I was recently requested to comment on a 2011 TEDx presentation by Tony Lovell.  It seems the video of the presentation has been posted in recent climate change discussions involving the impact of animal agriculture.
Lovell is a director and co-founder of Sustainable Land Management Partners (SLM). The Australian firm describes itself as an asset manager acquiring and managing rural land on behalf of institutional investors. It focuses on so-called “holistic management” or “short duration grazing” systems of livestock production developed by Allan Savory. I have argued against Savory’s approach previously, and many of my comments from the relevant articles apply equally to Lovell’s presentation.   
The need to draw down carbon: Arguing a point over which no argument exists
Lovell spends much of the first half of the presentation seeking to convince the audience that we need to draw carbon from the atmosphere in order to reduce the impact of climate change.
He might be surprised to learn that, even at the time of his presentation in 2011, there was nothing new in that argument, and that most of us who argue for a reduction in livestock numbers would agree.
The same comment applies to his point that biological sequestration in particular, in the form of improved vegetation, is beneficial.
People’s thinking abilities relative to climate change and the carbon cycle
Lovell discussed what he felt were limitations in many people’s ability to adopt “complex, cyclical thinking”. Specifically, he bemoaned the supposed preponderance of “simplistic linear thinking” that links effects to a cause.
The example he gave was his belief that many people see greenhouse gases solely in a negative light. He argues that, because methane is a greenhouse gas, they don’t like it and, because cattle emit methane, they don’t like them either.
He argues that the supposed inability to think soundly is one of several reasons for people finding it difficult to deal with climate change. The others are: fear of the unknown or unusual; difficulty in dealing with large numbers; difficulty in understanding compound growth; and being loss averse.
It was not clear from his comments, but his reference to compound growth may have related to feedback mechanisms in the climate system that create exponential trends or compounding impacts.
Seemingly related to those points, he talks about people behaving irrationally in relation to economic decisions, and says, rather loosely, “climate change is talking about cost benefits and that”.
His points seem largely irrelevant to the case he tries to mount for his preferred form of agriculture.
The specific cycle he discussed in terms of “complex, cyclical thinking” was the carbon cycle.
He seems to contend that most people who are concerned about climate change do not realise that greenhouse gases are essential to avoid freezing temperatures, and that the problem is one of excess.
Once again, he might be surprised to learn that most of us who argue for a reduction in livestock numbers would agree.
He then uses the carbon cycle as a means to defend ruminant animals emitting methane, which contains carbon. He says, “these things are actually cycling carbon”.
They are, but he neglects to mention the extreme climate warming potential of the methane (comprising carbon and hydrogen atoms) created by those cattle and sheep.
Methane is “carbon on steroids”
Although it eventually breaks down to water and CO2 as part of the carbon cycle, methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas prior to that time.
In the words of Kirk Smith, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley, it is “truly carbon on steroids”. 
The fact that the carbon in methane is eventually recycled provides little comfort while it is doing its damage.
The issue is critical as we march toward potential tipping points that could lead to runaway climate change over which, by definition, we will have virtually no control. 
Modern livestock numbers are unnatural and massive
Lovell cites the wildebeest on the Serengeti Plain in Africa to effectively contend, like Savory, that cattle grazing can be arranged in a way that mimics nature. However, the forced and selective breeding of food production animals for increased population size and accelerated growth is an unnatural process, and has greatly increased the overall animal biomass and related environmental impacts.
How do the numbers compare?  
- Wildebeest in Africa: 1.2 million [Footnote 1]
- Cattle in Africa: 310 million
- Cattle in countries where wildebeest exist: 72 million
- Cattle in Tanzania and Kenya where the annual wildebeest migration occurs: 43 million
- Biomass of cattle in countries where both species exist: 28.8 million tonnes
- Biomass of wildebeest: 0.24 million tonnes [Footnote 2]
Let’s see how those numbers look in charts.
Figure 1: Wildebeest and Cattle (Millions)
Figure 2: Estimated biomass of cattle and wildebeest in countries where wildebeest exist (Million tonnes)
Cattle’s estimated biomass is 120 times that of wildebeest in the countries where they co-exist.
Images shown by Lovell included another ruminant animal, the giraffe. With only around 80,000 remaining in the wild, it’s hard to believe they represent a threat in terms of climate change, relative to other factors. 
Lovell says ruminant animals evolved between 10 and 26 million years ago, and that there have been billions of them. There may have been over that time frame, but the number and biomass of ruminants in the wild are minuscule relative to those used as livestock.
An extraordinary contradiction
Around twelve minutes into his presentation, Lovell states that land-based plants draw around 8 per cent of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. He contends that “if we didn’t have ruminant animals or breakdown or oxidation or whatever is happening to cycle the material back up, in 12 years there would be no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
What he doesn’t mention is that we don’t require ruminant animals for the carbon cycle to work. The breakdown and oxidation of organic matter would occur without them.
It seems extraordinary that Lovell can spend so much time early in his presentation arguing that we need to draw CO2 from the atmosphere, then argue that we need ruminant animals in order to prevent that atmospheric CO2 from disappearing.
In any event, a critical problem is loss of vegetation due to meat production, reducing the ability of the biosphere to draw carbon from the atmosphere.
Livestock production reduces biodiversity
At around the 18:30 mark, Lovell seems to blame crop production (along with removal of predators and microbes) for loss of biodiversity and related negative environmental impacts.
A key point globally is that we could reduce the area used for food production significantly if we were to increase the proportion of people on a plant-based diet. The reason is that such diets are far more efficient than the animal-based alternative in supplying our nutritional requirements, thereby requiring fewer resources, including land.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has stated that livestock production is one of the major causes of biodiversity loss, along with other examples of our “most pressing environmental problems”.
Tropical rainforest stores ten times as much carbon as perennial grasses
Lovell claims (13:40) that a hectare of healthy, functioning perennial grass contains more carbon than tropical rainforest. He says:
“The reason is the gaps between the trees versus the soil.”
An authoritative independent source disagrees. Australia’s Chief Scientist has reported:
“Based on data from typical perennial grasslands and mature forests in Australia, forests are typically more than 10 times as effective as grasslands at storing carbon on a hectare per hectare basis.”
In any event, grazing has a devastating effect on perennial grasslands.
The Pew Charitable Trusts have commented extensively on the destructive environmental impacts of Australian livestock grazing, including land clearing, introduction of invasive pasture grasses, degradation of land and natural water sources, and manipulation of fire regimes. Importantly, they have reported on improvements to land when pastoralists transition from grazing to eco tourism.
Lovell displays clear prejudice at two points.
Firstly, in discussing linear versus complex thinking, he says (at 3:50):
“You ask somebody anything past that, you’ll find that is the full depth of their knowledge of the topic. They’re opposed to cattle, they’re opposed to ruminant animals, they’re opposed to agriculture, and that’s about the level of depth they get to.”
That is a gross generalisation.
Secondly (at 6:20):
“We go to solar power, wind power, and it’s all peace, love and mung beans, etc.”
Like the rest of his argument, both points lack substance.
The systems promoted by Lovell and Savory may have some merit on a small scale where water points are plentiful and labour relatively cheap. However, despite the romantic notion of cattle grazing harmlessly on natural grasslands, those systems could not be scaled up sufficiently, in an environmentally friendly manner, to satisfy the needs of a growing global population.
- The wildebeest population is limited to Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
- The average weight of adult cattle is more than twice that of wildebeest. A reduced weight of 400 kg has been assumed for cattle, allowing for the fact that younger animals represent a higher proportion of a herd than that of wild animals, as they are slaughtered at a relatively young age. The figure is conservative, as members of the most common breed in Africa, Bos indicus, typically weigh 800-1,100 kg (adult bull) or 500-700 kg (adult cow).   The full adult weight of wildebeest (assumed at 200 kg and typically 150 – 250 kg) has been used. 
 Lovell, A. “Soil carbon – Putting carbon back where it belongs – In the Earth”, TEDx, Dubbo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgmssrVInP0 (uploaded 9th September, 2011)
 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/
 Mahony, P. “Savory and McKibben: Another postscript”, Terrastendo, 7th August, 2014, https://terrastendo.net/2014/08/07/savory-and-mckibben-another-postscript/
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Blue wildebeest | PublicDomainPictures 18043 images | CC0 Public Domain | Pixabay