On 19th August, 2014, The Guardian newspaper published a response by L Hunter Lovins to an earlier article by George Monbiot, in which Monbiot criticised the intensive grazing practices promoted by Allan Savory. [1], [2]

In her response, Lovins referred to the high carbon stores of America’s Great Plains soils and the world’s native grasslands. She said, “They got that way by co-evolving with pre-industrial grazing practices: sufficient herds of native graziers, dense packed by healthy populations of predators.”

As I mentioned in my article Do the math: There are too many cows!, due to human-engineered intensive breeding programs, current livestock populations dwarf those of earlier times. We are not comparing apples with apples when considering past natural grazing practices relative to modern extensive and intensive livestock production systems. [5]

Lovins also cited Polyface farm in the US as evidence that Savory’s approach works. But how successful is Polyface?

In his book CSIRO Perfidy, Geoff Russell reported that the farm (with generous rounding) produces 45 tonnes of food from 60 hectares per year. Russell says, “any plant food or collection of plant foods will wallop the productivity of Polyface”. He indicated that, at the bottom end of the range, an almond farmer could generate 60 tonnes from 60 hectares, for double the protein content of Polyface’s production. [3]

Anyone concerned about obtaining (for example) sufficient protein from plant-based food production may be interested in this table from my article Some thoughts on protein in a plant-based diet [4]:


Another example from Lovins was the Australian company, Sustainable Land Management (SLM). She did not provide a specific example of SLM’s work. However, the company’s website includes the single case study of “Padua“, involving two properties covering 44,000 hectares near Cunnamulla, Queensland. After acquiring the properties in 2012, the company created 200 paddocks by installing 580 kilometres of fencing, along with 98 kilometres of water pipes and 23 new water points.

In my article Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour, I quoted Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop, a former Principal Scientist with the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resources Management Remote Sensing Centre [6]:

Conservation grazing . . . does work in the more temperate regions where rainfall and feed production can support the cost of fencing, but is not a cure-all as is proposed. . . . What Savory does not mention is that intensive (cell) grazing is only viable where water points are close and labour is cheap. Temporary or permanent fencing is labour intensive, moving herds daily requires far more labour input than most operations can afford.”

Wedderburn-Bisshop’s comments regarding “conservation grazing” were based on an article by Associate Professor Ian Lunt of Charles Sturt University, in which he stated, “. . . managed grazing creates an open habitat that is suitable for plants and animals that cannot persist beneath tall, thick grass. This mechanism is only relevant in a small number of Australian ecosystems – particularly lowland grasslands and grassy woodlands on productive soils in areas of moderate to high rainfall. . . . Grazing is not required to maintain diversity in all grassy ecosystems, and is rarely needed in dry, infertile sites where low fertility constrains grass growth.” [7]

Although Savory’s approach may allow revegetation on a relatively small scale, subject to adequate water resources and livestock controls, it would never be sufficient to feed the masses.

Wedderburn-Bisshop has also referred to the “fence line effect” in northern Australia, whereby bare ground will often exist on one side of a fence, while on the other there is knee-high native grass. The bare side will generally be owned by a pastoral company seeking to maximise its financial return. It will have increased stocking rates during times of favourable rainfall, then taken too long to reduce those rates during drought. The land becomes degraded, and carbon stores are significantly depleted. [8]

Lovins seems to have softened the claims of Savory, in that she talks of his practices “countering” climate change, rather than “reversing” it. I wonder if she believes that Savory has overstated the potential benefits of his methods, and is subtly stepping away from his most elaborate claim.

Savory and his supporters, including Lovins, may be akin to those who support fossil fuels in relation to climate change, promoting methods such as carbon capture and storage. Their approaches tweak systems that are fundamentally flawed, when far more simple and effective solutions are readily available.

Author: Paul Mahony (also on on Twitter, Slideshare and Scribd)

Note: Protein chart updated 21st February, 2016.

[1] Lovins, L. Hunter, Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world, The Guardian, 19th August, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/19/grazing-livestock-climate-change-george-monbiot-allan-savory?

[2] Monbiot, G.,Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle, The Guardian, 4th August, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/aug/04/eat-more-meat-and-save-the-world-the-latest-implausible-farming-miracle

[3] Russell, G., CSIRO Perfidy, Vivid Publishing, 2009, http://www.perfidy.com.au/

[4] Mahony, P., Some thoughts on protein in a plant-based diet, Terrastendo, 27th March, 2014, https://terrastendo.net/2014/03/17/some-thoughts-on-protein-in-a-plant-based-diet/

[5] Mahony, P., Do the math: There are too many cows!, Terrastendo, 26th July, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/07/26/do-the-math-there-are-too-many-cows/

[6] Mahony, P.,Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour, Terrastendo, 26th March, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/03/26/livestock-and-climate-why-allan-savory-is-not-a-saviour/

[7] Lunt, I., Can livestock grazing benefit biodiversity?, The Conversation, 19th November, 2012, http://theconversation.edu.au/can-livestock-grazing-benefit-biodiversity-10789, citing Lunt, I., Eldridge, D.J., Morgan, J.W., Witt, G.B., Turner Review No. 13 – A framework to predict the effects of livestock grazing and grazing exclusion on conservation values in natural ecosystems in Australia“, Australian Journal of Botany 55(4) 401–415, http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/BT06178 and http://www.publish.csiro.au/paper/BT06178

[8] Mahony, P., Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue, Terrastendo, 9th February, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/02/09/omissions-of-emissions-a-critical-climate-change-issue/

Image: Cattle after Sunset © Joaobambu | Dreamstime.com