Can grazing save the world?

Photo: Some rights reserved.

According to a TED talk that went viral, essentially, yes. Biologist Allan Savory argued in March that aggressive rotational cattle grazing can save land in danger of becoming desert. And that, in turn, Savory says, can help halt climate change. It's a fascinating talk, which you can watch below. If you have only five minutes, I suggest 8:00-13:00 for the nugget of his argument.

Lots of people heaped praise on Savory. Upworthy wrote, "Someone give this man a Nobel Prize already." Locavore guru Michael Pollan, a grazing fan, asked provocatively, "Eat MORE meat?"

But the pushback has also been substantial, with the latest volley of criticisms from James McWilliams (whose book Just Food caused a storm of controversy of its own for its strong criticism of the local food movement). McWilliams wrote last week in Slate that research assessing Savory's methods was largely negative:

Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat…The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.”

Savory's also been accused of "disparaging the desert" and failing to revise his ideas based on results.

I find the whole debate fascinating in part because it sheds light on the depth of the hole we find ourselves in with climate change. Each author agrees climate change and desertification are enormous problems. But there's deep disagreement on what to do about it.

This issue also says to me that not all grazing is created equal.

In New York, farmers have gone from a grazing system pre-1960s to one where today it's harder than ever to find cows on grass at all. Now many dairy experts say we have to reverse the trend. Grasses grow great in Upstate New York. Back in 2002, I interviewed dairy farmer and grazier, Kevin Sullivan, who said grazing reduces all the big headaches of dairying – expensive machinery, high fuel costs, etc.:

A cow is made to walk out here and eat this grass.  Why would we want to keep her on concrete and haul it to her and then haul her manure back out here.  It’s pretty simple really.

This farmer agrees.

So check out Allan Savory's TED talk. Does it move you? What do you think of the critiques? And does any of it apply to Upstate New York, where we have more grass than we know what to do with?

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One Comment

  1. Grazing isn't for everyone, or every situation, but, where it is suitable it works very well.
    The Mangaged Intensive Grazing methods used today are not my fathers methods.