Value Of Desert Algae Crusts Versus Grassland

No scientist can tell us whether a algal crust is more valuable than a grassland. It depends on what we value most. Here are some reasons that replacing “cryptobiotic crusts” with grassland might be a very good idea:

  1. Grasslands sequester carbon in the soil, reducing global GHG levels. (reference) Algal crusts do not increase the carbon stored in soil and store less carbon in their biomass than grassland.
  2. Grasslands produce food for humans, as well as for wildlife. Algal crusts do not.
  3. Air temperatures fluctuate more dramatically over a crusted surface than over a grassland. Over a large enough scale this effects regional air temperatures. (hotter summers and colder winters)
  4. Algal crusts do not permit most new seeds to grow. Seeds which fall on to the surface of a crust are excluded from the nutrients and moisture of the soil, which they require for growth. Over time, a lack of seedling growth leads to loss of plant life.
  5. Grasslands contain more biodiversity than areas dominated by cryptobiotic crusts (in terms of number of species). Biodiversity is essential for ecosystem resilience and stability.
  6. Algae crusts do not permit the infiltration of rainfall into the soil, whereas grassland soils absorb rainwater readily. (reference)
    1. Rain that does not infiltrate the soil travels over the surface: causing erosion and flooding downstream.
    2. Rain that falls on an area with algal crusts is not stored in the soils of those areas, depriving the ecosystem of life-giving water reservoirs.

Part 7

“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.”

First lets deal with the criticism that Savory’s methods do not adequately “mimic” nature:

Of course Holistic Planned Grazing is not a perfect replication of the natural order of things before humans arrived. No one, including Allan Savory, is claiming that it is. We are simply pointing out that Holistic Planned Grazing is a whole lot closer to the natural order than the land management practices which are currently being employed over most of the world’s drylands (either conservation land management, or agricultural land management).

The proof is in the pudding. Holistic Management regenerates landscapes. Its not perfect, but its the best tool we have right now by far.

Second, lets talk about the claim that “not all deserts rely on the presence of herd animals for their ecological health”:

Unfortunately James did not directly provide a reference for this claim, but I found the same statement in a previous article he referenced (here) so I assume that is where he got the information. Too bad the referenced article does not include any evidence either!

Despite a complete lack of evidence, they may be right that some “desert grasses evolved not alongside large animals but in concert with desert tortoises, mice, rats, rabbits, and reptiles”. However, this does not say anything about desert grasslands (large areas of land covered mainly with grass plants). Grassland landscapes cannot exist in Brittle Environments without the trampling and grazing action of large herbivores. (reference) 

Part 8

“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.””

Well there is not much to discuss here any more. I have already provided plenty of solid evidence supporting Savory’s methods. And yes, the vast majority of supposed studies of Savory’s methods are not actually studying his methods at all. Read his book and it will be abundantly clear how his method differs from other grazing methods like rotational grazing, short duration grazing, cell grazing, etc.

Part 9

“In the meantime, the evidence continues to suggest what we have long known: There’s no such thing as a beef-eating environmentalist. “

Although James certainly wants this to be true, it is not. Eating factory farmed beef is certainly bad for the environment, but eating meat produced with Savory’s methods is actually necessary for global sustainability.

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