Meat, Lies, & Videotape (A Deeply Flawed TED Talk)
A recent videotape that went somewhat viral begins with a factual statement by cattleman Allan Savory: “Fossil fuels… are by no means the only thing that is causing climate change.” Then Mr. Savory launches into opinion, saying there’s “only one option left to climatologists and scientists.” That’s to do “the unthinkable” — namely, to expand and intensify livestock-raising, using “rotational grazing” — as Mr. Savory claims it’s the only way to reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level.
From my long experience in environmental assessment, I can identify three key gaps in Mr. Savory’s assessment. First, what he proposes is unachievable. Second, he omits incorporation of a basic element in environmental assessment, and that’s analysis of alternatives. Third, he omits any statement as to how long his recommendation would take to implement. Yet one expert group after another has projected that reversing climate change must begin in the next five years, or it will be too late.
The key alternatives to Mr. Savory’s approach involve regenerating vegetation while reducing livestock, as described in one place after another. A widely-cited assessment by Jeff Anhang and me explains how replacing at least 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives could both eliminate vast quantities of agricultural emissions and free up enough land for reforestation and forest regeneration to reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level.
Yet Mr. Savory has been videotaped at another recent talk claiming that his approach has been “never refuted.” That’s a terminological inexactitude, as every part of his approach has been refuted.
Notably, one analyst says Mr. Savory’s claim that arid lands need more grazing is untrue; his claim that grazing promotes plant growth is false; and his claim that hoof action is needed to incorporate organic matter into soil, germinate seeds, and filter water is unproven. Another analyst says Mr. Savory inappropriately expands findings on how small, wild grazers such as rabbits, mice, reptiles, and insects benefit land with what livestock do, and fails to distinguish between different types of desert. Yet another analyst says Mr. Savory’s claims are based on one small study that nobody’s been able to replicate — and there’s evidence in satellite images that the more intensive the cattle-grazing, the more catastrophic the results may be.
In my own assessment, I’d point to videotape where Mr. Savory mocks requests for him to quantify his claims. Elsewhere, he’s conceded that his claims must be reconciled with the fact that grazed cattle emit much more methane than their factory-farmed cousins. Relatively few cattle are grazed today on grasslands in the Western U.S. — yet degradation of those lands has inspired scientists to prescribe less grazing, the opposite of what Mr. Savory prescribes.
In the World Bank Group, my longtime workplace, a project to expand and intensify livestock-raising was described in The Economist in 2009 as an example of where “the learning curve is long.” This failed effort began in 2004, when some colleagues considered it prudent to work on a five-year experiment to test whether expanding and intensifying livestock-raising in the Amazon forest region could become sustainable. Today’s accelerated rate of climate change suggests that if experimenting with intensifying livestock ever was prudent, it no longer is.
Mr. Savory’s 50+ year record of promoting rotational grazing can itself be seen as evidence that further experimentation is unacceptable. In those 50+ years, few farmers have chosen to follow his approach. The popular food writer Michael Pollan has assessed the chances for farmers to change their ways this way: “The average American farmer today is 55 years old; we shouldn’t expect these farmers to embrace the sort of complex ecological approach to agriculture that is called for.”
Mr. Savory has conceded that “ranching organizations are not working with us” and that “public opinion” must change. So he appears to be promoting “culture change” — which is normally generational at best, and for which we scarcely have time in the age of climate change.
The demands of climate change should also be applied to a trendy proposal to expand insect-eating — which would surely take longer to become culturally acceptable than the 5-year timeframe in which experts say we must reverse climate change. Another trendy proposition involves “in vitro” or “lab” meat — yet one assessment after another says it doesn’t yet exist, and even one of its most ardent promoters says will take forever at the current rate of progress.
Moreover, Mr. Savory hasn’t explained how land could be accumulated on the scale at which he says it’s needed. In fact, land acquisition is normally subject to the keen interest of government agencies and local communities, and land grabs have become highly controversial worldwide.
Mr. Savory says that his approach centers on a “decision process” and a “planning process,” which he calls “immutable.” But he fails to account for how projected increases in climatic volatility may force changes on all kinds of decision and planning processes. Such volatility would likely accelerate mass die-offs not only of livestock but also grasses and feed crops — which have been bred for thousands of years to maximize growth under nonvolatile climatic conditions.
To adapt livestock and their feed to a volatile climate will take generations of new breeding, beyond the period of the next 5 years during which experts say climate change must be reversed.
Climate change is transboundary, meaning it doesn’t respect borders. So, wherever livestock might be raised under Mr. Savory’s approach, they would surely be vulnerable to disruptive climate events. Such events caused large-scale livestock die-offs in 2009 in every region of the world, including in the Philippines, India, Argentina, Kenya, and the US. Since 2009, large-scale livestock die-offs and climate change have unfortunately expanded. Climate change has reportedly caused even some legendary Arkansas cattlemen to abandon their livelihoods.
At least Mr. Savory promotes his approach to farmers, policymakers, and academics — and not to consumers who must choose from foods available in the marketplace today. Indeed, few if any consumers seeking meat from their local grocers that’s produced using Mr. Savory’s approach will find any such product to be available today.
However, while Mr. Savory himself cautions that most livestock today are produced unsustainably, meat promoters can be seen spinning Mr. Savory’s claims as if they apply equally to factory-farmed meat. Yet it’s no new trick to promote factory farmed meat as grass-fed. A grassland producer has himself noted that most marketing of “grass-fed” beef is a hoax. Beef marketed this way commands a 200-300% price premium — so the incentive for producers to cheat is overwhelming, as evidenced in one videotape after another.
Consumers commonly ignore cautionary analysis regarding unsustainable meat. If they keep on buying it even when it’s sold with no certification of sustainability, one might consider it a victimless crime — except everyone will pay the price of climate change if in reality it’s not reversed.
In fact, another videotape shows Bill Gates projecting that innovations by food industry leaders could drive large-scale replacement of livestock products within the next 5 years. Analysis by Jeff Anhang and me suggests that if such replacement isn’t first implemented willingly to stave off runaway climate change, then it may be forced by climatic volatility that will reduce the productivity of livestock, grasses, and feed crops. More recently, an article by Bill Gates cited our estimate that at least half of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock products.
Yet meat-eaters may find another reason, if not Mr. Savory’s claims, as an excuse to keep on eating meat. So the key challenge isn’t to contradict Mr. Savory; nor is it to work toward “culture change.” More simply, it’s for producers and consumers to do the same thing with food as they do to select any winning product — and that’s to seek a superior blend of quality and price, otherwise known as value.
Searching for value in food these days will usually lead to replacing livestock products with better alternatives — especially when one considers the enormous value in reversing climate change. If this makes sense, then please watch a short video on this topic, and consider sharing it so it might go viral!
Robert Goodland has served as lead environmental adviser at the World Bank Group, and is the first ever winner of the World Conservation Union’s Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature.