Archives for posts with tag: holistic management


I was recently requested to comment on a 2011 TEDx presentation by Tony Lovell. [1] 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. [2] [3] [4]

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.

Over a 20-year time horizon, the IPCC estimates it is 86 times as potent as CO2. [5] NASA’s estimate is 105 times after allowing for aerosol (atmospheric particulates) responses. [6]

In the words of Kirk Smith, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley, it is “truly carbon on steroids”. [7]

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. [8]

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? [9] [10]

  • 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. [11]

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.”

Profound indeed.

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’s prejudice

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.


  1. The wildebeest population is limited to Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  2. 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). [12] [13] The full adult weight of wildebeest (assumed at 200 kg and typically 150 – 250 kg) has been used. [14]


Paul Mahony (also on Twitter, Scribd, Slideshare, New Matilda, Rabble and Viva la Vegan)


[1] Lovell, A. Soil carbon – Putting carbon back where it belongs – In the Earth”, TEDx, Dubbo, (uploaded 9th September, 2011)

[2] Mahony, P. “Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour”, Terrastendo, 26th March, 2013,

[3] Mahony, P. “Savory and McKibben: Another postscript”, Terrastendo, 7th August, 2014,

[4] Mahony, P. “More on Savory, livestock and climate change”, Terrastendo, 23rd August, 2014,

[5] Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: “Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” , Table 8.7, p. 714 [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA,

[6] Shindell, D.T.; Faluvegi, G.; Koch, D.M.; Schmidt, G.A.; Unger, N.; Bauer, S.E. “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science, 30 October 2009; Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718; DOI: 10.1126/science.1174760,

[7] Smith, K.R., “Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas”, ABC Environment, 25th January, 2010,; Smith, K.R., “Carbon on Steroids:The Untold Story of Methane, Climate, and Health”, Slide 67, 2007,

[8] Spratt, D. and Dunlop, I., “Dangerous Climate Warming: Myth, reality and risk management”, Oct 2014, p. 5,

[9] Poole, R.M., “For Wildebeests, Danger Ahead”, Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2010,

[10] Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT, Live animals, 2013,

[11] Schaul, J.C., “Safeguarding Giraffe Populations From Extinction in East Africa”, National Geographic, 17th June, 2014,

[12] Mwai, O., Hanotte, O., Kwon, Y., Cho, S., “African Indigenous Cattle: Unique Genetic Resources in a Rapidly Changing World”, Asian-Australas J Anim Sci. 2015 Jul; 28(7): 911–921, 10.5713/ajas.15.0002R and

[13] Fasae, O.A., Sowande, O.S., Adewumi, O.O., “Ruminant animal production and husbandry”, Department of Animal Production and Health, University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria,[1].pdf

[14] National Geographic, “Wildebeest” (undated),


Blue wildebeest | PublicDomainPictures 18043 images | CC0 Public Domain | Pixabay


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,

[2] Monbiot, G.,Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle, The Guardian, 4th August, 2014,

[3] Russell, G., CSIRO Perfidy, Vivid Publishing, 2009,

[4] Mahony, P., Some thoughts on protein in a plant-based diet, Terrastendo, 27th March, 2014,

[5] Mahony, P., Do the math: There are too many cows!, Terrastendo, 26th July, 2013,

[6] Mahony, P.,Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour, Terrastendo, 26th March, 2013,

[7] Lunt, I., Can livestock grazing benefit biodiversity?, The Conversation, 19th November, 2012,, 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, and

[8] Mahony, P., Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue, Terrastendo, 9th February, 2013,

Image: Cattle after Sunset © Joaobambu |



In March and July, 2013, I posted articles on Allan Savory and Bill McKibben. I subsequently added a number of postcripts. Here’s another, posted as a stand-alone article.

If you don’t know of them, Savory promotes intensive livestock grazing systems, and McKibben is the founder of climate change campaign group,

I was prompted to post this article by a high-profile critique of Savory’s work by Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, published on 4th August, 2014. (Monbiot covered much of the material that I had referred to in my own article.)

I was criticising Savory for the lack of scientific evidence to support claims that his form of intensive livestock grazing could reverse climate change and prevent desertification. I was similarly critical of McKibben for his lack of evidence and detail in promoting intensively grazed systems.

McKibben was supporting Savory’s approach during a 2013 visit to Australia. He also seemed to be doing so in a 2010 article in Orion Magazine, but did not specifically refer to Savory at that time.

Some time back, I became aware that supporters of Savory appear to have taken credit for much of the material used in McKibben’s article. They did so in an April, 2010 discussion within the Soil Age Google Group.

The discussion included or referred to Adam Sacks, Seth Itzkan and Jim Laurie. You can see them pictured with Savory on the Savory Institute Hubs page.

A note from Itzkan to Sacks within the Google Group discussion indicated the extent to which group members and/or acquaintances had assisted McKibben:

This article is a direct result of your [Sacks’s] interaction with him and the subsequent correspondences that you, me, and Jim [Laurie] had with him in the following weeks, both the general theme, as well as the particulars and specifically all the language about electric fences, dung beetles, predators, and of course ‘methane-loving bacteria’.  He was profoundly influenced, and grateful for our influence, and I’m thankful to you for helping to make that connection.

As explained in my article on McKibben, the research on “methane loving bacteria” that Sacks referred to in a January, 2010 Grist article was subsequently found to be out by a factor of 1,000. A seemingly inadvertent error had occurred in reporting milligrams instead of micrograms.

I’m not aware of McKibben, Orion Magazine, Sacks or Grist correcting the articles. If they have not, then perhaps they should, particularly on such a critical issue.

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


Mahony, P., Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour”, Terrastendo, 26 Mar, 2013,

Mahony, P., Do the math: There are too many cows!, Terrastendo, 26th July, 2013,

Monbiot, G., Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle, The Guardian, 4th August, 2014,

McKibben, Bill, The only way to have a cow, Orion Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010,

Sacks, A., The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Grist, 31 Jan, 2010,

Image: Cattle at sunset © Anthony Brown |


At the time of writing, a recent TED presentation by Allan Savory with the title How to green the desert and reverse climate changehad been viewed more than 700,000 times. At the end of the presentation, Savory received a standing ovation, and  host Chris Anderson said, “I’m sure everyone here (a) has 100 questions and (b) wants to hug you”.

The comment about a hug may have partially reflected some relief on the part of those present, based on a new belief that they could eat meat without contributing to massive climate change impacts and other environmental problems.

Perhaps Anderson’s more pertinent comment was the one relating to 100 questions, because the audience and viewers would be well advised to consider the validity of Savory’s claims.

In case you haven’t seen the presentation and would like to, here it is (22 minutes duration including brief questions):

Video filmed Feb 2013 • Posted Mar 2013 • TED2013

What was Savory’s main point?

Savory’s key claim is that livestock can be controlled through a planning process he called in the presentation “holistic management and planned grazing”, so as to be “a proxy for former herds and predators”, in trampling dry grass and leaving “dung, urine and litter or mulch”, enabling the soil to “absorb and hold rain, to store carbon, and to break down methane”.

In this way, he says that we can “mimic nature”. In the final 8 minutes of the 20 minute (plus questions) presentation , Savory used the term “mimic nature” (or “mimicking nature”) 9 times. He used it again when answering the first question. (The notion of mimicking nature is very relevant to animal population figures referred to below.)

Savory also refers to his process as “Holistic Resource Management” or HRM, and has previously referred to it as “short duration grazing”.

How valid are Savory’s claims?

Savory’s approach has been considered by two Australian researchers, Geoff Russell and Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop.

Geoff Russell

  • Geoff Russell is a mathematician, researcher and writer, and the author of CSIRO Perfidy“. His work has been published in (amongst others) Australasian Science, The Monthly, Dissent, The Age, Punch, The Advertiser and Climate Spectator. He is also a regular contributor to Brave New Climate, the website of Professor Barry Brook, head of climate science at the University of Adelaide.
  • Russell points to a study by Emma R.M. Archer of the University of Capetown, published in a 2004 edition of the Journal of Arid Environments, investigating the effect of commercial stock grazing practices on vegetation cover in an eastern Karoo study site in South Africa. Based on 14 years of satellite imaging data and objective assessment methods, the researchers reported that HRM strategies resulted in lower levels of vegetation than more traditional approaches. [1]
  • Russell has also reported extensively on the impact of livestock grazing in Africa, including within his “Boverty Blues” (Parts 1 and 2) series on Brave New Climate. [2] He has cited a study reported in the journal Nature in 2005, indicating the massive potential for reforestation (as opposed to desertification) if livestock were removed and the related burning of savanna ceased. [3] (Refer to MODIS satellite maps and additional comments below.)
  • Russell coined the term “boverty blues” to mean “the human impact of too many bovines overwhelming the local biosphere’s ability to feed them”.
  • Very relevant to Savory’s focus on mimicking nature, Russell has pointed out that current livestock populations dwarf natural populations that preceded them. He states: “Wildlife rates of conception, growth, and the like don’t match what can be achieved by artificial selection, artificial insemination, good fences, irrigated feed production, predator extermination and all the other paraphernalia of modern agriculture. These have produced a totally unnatural and unprecedented explosion in numbers of those animals which people have designated as livestock.” [4] His table comparing numbers from the year 1500 with those from 2004 can be seen below. Today’s animals have also been bred to be much larger than they would be in nature, adding further to their total biomass and the related resource requirements.


Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop

  • Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop is a former Principal Scientist with the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resources Management Remote Sensing Centre. He was responsible for assessing and monitoring vegetation cover, structure and trend across the state. This involved leading a team of remote sensing scientists to develop satellite monitoring methods to cover an area of 1.7 million square kilometres each year.  He is currently a Director and Lead Scientist with the World Preservation Foundation and a researcher on Beyond Zero Emission’s Land Use Plan as part of its ZCA2020 project.
  • The points that follow in italics are from his comments on the TED website in response to Savory’s presentation.
  • 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.
  • Also absent is mention of the failure of traditional intensive grazing in Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China and eastern Africa where large herds are constantly moved by traditional herders (as the Savory method does) – but sheer weight of livestock numbers has ravaged these landscapes in drought years, leading to more degradation.
  • China has gone to great efforts to reverse desertification, including the Great Green Wall, and is discovering that in marginal areas the most effective method is re-planting native perennial grasses, and removing all livestock – see
  • Long-time Australian pasture agronomist and climate scientist Greg McKeon has coined the term “hydro-illogical cycle”, which is:
    – it rains, grass grows, graziers stock up
    – drought comes, graziers hold on to stock due to lower prices
    – drought continues, pastures are flogged, devoid of edible grass
    – government steps in with drought aid and permits to cut down trees that stock will eat such as acacias
    – rain comes, washes away the (unprotected) soil
    – cycle continues
  • This has led to a dramatic long term deterioration of soils and native vegetation – see .
  • Climate change – hotter, drier droughts, more flooding rains – will only accelerate the degradation of grazed rangelands.
  • The best aspect of Savory’s method is that burning is stopped. Burning is a very effective tool to stop forests re-growing, and half of Africa is high rainfall savannah, which will revert to forest if the burning were stopped – see After a few years when herders see their grazing lands overtaken with trees, they will turn back to fire.
  • ‘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.
  • There is enormous potential in above ground and below ground carbon sequestration, but this will only happen when we stop burning the daylights out of grasslands for pasture management and to stop ‘woody weeds’; and when we remove grazing pressure.
  • You can hear an interview with Wedderburn-Bisshop on these issues here. It’s from radio station 3CR’s “Freedom of Species” program, and was broadcast on 7th October, 2012. The podcast can be downloaded from this page. The interview was also referred to in my blog post “Omissions of Emissions: a critical climate change issue“.
  • Here is an extract from that blog post: “The northern and southern Guinea Savannas in Africa have also been adversely affected by livestock grazing. As an example of an alternative approach to livestock in Africa, Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop discussed the Kenya Hunger Halt program, administered by the World Food Program. Under the program, people have been taught to grow alternatives such as root crops.  The Maasai, traditional herders, have been converting to the program, growing nutritious crops and thriving.”
Sheep grazing in the Little Karoo region of South Africa near Oudtshoorn

Sheep grazing in the Little Karoo region of South Africa near Oudtshoorn

What do others say?

Blogger Adam Merberg (Inexact Change) has said (with direct quotes in italics):

  • Savory’s methods have found little support from mainstream science. The [February 2000 issue of Rangelands] 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.
  • Regarding an experiment undertaken with Savory’s involvement in Zimbabwe during the 1960’s (“the “Charter Grazing Trials”), Savory said in 1983:  “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. [Note: Merberg refers to a letter to the editor of Rangelands, published in June 2000, in which Savory claimed, “we could double the stocking rate on any land under conventional management, improve the land and make more profit”.]
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.'”
  • 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.

[Please see the postscript below regarding additional articles commenting on Allan Savory’s work.]

Something they all agree on

All those referred to in this blog who have touched on the issue agree that the biosphere provides enormous potential for drawing down atmospheric carbon, and that the burning that occurs for pasture management needs to stop.

Here are  images from NASA depicting the extent of burning in Africa during two ten-day periods from 29th July to 7th August, 2012 (right) and 1st to 10th January 2013 (left):


Extracts of MODIS Fire Maps from NASA Earth Data

Some background from NASA on the MODIS fire maps:

“Each of these fire maps accumulates the locations of the fires detected by MODIS on board the Terra and Aqua satellites over a 10-day period. Each colored dot indicates a location where MODIS detected at least one fire during the compositing period. Color ranges from red where the fire count is low to yellow where number of fires is large. The compositing periods are referenced by their start and end dates (julian day). The duration of each compositing period was set to 10 days.”

Something they do not agree on

To a large extent, the fire regions shown above cover areas within the northern and southern Guinea savanna. Geoff Russell (refer above) has said that a roughly corresponding area shown by the vertical lines in this image “has an average rainfall over 780mm and would, according to Sankaran and the large number of other authors [of the cited Nature article], revert to some kind of forest if given half a chance. Its status as savanna is anthropogenic and not a product of natural attributes like soil type and climate.”

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop (refer above) has made a similar point, citing another Nature article by Jonathan Foley and colleagues.

On the other hand, Savory says: “Now, looking at this grassland of ours that has gone dry, what could we do to keep that healthy? And bear in mind, I’m talking of most of the world’s land now. Okay? We cannot reduce animal numbers to rest it more without causing desertification and climate change. We cannot burn it without causing desertification and climate change. What are we going to do? There is only one option, I’ll repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.”

A key difference between the alternative views is that Russell and Wedderburn-Bisshop have based theirs on peer-reviewed scientific literature, which is widely supported by other scientific sources. On the other hand (as indicated above), the scientific support for Savory’s approach appears scant.

Potential next steps

Adam Merberg (refer above) has suggested that TED apply some of its own criteria for “identifying bad science” in assessing the worth of Savory’s presentation. Those criteria include:

  • It 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.
  • It uses imprecise vocabulary to form untested theories.

Let’s hope that TED heeds Merberg’s call.

Author: Paul Mahony

Postscript 19th September, 2013: Two additional articles commenting on Allan Savory’s work have come from Robert Goodland (referred to above) and James McWilliams. Goodland’s article is Meat, Lies & Videotape (a Deeply Flawed TED Talk) from Planetsave, 26th March, 2013, while McWilliams has written All Sizzle and No Steak: Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong, published on Slate, 22nd April, 2013. Included in the McWilliams article are these comments about algal growth and desertification, a key aspect of Savory’s TED presentation: “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.’”

Postscript 26th December, 2013: Another article criticising Allan Savory’s TED presentation was published on the Real Climate website on 4th November, 2013. Real Climate “is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.” The article, from ecosystem scientists  Jason West and David Briske and titled Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene: Commentary on Savory TED Video“, stated: “It is important to recognize that Mr. Savory’s grazing method, broadly known as holistic management, has been controversial for decades. . . . We focus here on the most dramatic claim that Mr. Savory made regarding the reversal of climate change through holistic management of grasslands. . . . 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.”

Postscript 31st July, 2014: An article published in the International Journal of Biodiversity on 23rd April, 2014, titled “Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems“, examined each of Allan Savory’s claims. The authors concluded: “Studies in Africa and the western USA, including the prairies which evolved in the presence of bison, show that HM, like conventional grazing systems, does not compensate for overstocking of livestock. As in conventional grazing systems, livestock managed under HM reduce water infiltration into the soil, increase soil erosion, reduce forage production, reduce range condition, reduce soil organic matter and nutrients, and increase soil bulk density. Application of HM cannot sequester much, let alone all the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities because the sequestration capacity of grazed lands is much less than annual greenhouse gas emissions.” They also stated: “Studies supporting HM have generally come from the Savory Institute or anecdotal accounts of HM practitioners. Leading range scientists have refuted the system and indicated that its adoption by land management agencies is based on these anecdotes and unproven principles rather than scientific evidence.” [5]

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

Livestock biomass chart:

Russel, G. Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts, 17 Nov 2009,, citing Subak, S., GEC-1994-06 : Methane from the House of Tudor and the Ming Dynasty, CSERGE Working Paper, and Thorpe, A. Enteric fermentation and ruminant eructation: the role (and control?) of methane in the climate change debate, Climatic Change, April 2009, Volume 93, Issue 3-4, pp 407-431,


TED Conference, TED 2013_0053153_D41_0283, Allan Savory, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0,

Sheep grazing in late afternoon sun near Oudtshoorn © Peter Marble |

MODIS satellite maps from NASA Earth Data,


[1] Archer, E.R.M., Journal of Arid Environments, Volume 57, Issue 3, May 2004, Pages 381–408, Beyond the ‘climate versus grazing’ impasse: using remote sensing to investigate the effects of grazing system choice on vegetation cover in the eastern Karoo“,

[2] Russel, G., “Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Parts 1 & 2)”, 5th January and 10th February, 2010, and

[3] Sankaran, M; Hanan, N.P.; Scholes, R.J.; Ratnam, J; Augustine, D.J.; Cade, B.S.; Gignoux, J; Higgins, S.I.; Le Roux, X; Ludwig, F; Ardo, J.; Banyikwa, F; Bronn, A; Bucini, G; Caylor, K.K.; Coughenour, M.B.; Diouf, A; Ekaya, W; Feral, C.J.; February, E.C.; Frost, P.G.H.; Hiernaux, P; Hrabar, H; Metzger, K.L.; Prins, H.H.T.; Ringrose, S; Sea, W; Tews, J; Worden, J; & Zambatis, N., Determinants of woody cover in African savannas, Nature 438, 846-849 (8 December 2005), cited in Russell, G. Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part 2)”, 4 Feb, 2010

[4] Russell, G., Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts, 17th Nov, 2009,

[5] John Carter, Allison Jones, Mary O’Brien, Jonathan Ratner, and George Wuerthner, “Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems”, International Journal of Biodiversity, vol. 2014, Article ID 163431, 10 pages, 2014. doi:10.1155/2014/163431, and

Additional reference material will be inserted for the links contained in this article.

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