Animals allan savory ted talk

Published on March 26th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


Meat, Lies, & Videotape (A Deeply Flawed TED Talk)

allan savory ted talkBy Robert Goodland

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.

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  • New Pearce

    Facts are stubborn things, at the end of the day, what makes more sense. I’ll go with Alan. I’m not judging, I’m just saying.

    • Zachary Shahan

      Ha, you know the line about lies & statistics, right? You know that this man’s funky stats have been criticized and called for what they are many times… by those in academia who don’t get bedazzled by the sparkling BS. :D

  • Zachary Shahan

    FYI: complete lies are not acceptable comments on this site. sorry, we have no intention of letting our site be used for misinformation.

    • mayhap

      How about letting your readers make the choice? I don’t even know YOU, and I’m supposed to trust that YOU always know what’s information and what’s misinformation?

      • Zachary Shahan

        there are dangers to letting people make the choice on misinformation they may not realize is misinformation.

        as far as trusting me, that’s your call. i’ve been covering the topics for several years and am quite certain i can tell the difference. ;)

        • Zachary Shahan

          i also no longer have time to spend all day correcting the misinformation from trolls, nor the interest.

          • mayhap

            I just came across your blog and I was interested in this article. Simply asking me to trust you is somewhat of a barrier for me to read articles, especially if they all work on that particular premise. Trust is earned, that’s all I’m saying. Not providing facts and asking for trust is a lazy way out.

          • Zachary Shahan

            no worries. read my stuff and then decide to trust me or not. but the original statement was simply a notice to spammers. i’m not going to spend half my work time dealing with trolls. that’s all i’m saying :D

  • Jim Seko

    If grazing animals and grass have a symbiotic relationship, under-grazing can be as detrimental as overgrazing. It’s that simple. The only people who don’t get it are vegetarians. I believe vegetarians are well-meaning people but I feel compelled to bust some vegetarian myths.

    Myth #1. Killing animals for food is unethical.
    It’s not unethical for a naturally omnivorous species to eat animals. There is a mountain of evidence that our ancestors were omnivorous going back millions of years.

    Myth #2. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for our health.
    When vegetarians make this assertion they make no distinction between confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and pasture raised animals. The difference is huge. Grass fed beef is every bit as healthy as wild-caught salmon.

    Myth #3. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for the environment. Again, vegetarians make no distinction between CAFOs and pasture raised. The difference is huge. CAFOs are an environmental nightmare. When vegetarians will not even acknowledge there is a viable alternative to CAFOs, other than abstaining from meat, it’s probably due to their strong feelings about myth #1.

    It’s obvious vegetarians want myth #2 and myth #3 to be true because it supports myth #1. As far as I can tell, the vegetarian belief system is based on confirmation bias.

    If you want to exclude meat from your diet you’re free to do so but stop trying to convince others to follow your belief system based on concepts proven to be false.


    Good morning,

    I’m Filippo De Matteis, the founder of the first italian magazine on environmental communication (

    We’ve just had a very interesting exclusive interview with Allan Savory about his theories on climate change. As you will see in the link below, we’ve had a long talk about his theories, the informative frauds, the digital and environmental communication.

    Here’s the link to the english version of the interview:

    You can find the interview on Savory Institute official site, too:

    I hope you’ll appreciate.

  • Maury Hexamer

    Thank you for your article. I am aghast at the positive response to the ridiculous ideas and false statements presented by Alan Savory…especially in view of his past.

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