Don't Believe Allan Savory's Hype: Cows Will Not Save the Planet
Sierra magazine editor Jason Mark is skeptical about grazing guru Allan Savory.
A few years ago, I finally did something I'd wanted to do for a while: I gave up beef. I'll admit that I do still eat meat, but I'm what you could call a conscientious carnivore. I strive to buy pork and chicken only from the folks at the farmers' market, the local sustainable butcher, or ranches that have Animal Welfare Approved certification. But given what I know about global climate change, and given what I know about ruminants' penchant for spewing heat-trapping methane, I couldn't justify the steak any longer. (Yes, vegans, I hear you. For my take on the ecological ethics of meat-eating, there's more online at sc.org/meat.)
I hadn't been off the beef bandwagon long when I learned about the work of an iconoclastic rancher named Allan Savory, whose techniques of "holistic management" have become fashionable among sustainable agriculture folks. He claims that cows can actually be beneficial if they stimulate soil microbes that can sequester carbon. This sounded like an incredible win-win, and it made me reconsider my no-beef pledge. Perhaps we could have our planet and eat it, too.
There's just one major problem with Savory's pitch: It doesn't pass the sniff test. For this issue's cover story (page 34), rangelands writer Christopher Ketcham went deep into Savory's ideas and found them to be unsubstantiated. Grasslands experts and agroecologists are baffled by many of his notions. "We find all of Mr. Savory's major claims to be unfounded," a 2013 report in the journal of the Society for Range Management concluded.
Undaunted—to say nothing of unembarrassed—by his lack of replicable evidence, Savory travels the world giving talks and trumpeting his bold philosophy. During a spring 2015 symposium at an organic farm in Northern California, I heard him say, referring to his idea that we must add millions of cattle to the landscape, "We have only one option. There is not another alternative, OK? Many scientists got angry with me when I put that in my TED Talk. Well, now I put it in bold."
To borrow, and twist, a line from George H.W. Bush, this is voodoo agronomics. If no one was listening, Savory's unsupported theory would be little more than wishful thinking. Considering the following and influence that he's built up, it's more like political malpractice.
Until someone conclusively proves that any benefits cattle hooves might have for the soil can offset a bovine's naturally gassy state, I'm going to stick by my original commitment. I'm going to keep beef off my plate.
This article appeared in the March/April 2017 edition with the headline "Voodoo Agronomics."