Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Allan Savory's TED Talk regarding desertification proposes the idea that humans can combat desertification by introducing livestock into damaged areas and impose a system of "holistic management and planned grazing".  To put it simply, he believes that introducing a dense herd of livestock to a dry area and walking them around every day will stimulate the soil, provide it with nutrients, and restore it to fertile land.  I firmly disagree.

I side with James McWilliams' article, "All Sizzle and No Steak", where he describes how Savory's methods and data are shoddy at best, and his results have not been reliably replicated by other environmentalists.  One of the key features to a good scientific experiment is solid repeatability: other scientists should be able to reliably repeat your experiments and, ideally, obtain the same results.  According to McWilliams, this is not the case with Savory's experiments, citing the Charter Grazing Trials, which said that "'more often than not' intensive systems marked by the constant rotation of densely packed herds of cattle led to a decline in animal productivity while doing nothing to notably improve botanical growth".  McWilliams then went on to describe several other experiments around the globe which attempted Savory's techniques and were all unsuccessful.

Sloppy and unreliable science aside, the problem with Savory's methods that perhaps stuck out to me the most was the issue of methane production.  Savory casually and quickly stated that the grass that would be generated from his restoration techniques would easily counteract the effects of the methane production of the livestock, cattle in particular.  I find that this is not at all the case.  McWilliams states that the world's oceans and plants only process half of the total amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by human activity each year.  While the majority of that carbon is in the form of carbon dioxide, cattle and other livestock are notorious for producing large amounts of methane, which compared molecule-to-molecule with carbon dioxide, produces a greenhouse effect 21 times more powerful.  This means that the increase in livestock that Savory proposes would have an extremely negative impact on climate change and would contribute to global warming.

While Savory's presentation and methods look appealing and promising at first glance, they are quite disappointing in reality.


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