Food & Water featured

Two arrogant men

July 17, 2023

George Monbiot with ecomodernist hubris and Allan Savory as a prophet that has seen the light.

It was almost a sign of self-injurious behaviour of Alan Savory to participate in a debate with George Monbiot titled “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?”. George Monbiot is a very skilled orator and debate and polemics is his lifeblood.

The background is that Alan Savory has publicly promoted holistically planned grazing as a means to combat climate change. In his much publicized TED-talk 2013 he said that:

 “…if we do what I’m showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people.…”

In his opening statement, Allan Savory said nothing like that (and he never addressed it) and instead focussed on desertification, megafires and loss of bio-diversity. He claimed that desertification, in arid climates, is caused by the absence of livestock as the grass grows up and just dries out (and ultimately “oxidize”) and dies. He didn’t want to discuss methane emissions or carbon sequestration in soils. He wanted to get to the “root cause of the problem”. But in the end he never did except for stating that it is the flawed way government develops policies.

If Alan Savory wanted to discuss how livestock can be used to combat desertification he should have insisted on that being the scope of the debate and not “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?” I understand that he thinks that his holistic planned grazing will combat desertification and, therefore, also combat climate change (as well as making the system more resilient to climate change), but I think he wasn’t able to get that message across. At all.

Having said that, I also see climate change primarily as a symptom of an unsustainable human civilization (I also see human caused desertification as such a symptom) and not a technical problem to be fixed. The juggling of carbon metrics and the summing up of numbers from life cycle analyses is a vain effort when discussing biological system (works fine with carbon dioxide emissions from chimneys or exhaust pipes though). In this way I agree with Alan Savory’s critique of reductionist science.

George Monbiot did certainly address the topic of the debate. He said there are three conditions that have to apply in order for grazing to be essential to mitigating climate change:

1. Store more carbon than would otherwise been stored.

2. The carbon stored must be more than all the emissions from the livestock production chain.

3. Carbon opportunity cost, the cost of not being able to do something else (e.g. reforestation), must be counted in.

While those points may sound reasonable, once you look into the details you realise it is not all that simple. Globally, most grasslands are the “natural” land cover, and the question is about how they are managed and not if they could be something else than grasslands. In addition, most of the grasslands are not grazed by domestic livestock at all. Domestic herbivores can be replaced by wild herbivores, but while that may be preferable from a bio-diversity perspective that will make no difference in the emissions of methane or nitrous oxide. Even if the land is just left to rest, termites, grasshoppers and other organisms will graze grass or it will be consumed in megafires. All that grows will also have to be consumed one way or the other. Those simple ecological functions seem to get lost when George Monbiot (cherry) picks research papers.

In the UK, where the debate took place, I guess some grasslands could probably be reverted to forests, after all England has very little forests. But even in a European perspective the abandonment of grasslands and conversion to tree plantations or roads is a major environmental problem and in many places the main threat to bio-diversity. And even in Europe, a mosaic landscape is more “natural” than dense forests´.

While there is little, or no, evidence that the quote from Allan Savory’s TED-talk holds water, George Monbiot also made unsubstantiated statements such as “Grazing livestock is far worse than intensively farmed livestock” and “Grazing livestock is one of the most devastating processes on earth.” He also contradicted himself several times. For instance he claims (25:40 in the video) that in order to bind more carbon in soils more nitrogen must be added. But that is really a very simplistic view with no empirical evidence. After all, most of the best crop lands in the world are former grasslands where carbon was accumulated over millennia without any external nitrogen addition. In addition, if it were true, the conversion of grasslands to forests, which is the basis for the calculation of “carbon opportunity costs” would not allow for any increased carbon sink, without the use of nitrogen fertilizers (which alone is the biggest source of agriculture emissions).

George Monbiot also built heavily on the dubious concept of “carbon opportunity costs” promoted by Tim Searchinger and Stefan Wirsenius (but not endorsed by the IPCC or other major science body). In this concept all land use is compared with a theoretical maximum carbon storage scenario and burdened with the difference between its carbon storage and that theoretical maximum (which is often a forest). But it is obvious that carbon opportunity costs as a concept are based on many subjective judgments about time horizon, discount rates and alike. There are flawed assumptions that forests are stable ecosystems while forests fires, storms or massive pest attacks can all easily bring down a forest, and release all the carbon stored. Carbon stored in grassland soils is actually much better protected than carbon stored in trunks of trees. But in the end, this kind of pissing contest between ecosystems based on their ability to store carbon is not fruitful. Peat bogs are probably the best carbon stores, but has rather low bio-diversity and don’t support many animals (wild or domestic) or humans.

None of the two men seems to be interested in a dialogue and they were arrogant in their own ways. I find that Alan Savory is overselling his “holistic management” while being more or less unable to communicate what it really is. He lectured or made statements that sounded more like something by Pythia or an astrologer. He also spoke only of grazing in brittle, arid environments and failed to discuss what role livestock can play in humid temperate climates, such as in the UK and in mixed systems where livestock and cropping is integrated. In Sweden (with a climate quite similar to Scotland), there is a clear correlation between farms with ruminant livestock and higher carbon content in the soil, mainly as an effect of leys (growing the winter forage) in crop rotations.

George Monbiot hammered in his data and numbers (and was at times rather rude) and equated all livestock with industrial livestock. This is of course contradictory as one cannot on the one hand claim that most cattle in the world are fed with crops grown on arable land and at the same time claim that grazing of the same livestock is a major driver of bio-diversity destruction. The reality is actually that 1) The world’s ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc) are predominantly fed on grass and not crops grown on arable land. 2) Global pasture area has not increased at all the last 25 years (but it has expanded in the tropics and reduced considerably in Europe, Russia and North America) 3) Global per capita ruminant meat consumption has not increased at all since 1960, and milk consumption just a little. The increase in per capita meat consumption is attributable to pigs and even more chicken. 4) The majority of the world’s ruminants are not part of the “industrial livestock sector” George Monbiot talks about. India alone has more than 1/5 of all cattle and Africa has more cattle than Europe, North America and Australia together.

Joined in arrogance

In their arrogance, they seem to agree on one thing. Allan Savory states that all traditional livestock systems have incurred biodiversity loss and desertification (at 20:30 in the video) and that everything humanity has done in the past has been disastrous. This is echoing George Monbiot’s proposition that farming is the root of all evil. But they are both wrong. As a matter of fact, most traditional farming systems, with or without grazing (without livestock isn’t an option as all traditional food systems have had some livestock), have been sustainable. The grasslands of Europe, managed for millennia without holistic planned grazing, are hotspots of biodiversity.

To reject thousands of years of indigenous (in its wider sense) and traditional land management as ignorant and devastating is not helpful. It fits, however, well with how both Alan Savory and George Monbiot come across as arrogant but in very different ways; George Monbiot with ecomodernist hubris and Allan Savory as a prophet that has seen the light.

You can what the video here. Although I must say there are better ways to spend 1.5 hours.

If you want to read scientific articles about how carbon can be sequestered in grasslands there are many papers listed here.

A couple of years ago I participated in a panel with  Walter Willett, George Monbiot, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, and Julia Lernoud which can be seen here.

 

Teaser photo credit: Mongol pastoralist in the Khövsgöl Province. By Arabsalam – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35177177

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: agriculture greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration strategies, holistic grazing management systems, livestock farming, traditional agriculture, traditional livestock systems