Grazing the Grasslands - and Allan Savory's TED Talk

Native grasses at Paicines Ranch
I was inspired when I listened to a TED talk by Allan Savory on How to fight desertification and reverse climate change, about how his system of high intensity grazing of food animals in Zimbabwe, or anywhere, when done right, can improve grasslands, rather than degrade them. It can even de-desertify deserts! Reduce global warming! And increase crop yields, and the number of grazing animals that can be supported on a given acreage.

Many people, including especially ranchers, also experience uplift from Savory's views. What he says resonates with our beliefs and desires. We WANT to believe this!

A nature lover having a grassland ecstasy! (At Paicines Ranch)
It sounds so plausible - ranchers can use their herds to mimic the way wild animals used to roam the grasslands, when the animals and the grasslands co-evolved. AND ranchers can increase herd size - and profits - by doing so. And many other good things - as outlined on the Benefits page of the Holistic Management International site, which Allan Savory co-founded:

Manage Your Land Holistically to Reap These Benefits:
Enhanced profits and livelihoods
More productive rangeland or cropland
More biologically active soils
Removal of existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
Less new carbon dioxide production
Reduced costs
Increased carrying capacity
Maximum benefit from rainfall
Reversal of desertification
Protection from drought
Improved wildlife habitat
Better food security
Improved economic viability for organics production
Clean water
Healthier environment
Stronger family relationships

Except - it appears that in California at any rate - the ungulates that grazed the grasslands were not grass eaters. (From a personal correspondence with a grassland scientist - I don't have time to fully research all the papers etc. right now, but I've taken notes!)

And actually, the California prairies are not strictly speaking grasslands, as I've discussed in a California Coastal Prairies post (for which this is, in a sense "part two"). All those wildflowers, bulbs, and so on - they are a goodly component of this interesting ecosystem, not some kind of aberration as was first thought by scientists who hailed from the Midwest.

Some grazing does seem to be helpful to some native ecologies in some circumstances. But the over-application of Savory's ideas, which were developed in Zimbabwe, is one thing scientists criticize him for.

However, practices can have good results, even if their theoretical underpinnings are flawed. I'm sure that the California ranchers who espouse Holistic Management are good people doing what they hold to be good work. That's what I found at Paicines Ranch,

View from Paicines Ranch
where I recently attended the Central Coast Invasive Weeds Symposium. And which, I now notice on their web site, advocates and practices H.M.

These ranchers are paying close attention to the changing conditions on their land (as advocated by H.M) and they care about the land and the earth and the native plants and animals. And as ranchers, with businesses to run, they also of course, care about profits. The general adherence to sustainable practices and care of the ecosystems fostered by holistic management - these are very heartening. How much the specifics of the Holistic Management system contributes to anyone's successes - is to be determined. (I've heard of failures too informally - but have no specifics. I don't think H.M web sites talk about failures anywhere, or what can be learned from them.)

I went on a tour of Paicines Ranch, and was interested to see the areas where native grasses are growing,

and where the cattle are roaming, and how they move them around to promote growth of native grasses.

These "stockers" (newly weaned cattle) are grazed here, then and at another ranch, in Wyoming I think, then are finished in conventional feed lots

At a stop near a river bed,

Beautiful riparian area fall color
I was a little surprised that the owner didn't know what the general scientific advice is about grazing in riparian areas for restoration. The manager said they were trying different things out. They didn't seem to have a lot of knowledge about the native species, or maybe just not the couple grasses we asked about. The owner said she could not afford to hire botanists and asked us if we knew of any who would be willing to come out and help them.

I was also interested to see that their neighbor was doing a controlled burn. It made for some dramatic photos. I'm not sure that Paicines Ranch does controlled burning. I don't think it is advocated in Savory's H.M. method.

A neighbor was doing a controlled burn wile the invasive weeds symposium carried on. This was the lunch line.


From all I can glean the science is not supportive of Savory's Holistic Management theories, nor are scientists as individuals.

For one summary that seems representative, read this Sierra club memorandum whose main points I give below:
1) independent scientific research (in contrast to anecdotes from promoters and users of HM) since the early 1980s has not shown HM to perform better than other grazing management methods,
2) applications of HM have produced mixed results, but in arid regions worldwide have often led to further environmental degradation,
3) Savory’s characterization of a “desertified” grassland is contradicted by well-established
scientific understanding of desert ecology, particularly as regards biological soil crusts, and
4) claims of HM’s widespread ability to increase sequestration of atmospheric carbon have not been independently studied and are indirectly contraindicated by recent, peer-reviewed research showing that grazing exclusion in some grasslands actually increases carbon sequestration relative to continued grazing.
(The memo goes on to detail and support these points with footnotes etc, and make a position statement and cites references.)

I find the the anti-science statements in the H.M. literature I've read quite disturbing. Case in point - article entitled: The Holistic Management Model: Enabling Scientists to Grasp Complexity as Well as Villagers Do by Sam Bingham.

In response to criticism, Savory and his supporters say that the science is bad, or the H.M. method wasn't implemented correctly, or the evaluation must be made over much longer time periods. Or that "Reductionist" science is just not taking in the big holistic picture.

Now, it is true that scientists are people and people can be closed minded. They can say inflammatory things too such as that Savory and his supporters have a quasi-religous belief in Holistic Management. But I also know that scientific methods provide the means to overthrow fixed beliefs, and that scientists however reluctantly do go along with evidence - eventually, if not right away. That is the bulwark of the scientific approach, the defense against human bias.

Which brings me (after many hours of grappling) to my Oklahoma! moment - Oh the scientist and the cowman should be friends! — but it is not clear that they are, in this case anyway. I'm a conciliatory person, and just wish Paicines Ranch for example, could find some support from the local scientific experts - assuming they really do want that — and that H.M. methodologies could be objectively evaluated.

So - let me just leave you with a few references so that if you are interested you can do some reading on your own.

Websites and Articles by in Favor of Alan Savory's Holistic Management:

Actually, outside of Alan Savory's websites - I didn't find much of anything on a simple search.  - Allan Savory's web site is the Savory Institute. He is co-founder of Holistic Management International and of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. The articles cited on their web sites that I randomly sampled are either by Savory advocates or are warm fuzzy articles about ecologically aware ranchers. Nothing that I found rigorous or objective. A couple of lists are: 

The Savory Institute page called evidence supporting holistic management.

Of the ones on the planter-tech site, I liked this one, on the Christian Science Monitor - which focuses on how many ranchers are becoming more concerned about the environment. The article is a fuzzy feel-good one, not totally about H.M.

Here is the one article I found not that is not by a proponent. It's on a Washington State University web site. It has a friendly yet questioning approach and Savory himself participated in the comments. 

Articles that are critical of Alan Savory's Holistic Management:

Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk, on the blog Inexact Change, posted March 11, 2013 

Allan Savory gives a popular and very misleading TED talk, by Ralph Maughan on The Wildlife News, posted March 18, 2013.

The Savory Method Can Not Green Deserts of Reverse Climate Change: A response to the Allan Savory TED video by David D. Briske et al, Society for Range Management journal, October 2013.

Home on the Holistic Range by Keith Raether, director of public information for Western Watersheds Project and public information coordinator for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Other more general articles can be found on the California Rangelands web site of UC Davis, including this one: Ecology and Restoration of California Grasslands with special emphasis on the influence of fire and grazing on native grassland species

And finally, here is one from an old issue of the CNPS journal Fremontia. GRAZING AND FIRE MANAGEMENT FOR NATIVE PERENNIAL GRASS RESTORATION IN CALIFORNIA GRASSLANDS by John W. Menke, Fremontia 1992, Vol. 20(2):22-25)

I have a folder with notes to follow up on this question of grazing in California. It is definitely not a simple question. I thought this would be a short blog post but the more I read the more tangled up I got. This happens when there is a lack of evidence, lack of proper studies. And at the end of it all - I'm not sure what more I can say other than Beware Attachment to Systems of Belief! but being human, not sure how any of us can avoid this pitfall.

Postscript: I initially got confused between this Holistic Management of rangelands idea and the type of grazing done to mitigate damage and discourage alien grasses in native grasslands and other similar habitats. In case you are, too, let me clarify the differences a bit.  In the restoration scenario, limited grazing is a tool to repair damage. It might be intense but it is typically brief and infrequent, timed to minimize impact on the native perennials and maximum the impact on the alien plants. Different grazing animals would be used to target different problem plants at different times of the year and so on. It's also not about maximizing profits while saving the earth!


ryan said…
Maybe because I read what you wrote beforehand, I found myself very skeptical of his talk. Way too reductionist and dogmatic for me. It sounds like he's been arguing for so many years, his rhetoric has ratcheted up way past what he can substantiate. And I think you're right, that there are huge differences between southern Africa and California -- annual versus perennial grasses, different grazing animals, different soil, different role of fire in the ecosystem, and so on.