Archives for posts with tag: Savory

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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)

Animal-numbers

Figure 2: Estimated biomass of cattle and wildebeest in countries where wildebeest exist (Million tonnes)

Biomass-2

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.

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes

  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]

Author

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

References

[1] 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)

[2] 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/

[3] Mahony, P. “Savory and McKibben: Another postscript”, Terrastendo, 7th August, 2014, https://terrastendo.net/2014/08/07/savory-and-mckibben-another-postscript/

[4] Mahony, P. “More on Savory, livestock and climate change”, Terrastendo, 23rd August, 2014, https://terrastendo.net/2014/08/23/more-on-savory-livestock-and-climate-change/

[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, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

[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,  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only

[7] Smith, K.R., “Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas”, ABC Environment, 25th January, 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2010/01/25/2778345.htm; Smith, K.R., “Carbon on Steroids:The Untold Story of Methane, Climate, and Health”, Slide 67, 2007, http://www.arb.ca.gov/research/seminars/smith/smith.pdf

[8] Spratt, D. and Dunlop, I., “Dangerous Climate Warming: Myth, reality and risk management”, Oct 2014, p. 5, http://www.climatecodered.org/p/myth-and-reality.html

[9] Poole, R.M., “For Wildebeests, Danger Ahead”, Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2010, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/for-wildebeests-danger-ahead-13930092/?no-ist

[10] Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAOSTAT, Live animals, 2013, http://faostat.fao.org/site/573/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=573#ancor

[11] Schaul, J.C., “Safeguarding Giraffe Populations From Extinction in East Africa”, National Geographic, 17th June, 2014, http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/06/17/safeguarding-giraffe-populations-from-extinction-in-east-africa/

[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 http://ajas.info/upload/pdf/ajas-28-7-911.pdf

[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, http://www.unaab.edu.ng/attachments/461_APH301%20NOTES%20[1].pdf

[14] National Geographic, “Wildebeest” (undated), http://animals.nationalgeographic.com.au/animals/mammals/wildebeest/

Image

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

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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]:

Figure-1

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

 

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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, 350.org.

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)

References:

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

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/

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?CMP=fb_gu

McKibben, Bill, The only way to have a cow, Orion Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010, http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5339/

Sacks, A., The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Grist, 31 Jan, 2010, http://grist.org/article/the-climate-solution-got-cows/

Image: Cattle at sunset © Anthony Brown | Dreamstime.com

 

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Bill McKibben, founder of US-based climate change campaign group 350.org, recently visited Australia for a series of presentations and media appearances. McKibben appears to have been extremely effective in mobilising people around the world, who are demanding meaningful action on climate change. The group’s mission statement states that 350.org is “building a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis”.

In his 2009 book, “Storms of my Grandchildren“, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Dr James Hansen, described how the organisation’s name came about [1]:

“In 2007, the environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben began bugging me, very politely, to either confirm 450 parts per million as the appropriate target level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or else to define a more appropriate one. He was developing a Web site to draw attention to this target limit and was thinking of calling it 450.org.”

Hansen eventually settled on a figure of 350. He and his colleagues explained the scientific basis for the number in a paper published in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal in 2008, titled “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?“. [2]

I attended McKibben’s Q&A session in Melbourne, and asked for his views on animal agriculture, given what I suggested were its massive impacts in relation to climate change.

McKibben’s main focus is fossil fuels, and I agree it’s essential that we deal with them. However, I also argue that we will not overcome climate change without a general move away from animal agriculture.

On the basis of McKibben’s response to my question and another question asked that day, along with the contents of his Orion Magazine article of 2 April, 2010 “The Only Way to Have a Cow“, I am concerned that he is dangerously under-estimating animal agriculture’s impact. [3]

Why do I use the word “dangerously”?

Firstly, because of the seriousness of the climate change crisis we are facing, which he understands very clearly.

Secondly, because McKibben has established a very large and loyal following, many of whom may readily accept what he says on most aspects of the issue.

The respect held for McKibben was epitomised by Melbourne academic, Robert Manne, at a presentation on the same day as the Q&A session. He told McKibben and the audience that there have been three names that stand out in the history of the climate movement: James Hansen; Al Gore; and Bill McKibben.

McKibben’s key focus in his responses and in the article were:

  • animal agriculture’s share of greenhouse gas emissions
  • grazing practices
  • factory farming
  • food miles

It seems that his position can be paraphrased as:

“If we want to reduce emissions from animal agriculture, we need to move away from factory farming, adopt a modified form of grazing, and buy locally.”

Let’s look at each of those issues.

1. Animal agriculture’s share of greenhouse gas emissions

1.1 Some Published Measures of Emissions: Goodland & Anhang and UN FAO’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” Report

Purely as an example, I referred in my question to an article by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in the November/December 2009 edition of World Watch Magazine, in which they estimated that livestock are responsible for around 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Goodland is a former lead environmental adviser to the World Bank, and Anhang is a research officer and environmental specialist at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. [4]

McKibben responded by refuting the suggestion of 51%, and saying that the correct figure is around 20%. He did not explain that view, but it may be based on the widely quoted estimate of 18% from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report. [5]

McKibben mentioned the 18% and 51% figures in his Orion Magazine article, referred to earlier.

In that article, McKibben stated that the “51%” study (presumably the Goodland and Anhang study but he provided no details) was “quickly discredited”. He did not support that claim with evidence.

Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, seems to respect the Goodland and Anhang study, as he referred to it in calling for a move away from meat consumption in a “Mashable” blog post earlier this year. [6] Gates has also highlighted the issues on his own website. [7]

The FAO thought enough of the paper to invite Goodland to address its December, 2009 expert consultation on greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potentials in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors. [8]

Some may argue that the respiration issue (refer below) should not have been included by Goodland and Anhang. However, even if we were to remove that factor, the analysis would have indicated that livestock would be responsible for around 43% of emissions.

Goodland and Anhang highlighted many issues, which were reviewed in the context of “Livestock’s Long Shadow”. Two key issues were: (a) 20 year “global warming potential” (GWP) of methane; and (b) land use.

1.1.1 20-Year “Global Warming Potential” (GWP) of Methane:

If you’re not familiar with the GWP concept, you can find an explanation below. [9, 10, 11, 12] If you’d rather not read the details, the key point to note is that conventional measures of methane’s global warming impact measure it over a 100-year timeframe. However, methane breaks down in the atmosphere in around 12 years. That means the 100-year measure greatly understates its shorter-term impact, as it provides an average figure over a 100-year period, when the methane effectively did not exist during the final 88 years of that period.

Although methane may have a shorter life than carbon dioxide (which remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years), its impact can be long-term if it contributes to us reaching tipping points that result in positive feedback loops with potentially irreversible and catastrophic consequences. On the positive side, the relatively short-term nature of methane’s impact means that action on livestock production can be one of the most effective steps available to us in dealing with climate change.

GWP-Explained-5

The significance of methane in relation to livestock derives from the process of enteric fermentation, which causes the gas to be released through belching or burping. It is explained on the US Environment Protection Agency’s website [13]:

“Enteric fermentation is fermentation that takes place in the digestive systems of animals. In particular, ruminant animals (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) have a large ‘fore-stomach’ or rumen, within which microbial fermentation breaks down food into soluble products that can be utilized by the animal. Approximately 200 species and strains of microorganisms are present in the anaerobic rumen environment, although only a small portion, about 10 to 20 species, are believed to play an important role in ruminant digestion.  The microbial fermentation that occurs in the rumen enables ruminant animals to digest coarse plant material that monogastric animals cannot digest. Methane is produced in the rumen by bacteria as a by-product of the fermentation process. This CH4 is exhaled or belched by the animal and accounts for the majority of emissions from ruminants. Methane also is produced in the large intestines of ruminants and is expelled.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported, “Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.” [14]

Here’s the trend in global methane emissions over the past few decades [15]:

Figure 1: Global methane emissions

Methane-emissions-global

1.1.2 Land Use

Another critical issue is land use, including foregone sequestration on land previously cleared.

The report highlighted the fact that “Livestock’s Long Shadow” did not allow for foregone sequestration on land cleared in the years prior to the reporting period, although Goodland and Anhang did not fully incorporate the impact of such foregone sequestration, as referred to below.

Australia’s National Greenhouse Inventory, like most international measures, also does not allow for such foregone sequestration in any of its emissions figures.

Goodland and Anhang suggest the possibility of allowing land that has been cleared for livestock grazing or feed crop production to regenerate as forest, thereby mitigating “as much as half (or even more) of anthropogenic GHGs” [greenhouse gases]. Such an approach is consistent with studies from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales (responsible for the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 plan), referred to in my article “Prince Charles on Climate Change and Deforestation“. [16]

Goodland and Anhang suggest that the land could, alternatively, be used to grow crops for direct human consumption or crops that could be converted to biofuels, thereby reducing our reliance on coal. They have used the biofuel scenario in their calculations, allowing for the greenhouse gas emissions from the coal that is continuing to be used in lieu of the biofuels.

1.1.3 Other Issues

Other issues referred to in Goodland and Anhang’s report:

  • Livestock respiration overwhelming photosynthesis in absorbing carbon, due to the massive human-driven increase in livestock numbers.
  • Increased livestock production since 2002.
  • Corrections in documented under-counting.
  • More up to date emissions figures.
  • Corrections for use of Minnesota for source data.
  • Re-alignment of sectoral information.
  • Fluorocarbons for extended refrigeration.
  • Cooking at higher temperature and for longer periods.
  • Disposal of waste.
  • Production, distribution and disposal of by-products and packaging.
  • Carbon-intensive medical treatment of livestock-related illness.

1.2 Australian Emissions

For Australia, I reported in my article “Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue” on the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency’s figure of around 10% for animal agriculture’s share of emissions, comparing that to an estimate by campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) of around 50%. [17] Additional factors considered by BZE relate to deforestation, grassland emissions and savanna burning, including the role of tropospheric ozone.

In that article, I argued that Australia’s official figures, in many respects, understate livestock’s true impact. The under-reporting has occurred because relevant factors are:

  • omitted entirely from official figures, e.g. tropospheric ozone;
  • classified under different headings, e.g. livestock-related land clearing reported under “land use, land use change and forestry” (LULUCF);
  • considered but with conservative calculations, e.g. methane’s impact based on a 100-year, rather than 20-year, “global warming potential” (as referred to above).

It is clear that many factors can be taken into account when measuring the climate change impact of different sectors. I believe McKibben is wrong to effectively ignore valid alternatives to conventional measures of livestock’s impact. Particularly in relation to methane, it is difficult to understand why he would ignore as critical a factor as the 20-year global warming potential.

2. Grazing Practices

The second question at the Q&A session relating to animal agriculture referred to the March, 2013 TED presentation by Alan Savory, which was the subject of my article “Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour“. [18]

In responding to my question, McKibben spoke favourably of Savory’s approach, and recommended that those at the session view the presentation.

I disagree with his views on that approach. In my view, Savory’s belief that we can achieve sustainable grazing practices on the scale needed to feed the masses is misguided. A move to such practices, along with a return to traditional farming practices and local food sourcing (referred to earlier), will not enable us to overcome catastrophic climate change, even if we also end our addiction to fossil fuels. (Information from James Hansen and colleagues on the critical role of reforestation can be found in section 2.6.)

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”.

He argues that we need to increase livestock production, rather than reduce it, in order to reverse desertification and overcome climate change.

In my “Savory is not a Saviour” article, I referred to (amongst other evidence) 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 “holistic resource management” strategies of the type advocated by Savory resulted in lower levels of vegetation than more traditional approaches. [19]

I also referred to a study published in the journal Nature in 2005, indicating the massive potential for reforestation (as opposed to desertification) in Africa if livestock were removed and the related savanna burning ceased. [20]

McKibben’s comments at the presentation were consistent with those in his Orion Magazine article, in which he described a system that appeared to be Savory’s, although he did not provide a source for the information he presented.

Some key points in relation to these issues:

2.1 Animal Populations

McKibben indicated at the presentation and in the article that large numbers of ungulate animals (hoofed mammals) had not caused problems in the past.  He wrote:

” . . . long before humans had figured out the whole cow thing, nature had its own herds of hoofed ungulates. Big herds of big animals – perhaps 60 million bison ranging across North America, and maybe 100 million antelope. That’s considerably more than the number of cows now resident in these United States. . . . So why weren’t they filling the atmosphere with methane? Why wasn’t their manure giving off great quantities of atmosphere-altering gas? . . . These old-school ungulates weren’t all that different in their plumbing – they were methane factories with legs too.”

Those comparisons give an inaccurate indication of the overall animal biomass, partially because they take no account of the relative weight of the different animals or the related difference in methane emissions.  His suggestion that there were “big herds of big animals” is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the native pronghorn (the USA’s “antelope”) generally weigh around one-tenth as much as cows and bulls bred for beef (90 to 150 pounds for a pronghorn compared to an average of 1,277 pounds for beef cattle). [21, 22]

The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is not a true antelope but in a family by itself (Antilocapridae). [23, 24]

Pronghorns are among the fastest animals in North America. They can run at more than 53 miles (86 kilometres) per hour, and can travel for many miles at half that speed. [21] It’s difficult to imagine a 1,200 pound cow achieving that feat.

iStock_000022031517Small-500

Pronghorn on the Horizon | © FletchPhotography | iStockphoto | Weighing around one-tenth of a cow bred for beef

McKibben’s comments may appeal intuitively, but they do not stand up to close scrutiny. This table compares the biomass of native species before European settlement with current North American livestock populations:

Table 1: Specified North American Animal Populations and Biomass

Livestock-North-America

Here are the comparisons in another form:

Figure 2: Specified Animal Populations from Bill McKibben

Chart-Bill-McKibbens-comparison

Figure 3: North American Biomass of Ruminant Animals

Chart-Ruminant-biomass

Of course, methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do not respect national borders. If we consider global (as opposed to North American) animal populations, the comparison is even more stark.

More than 3.5 billion cows, sheep, goats, camels, other camelids and buffalo (which are all ruminants) are now kept at any one time as livestock globally, which is around 22 times the number of North American bison and antelope in earlier times, as referred to by McKibben. In just the fifty years to 2011, the combined number of such animals increased globally by around 1.15 billion, which itself is around seven times the number of McKibben’s bison and antelope. [25]

Figure 4: Number of Specified Animals

Chart-Bill-McKibbens-comparison-2

I had referred in my article to researcher Geoff Russell in relation to the massive increase in the number of animals since the year 1500, due to manipulation of breeding habits. Russell has stated:

“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.”

Russell’s table comparing global numbers from the year 1500 with those from 2004 can be seen below. [26]

Figure 5: Growing dominance of livestock biomass

Growing-dominance-livestock-biomass

2.2 Methane absorption

In supporting Savory’s intensive grazing practices, McKibben says:

” . . . recent preliminary research indicates that methane-loving bacteria in healthy soils will sequester more of the gas in a day than cows supported by the same area will emit in a year.”

He is assuming that Savory’s approach will result in healthier soils than would otherwise exist. That claim is incorrect in relation to large-scale agriculture. However, the key problem with the statement is that the preliminary research on which it appears to have been based was subsequently found to be subject to a critical and massive error.

As with most of McKibben’s arguments in the Q&A session and his Orion Magazine article, no studies or research were cited. However, the comparison used, and the timing of the article, make it likely that it was based on the work of Professor Mark Adams and colleagues from the University of Sydney.

On 3 September, 2009, an article by Matt Cawood was published in “The Land” and “The Australian Dairy Farmer“. The article stated that the research of Adams and his colleagues found that certain “high country soils oxidise methane at a rate of . . . 8,760 kilograms per hectare per year. . . . By contrast, 100 head of cattle produce about 5,400 kg/ha of methane a year”. [27, 28]

On the basis of those figures, a hectare of land in the Snowy Mountain region of Australia could support 162 head of cattle and be methane neutral. That figure is derived by dividing the amount of methane said to be absorbed by a hectare of land (8,760kg) by the methane emissions per cow (54kg).  That is:

  • 8,760kg/54kg = 162

The research was subsequently reported by Adam Sacks on the US environmental website Grist on 31 January, 2010. [29]

Sacks wrote, ” . . . one cow’s worth of healthy land actually absorbs one hundred times the methane emitted by that cow in any given year”.

Sacks also wrote: “The current orthodoxy tells us that because of digestive methane emissions, raising animals for food is a global warming problem, not solution.  This is true given current practice: crowded feedlots with grain-fed, drugged cattle and manure lagoons on devastated lands, shipped long distances. “

That sounds very much like Bill McKibben (to repeat my paraphrase): “If we want to reduce emissions from animal agriculture, we need to move away from factory farming, adopt a modified form of grazing, and buy locally.”

In response to queries from Australian author and mathematician Geoff Russell (also referred to earlier), Sacks said that the source used for his article was an article in the Australian newspaper of 26 October, 2009, titled “A hiccup in the cow burp theory“. [30]

Sacks wrote, “A recent study points to oxidation of 8,760 kg per hectare per year – whereas a cow emits something in the neighborhood 54 kg per cow per year (i.e., 162 cows/hectare).”

Russell referred to the Grist and Australian articles in his article “Balancing carbon with smoke and mirrors” of 31 July, 2010 on the Brave New Climate website. He had been in touch with Professor Mark Adams, following which it seems the error in the calculations was discovered.

A figure in micrograms had mistakenly been represented as milligrams within the calculations, meaning that the original “preliminary research” had overstated the relevant land’s methane absorption rate by a factor of 1,000. The result was that the high country soil’s methane oxidisation rate was only 8.76 kg per hectare per year, rather than 8,760 kg.

That hectare of land would not support 162 cows in a carbon neutral manner, but 0.162 of a cow. That is:

  • 8.76kg/54kg = 0.162 (Corrected)

Matt Cawood reported the error in The Land on 16 July, 2010 [31]. He said, “Dr Robert Simpson, a post-doctoral research fellow who supplied the corrected values, said the methane oxidation rate measured by University researchers is actually 8.75 kilograms per hectare per year.”

The reference to a figure of 8,750kg in that article, compared to the original figure of 8,760kg, was not explained. However the difference is immaterial, and still generates a figure of 162 head of cattle per hectare.

Despite the error being discovered, the myth has lived on. As recently as 20th March, 2012, agricultural scientist Fiona Chambers said in a debate at a packed Melbourne Town Hall in Australia (commencing at around the 22 minute mark) [32]:

“Research undertaken recently at Sydney University has shown that just one hectare of pasture has enough potential for these methane-loving bacteria to actually extract methane out of the environment that could be produced by 162 head of cattle. Now that’s more than you could run on a hectare, so it makes it methane-neutral.”

The host organisation’s website confirms that Ms Chambers is a lecturer at Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Geelong. She holds a Diploma of Applied Science in agriculture, specialising in animal health, nutrition and genetics and is undertaking a Master of Animal Breeding Management at Sydney University. [33]

At the end of the debate, the then Executive Director of climate change campaign group, Beyond Zero Emissions, Matthew Wright challenged Chambers on the veracity of the research by suggesting it had not been peer-reviewed. She confirmed that she had not seen a peer-reviewed journal article supporting the research. [34] However, the problems with the research went much further than Matthew Wright had indicated, as he did not refer to the massive over-statement of the soil’s methane absorbing capacity.

2.3 Manure Management

As referred to earlier, McKibben asked the following in relation to bison and antelope roaming across North America in earlier times:

“Why wasn’t their manure giving off great quantities of atmosphere-altering gas?”

Any soil’s supposed ability to absorb methane will have relatively little impact on overall greenhouse gas concentrations to the extent that those concentrations relate to gases emitted by manure. The first reason is that the amount of methane emitted by manure is very small compared to the amount emitted through enteric fermentation. For example, in Australia in 2011, emissions from manure management represented 3.9% of reported agricultural emissions, compared to enteric fermentation 65.1%. Methane represented just over half of the manure management emissions, with the balance being nitrous oxide. [35]

Emissions from agricultural soils (17.8%) and prescribed burning of savannas (12.3%) accounted for most of the remaining emissions. Animal agriculture has previously been reported to be responsible for nearly 60% of savanna-burning emissions. [36]

2.4 Fencing

McKibben suggests that the key technology in adopting alternative grazing practices is the single strand electric fence, for improved control of cattle. Here are some thoughts from Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop on that issue from the TED website, in response to Allan 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.”

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.

2.5 Native Grasslands and Mimicking Natural Processes

McKibben talks of “old-school ungulates” continually moving in order to avoid predators. He has stated that the grasslands they grazed “covered places that don’t get much rain”, including Australia. However, Australia “is the only continent other than Antarctica to NOT have native hoofed animals”, so those “old-school ungulates” did not exist there in the timeframe being considered by McKibben. [37]

In any event, his suggestion of “mimicking those systems with cows” is verging on the absurd when one considers the massive discrepancy between animal populations in earlier times and livestock numbers now, as referred to it item 2.1.

2.6 The critical role of reforestation and soil carbon

If we are to have any chance of reaching McKibben’s 350 ppm target, then we must objectively and realistically address the issues of reforestation and soil carbon. The essential role of those factors in achieving the target is demonstrated in this image from Hansen’s “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” paper.

Figure 6: CO2 Emissions and Atmospheric Concentration with Coal Phaseout by 2030

Hansen-chart-amended-sharpened024-Jul-2013

By the time the 350 ppm target could be achieved with action on land clearing and soil carbon (around 2090 based on IPCC’s estimates of oil and gas reserves and assuming an end to non-sequestered coal use by 2030), it would fall short at around 380 ppm if we were to ignore those factors. If we did so, then the target would not be achieved until well beyond 2150.

To rely on an approach lacking scientific credibility, such as Allan Savory’s, would be a grossly irresponsible step at this critical point in the history of climate change.

[Please see Note 3 below, being a postscript regarding additional articles commenting on Allan Savory’s work.]

3. Factory Farming

In his Orion Magazine article, McKibben stated (with my bold highlights):

Industrial livestock production is essentially indefensible—ethically, ecologically, and otherwise. We now use an enormous percentage of our arable land to grow corn that we feed to cows who stand in feedlots and eructate until they are slaughtered . . . We should simply stop eating factory-farmed meat and the effects on climate change would be but one of the many benefits.”

He refers to feedlots, with cattle fed on corn, along with cattle standing still “in big western federal allotments overgrazing the same tender grass”, as factory farming. He seems to ignore the impact of traditional grazing (including the related enteric fermentation) and grazing-related land-clearing and soil emissions. Those factors are related to (amongst others) the gross and inherent inefficiency of animals as a food source. For example, we currently use far more land due to grazing (and feed crop production) than would be the case if plant nutrition was accessed directly, rather than via the digestive systems of animals.

In Australia, feedlots represent only a small percentage of the beef industry. According to the Australian Lot Feeders Association, “The Australian beef feedlot industry plays a complementary role to the larger extensive grass fed cattle sector given that feedlot cattle spend 85-90% of their lives in a pasture based environment.” [38]

Despite the relatively small role of feedlots, as mentioned earlier and in my “Omissions of Emissions” article, the livestock sector is estimated by Beyond Zero Emissions to be responsible for around 50% of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That figure is significant for a country that, even using more conservative estimates of livestock’s impact, vies with the United States for the highest per capita emissions among developed nations.

Even in the United States, beef industry feedlots are generally only used for the final 3-5 months of an animal’s typical 15-24 month lifespan.

It is important to note that cattle emit considerably more methane when consuming grass than when consuming grain. Professor Gidon Eshel of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York has reported, “since grazing animals eat mostly cellulose-rich roughage while their feedlot counterparts eat mostly simple sugars whose digestion requires no rumination, the grazing animals emit two to four times as much methane”. [39]

In 2007, writing in the medical journal The Lancet, a team of international health experts led by Australian National University professor Tony McMichael warned that the world’s growing appetite for meat was increasing greenhouse gas emissions as (amongst other problems) vast areas of rainforest were bulldozed for grazing land.

In its article on the Lancet report, The Age newspaper in Melbourne provided the following estimated breakdown of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions [40]:

  • Deforestation and desertification 35.4%
  • Manure 30.5%
  • Methane emissions, mainly burping 25.0%
  • Artificial fertilisers 3.4%
  • On-farm fossil fuel use 1.2%
  • Other 3.6%

4. Food Miles

At the Melbourne Q&A session, McKibben said that one of the most important measures for reducing the climate change impact of animal agriculture was to buy locally. He said that when he is home, he tries to eat nothing produced outside the valley in which he lives.

In his Orion Magazine article, he referred to “the truck exhaust from shipping cows hither and yon”.

Is his concern over transportation vindicated by the evidence?

A comprehensive study of the emissions intensity of different food products in Sweden was undertaken by Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Alejandro Gonzalez in 2009, and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. [41] The study authors are from the Division of Industrial Ecology, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and the Research Institute on Biodiversity and Environment (Inibioma-Conicet), Bariloche, Argentina respectively.

Emissions intensity represents the kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product.

The study included a wide range of foods, including legumes, fruit and vegetables, commodities which are often overlooked in reports on  this subject. It  included CO2-e emissions  involved  in  farming,  transportation, processing, retailing, storage and preparation.

A key point from the study was that beef is the least climate efficient way to produce protein, less efficient than vegetables that are not recognised for their high protein content, such as green beans and carrots. Its emissions intensity (“Beef: domestic, fresh, cooked”) is 30, as shown in the following chart, which compares it to various other products:

Figure 7: Emissions Intensity of specified food products

Emissions-Intensity-Sweden-24-Jul-2013-sharpened

As a comparison, in 2003, the Australian Greenhouse Office reported a figure of 51.7kg for beef [42]. That figure was based on carcass weight. As only around 55% of a carcass is used for meat, the figure for beef based on a kilogram of served meat at that time would have been approximately 94 kg. The level of livestock-related land clearing has since reduced. Taking those factors into account, the Carbon Neutral group in Perth, Western Australia, has more recently estimated an emissions intensity figure for beef of 30.9.

Further comparisons are as follows, along with beef for ease of reference (with reference numbers in brackets):

Wheat and other grains: 0.4 [42]
Fruit and vegetables: 0.48855 [43]
Potatoes (Domestic, cooked): 0.45 [41]
Rice (Cooked): 1.3 [41]
Soy beans (Transported by boat and cooked): 0.92 [41]
Beef (Domestic, fresh, cooked): 30 [41]

So what is the contribution of transport to a product’s greenhouse gas emissions? Here’s what Carlsson-Kanyama and Gonzalez said on that matter:

“ . . .  to obtain emissions at Swedish household consumption level, the emissions from transport, packing, storage, retailing, and cooking are added considering their corresponding losses in the food chain. For example, land and sea transport accounts for 0.32 kg CO2/kg soy when transport overseas is included.”

The transportation component will be determined generally by weight, so its contribution should be the same for a kilogram of beef as for a kilogram of soy. In this case, unlike soy, there appears to be no sea transport involved in the beef figure. In the absence of a more precise figure, let’s assume that beef’s transport-related emissions per kilogram of product are the same as those of soy, even though they are likely to be less.

On that basis, of beef’s 30kg of emissions, around 0.32kg (1.1%) comes from transportation.

Figure 8: Beef’s emissions intensity including transportation (kg)

Beef-transporation-emissions-chart

Air transportation adds considerably to the emissions intensity of a product, but that was not a factor in the beef referred to in the Swedish study. The following extracts deal with that issue, and add further light on the extremely favourable results for plant products.

“For vegetables and fruits, emissions usually are less than or equal to 2.5 kg CO2 equivalents/kg product, even if there is a high degree of processing and substantial transportation. Products transported by plane are an exception because emissions may be as large as for certain meats.”

“Emissions from foods rich in carbohydrates, such as potatoes, pasta, and wheat, are less than 1.1 kg/kg edible food.”

“Plant foods based on vegetables, cereals, and legumes present the lowest GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions with the exception of those transported by airplanes.”

“Animal products, including dairy, are associated with higher GHG emissions than plant-based products, with the highest emissions occurring in meats from ruminants.”

On the basis of these findings, McKibben’s concerns over transportation are ill-founded relative to what seems to be a lack of concern over certain other aspects of animal agriculture’s impact.

Another Issue: Health

McKibben said in his Orion Magazine article: “Oh, and grass-fed beef is apparently much better for you – full of Omega 3s, like sardines that moo.”

Whether it comes from grass-fed or grain-fed cows, beef is responsible for serious health problems. My article “If you think it’s healthy to eat animals, perhaps you should think again” reported on the links between consumption of animals and cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, as documented by the likes of Harvard University, Cornell University, The World Cancer Research Fund and The National Cancer Institute. Red meat featured prominently in the findings. [44]

Conclusion

Without focussing on animal agriculture in addition to fossil fuels and other contributors to climate change, we will not overcome the crisis that we have created. Bill McKibben, like other prominent climate change campaigners, must not ignore what may be the most inconvenient truth of all.

Notes:

1. None of the information in this article is intended to represent health, medical, dietary, nutritional or similar advice.

2. Bill McKibben’s tour of Australia was part of his “Do the Math” campaign. For Australian audiences, the local term “Maths” was used.

3. Postscript 14th August, 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.'”

4. Postscript 1st February, 2014: 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.” (This note was added as a postscript to my article Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour on 26th December, 2013.)

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

Main Image: Poppy and Jarrah hold a 350 kick-board at the Great Barrier Reef | 350.org

Footnote re Main Image: Increasing CO2 concentrations are adversely affecting coral reefs due to warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. Cattle grazing is also affecting the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia.

The journal Water Science and Technology has reported on the impact of run-off from areas used for cattle grazing to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) [45]:

“Grazing of cattle for beef production is the largest single land use on the catchment with cropping, mainly of sugarcane, and  urban/residential development considerably less in areal extent. Beef cattle numbers are approximately 4,500,000, with the highest stock numbers in the Fitzroy catchment.”

“Beef grazing on the large, dry catchments adjacent to the GBRMP (in particular the Burdekin and Fitzroy catchments) has involved extensive tree clearance and over-grazing during drought conditions. As a result, widespread soil erosion and the export of the eroded material into the GBR has occurred, and is continuing.”

References:

[1] Hansen, J. “Storms of my Grandchildren”, Bloomsbury, 2009, p. 140, http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/storms-of-my-grandchildren-9781608192571/

[2] Hansen, J; Sato, M; Kharecha, P; Beerling, D; Berner, R; Masson-Delmotte, V; Pagani, M; Raymo, M; Royer, D.L.; and Zachos, J.C. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”, 2008. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf

[3] McKibben, Bill, “The only way to have a cow”, Orion Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010, http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5339/

[4] Goodland, R & Anhang, J, “Livestock and Climate Change – What if the key actors in climate change are cows, pigs, and chickens?”, World Watch, Nov/Dec, 2009, pp 10-19, http://www.worldwatch.org/files /pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Concerns”, Rome

[6] Gates, Bill, “Food is Ripe for Innovation”, Mashable, 22 Mar 2013, http://mashable.com/2013/03/21/bill-gates-future-of-food/

[7] Gate, Bill, “The Future of Food”, The Gates Notes, undated, http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Features/Future-of-Food

[8] Goodland, R., “Forests, Fisheries, Agriculture: A Vision for Sustainability”, presented to UN FAO Expert consultation on greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potentials in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors, 2-4 Dec 2009, http://awellfedworld.org/sites/awellfedworld.org/files/pdf/FAOConsult12-09.pdf

[9] IPCC, TS.2.5 Net Global Radiative Forcing, Global Warming Potentials and Patterns of Forcing, http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/tssts-2-5.html

[10] FAO Newsroom, “Livestock a major threat to environment”, 29 November, 2006, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/

[11] Sanderson, K, “Aerosols make methane more potent”, Nature, Published online 29 October 2009, doi:10.1038/news.2009.1049; http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091029/full/news.2009.1049.html

[12] Enteric Fermentation – Greenhouse Gases, http://www.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch14/final/c14s04.pdf

[13] Schindell, 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, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only

[14] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Ruminant Livestock”, http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html#1

[15] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI)”, updated summer 2012, http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/

[16] Mahony, P., “Prince Charles on Climate Change and Deforestation”, Terrastendo, 11 May 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/05/11/prince-charles-on-climate-change-and-deforestation/

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

[18] Mahony, P., “Livestock and climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour”, 26 Mar, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/03/26/livestock-and-climate-why-allan-savory-is-not-a-saviour/

[19] 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“, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140196303001071

[20] Mahesh Sankaran, Niall P. Hanan, Robert J. Scholes, Jayashree Ratnam, David J. Augustine, Brian S. Cade, Jacques Gignoux, Steven I. Higgins, Xavier Le Roux, Fulco Ludwig, Jonas Ardo, Feetham Banyikwa, Andries Bronn, Gabriela Bucini, Kelly K. Caylor, Michael B. Coughenour, Alioune Diouf, Wellington Ekaya, Christie J. Feral, Edmund C. February, Peter G. H. Frost, Pierre Hiernaux, Halszka Hrabar, Kristine L. Metzger, Herbert H. T. Prins, Susan Ringrose, William Sea, Jörg Tews, Jeff Worden1 & Nick Zambatis, “Determinants of woody cover in African savannas”, Nature 438, 846-849 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04070; Received 26 April 2005; Accepted 22 July 2005, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7069/full/nature04070.html

[21] National Geographic, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com.au/animals/mammals/antelope/

[22] National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Beef Industry Statistics, Nov 2012, http://www.beefusa.org/beefindustrystatistics.aspx

[23] The Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, http://icwdm.org/handbook/mammals/PronghornAntelope.asp

[24] Desert USA: Pronghorn, http://www.desertusa.com/mag99/may/papr/pronghorn.html

[25] FAOSTAT, http://faostat.fao.org/site/573/default.aspx#ancor

[26] Russel, G. Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts, 17 Nov 2009, http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/11/17/700-million-from-livestock/, citing Subak, S., GEC-1994-06 : Methane from the House of Tudor and the Ming Dynasty, CSERGE Working Paper, http://www.cserge.ac.uk/sites/default/files/gec_1994_06.pdf 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, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-008-9506-x

[27] Cawood, M., “ETS lifeline: soils capable of absorbing cattle methane”, The Land, 3 Sep 2009, http://www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/agribusiness/general-news/ets-lifeline-soils-capable-of-absorbing-cattle-methane/1612492.aspx

[28] Cawood, M., “ETS lifeline: soils capable of absorbing cattle methane”, The Australian Dairy Farmer, 3 Sep 2009, http://adf.farmonline.com.au/news/nationalrural/agribusiness/general-news/ets-lifeline-soils-capable-of-absorbing-cattle-methane/1612492.aspx

[29] Sacks, A., “The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Grist, 31 Jan, 2010, http://grist.org/article/the-climate-solution-got-cows/

[30] Parkinson, G., “A hiccup in the cow burp theory”, The Australian, 26 Oct 2009, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/business-old/a-hiccup-in-the-cow-burp-theory/story-e6frg976-1225791141055

[31] Cawood, M, “Error in Snowy Soils Carbon Report”, The Land, 16 July, 2010, http://www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/agribusiness/general-news/error-in-snowy-soils-carbon-report/1887462.aspx?storypage=0

[32] The Wheeler Centre,  Intelligence Squared Debates: Animals should be off the menu, Video, http://wheelercentre.com/videos/video/intelligence-squared-animals-should-be-off-the-menu/

[33] Intelligence Squared Debates: Animals should be off the menu, http://wheelercentre.com/events/event/animals-should-be-off-the-menu/

[34] Youtube video “Fiona Chambers from the meat industry gets busted – The Real Truth At Last”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEm813Zs9ec

[35] Australian Government, Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Eduction, “Australian National Greenhouse Accounts: National Inventory Report 2011, Vol. 1”, p. 213 incl. Table 6.1, http://www.climatechange.gov.au/sites/climatechange/files/documents/05_2013/AUS_NIR_2011_Vol1.pdf

[36] George Wilkenfeld & Associates Pty Ltd and Energy Strategies, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990, 1995, 1999, End Use Allocation of Emissions Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, 2003, Volume 1″, Table 5.2, p. 83.

[37] Araucaria Ecotours, Wildlife of Australia, http://www.learnaboutwildlife.com/wildlifeAustralia.html

[38] Australian Lot Feeders Association, “The Australian Cattle Feedlot Industry”, undated, http://www.feedlots.com.au/images/Briefs/cattle_industry.pdf

[39] Eshel, G., “Grass-fed beef packs a punch to environment”, Reuters Environment Forum, 8 Apr 2010, http://blogs.reuters.com/environment/2010/04/08/grass-fed-beef-packs-a-punch-to-environment/

[40] Minchin, Liz, “Oblivious to the impact of our carnivorous ways”, The Age, 13 September, 2007, Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre, ISSN: 0312-6307, Accession No. SYD-5GIJTTK2FQCG0SC2GSK and http://www.theage.com.au/news/climate-watch/oblivious-to-the-impact-of-our-carnivorous-ways/2007/09/13/1189276858297.html (Table not included in the web link.)

[41] Carlsson-Kanyama, A. & Gonzalez, A.D. “Potential Contributions of Food Consumption Patterns to Climate Change”, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 89, No. 5, pp. 1704S-1709S, May 2009, http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/89/5/1704S

[42] George Wilkenfeld & Associates Pty Ltd and Energy Strategies, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990, 1995, 1999, End Use Allocation of Emissions Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, 2003 (Table S5, p. vii)

[43] Carbon Neutral Ltd, http://www.carbonneutral.com.au

[44] Mahony, P., “If you think it’s healthy to eat animals, perhaps you should think again”, Terrastendo, 12 February, 2013, https://terrastendo.net/2013/02/12/if-you-think-its-healthy-to-eat-animals-perhaps-you-should-think-again/

[45] J. Brodie, C. Christie, M. Devlin, D. Haynes, S. Morris, M. Ramsay, J. Waterhouse and H. Yorkston, “Catchment management and the Great Barrier Reef”, pp. 203 & 205, Water Science and Technology Vol 43 No 9 pp 203–211 © IWA Publishing 200, http://www-public.jcu.edu.au/public/groups/everyone/documents/journal_article/jcudev_015629.pdf

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.

rsubak-500-333

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 http://www.chinadialogue.net/books/4772-Books-simple-ecology-complex-issues/en
  • 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 http://www.longpaddock.qld.gov.au/about/publications/pdf/preventingdegradation.pdf .
  • 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 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v478/n7369/full/nature10452.html. After a few years when herders see their grazing lands overtaken with trees, they will turn back to fire.
  • ‘Conservation grazing’ – http://theconversation.edu.au/can-livestock-grazing-benefit-biodiversity-10789 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):

firemap-Africa-combined

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, http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/11/17/700-million-from-livestock/, citing Subak, S., GEC-1994-06 : Methane from the House of Tudor and the Ming Dynasty, CSERGE Working Paper, http://www.cserge.ac.uk/sites/default/files/gec_1994_06.pdf 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, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-008-9506-x

Images:

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

MODIS satellite maps from NASA Earth Data, http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/firemaps/

References:

[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“, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140196303001071

[2] Russel, G., “Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Parts 1 & 2)”, 5th January and 10th February, 2010, http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/01/05/boverty-blues-p1/ and http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/02/04/boverty-blues-p2/

[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, http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/11/17/700-million-from-livestock/

[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, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/163431 and http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijbd/2014/163431/

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

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