Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Allan Savory Recommends Environmentalists Eat More Meat

Biologist Alan Savory
In February of this year,  biologist Alan Savory gave a TED talk arguing, that to reverse desertification and global climate change, we need not reduce, but rather increase, the number of cows on the planet. He coins the term "holistic management" to describe how we must take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between large herds of grazing animals, their predators, and the grasslands on which they live. Savory believes that we can substitute domestic species for the lost keystone species that once inhabited and managed the local ecosystem. Arguing that human technology can mimic nature, Savory believes that we can reverse the negative environmental effects caused by the loss of native grazers in places like Zimbabwe, where he works.
Introduction of cattle in Zimbabwe

In my opinion, Savory is arguing for a time old approach, which seeks to apply human technology to remedy an overly complex natural issue. If conservationists have learned anything over the years, it is that we cannot solve a problem in the same mindset in which it was created. Humans are the cause of accelerated desertification and climate change (Vitousek et al., 1986) and we cannot simply reverse it by adding more to a degraded ecosystem. We especially will not be able to do reverse desertification and climate change by introducing more cattle. Scientists have long argued how these methane-producing human exploits are the cause of much of today's climate problem (McMichael et al., 2007).

Aside from the fact that I personally believe humans should avoid adding more of anything to our finite planet, Savory's talk also includes a number of questionable claims outlined by James McWilliams in his article, "All Sizzle and No Steak." Among many critiques, McWilliams writes that Savory's plan of cattle introduction is not a scalable one and has had little success in attempts to be reproduced. Additionally, because scientific institutions have not been jumping out of their seats to work with Savory, he has created his own independent institutions.

Savory's plan to reverse desertification and climate change may sound appealing and optimistic. However, we should remain skeptical when the solution to an incredibly complex problem such as this is presented so simply and straightforward. As James McWilliams writes in his critique of Savory's talk: "...the evidence continues to suggest what we have long known: There’s no such thing as a beef-eating environmentalist."

Peter M. Vitousek, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich and Pamela A. Matson. 1986.
"Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis":

McMichael, A.J., et al. 2007 "Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health":

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