“Cattle Grazing can reverse desertification”… Sort of… If you’re doing it right. Which you aren’t…

Reposted from Facebook to start this blog…
After watching Cowspiracy, I started doing some research to make sure the points it made are actually accurate.This lead to me to Beef Magazine and a discussion about the positive and negative sides of cattle ranching. 

I just watched a linked
talk (which I can’t seem to include here)by Allan Savory about livestock grazing as a way to reverse desertification (which Cowspiracy mentions as sounding dubious since grazing causes desertification). Basically, the devil is in the details. 
Take away messages:
* All of Savory’s talk basically points to the reality that it’s how grazing happens that matters. Unfortunately, humans have been grazing livestock wrong for about 10,000 years. In wet areas, it doesn’t matter so much because grass or weeds will always return, but in semi-arid areas, this causes desert. 

* The right kind of grazing, according to Savory, attempts to mimic the tight, nomadic herds of naturally occurring wild migrating animals. In other words, a lot of livestock in an area in close quarters and for a brief time at the right time of year. Most important, wild grazers move from place to place as a herd, having completely trampled and fertilizing an area then moving on completely. This is not how ranching usually works and, as Savory shows where he researched and teaches in Africa, people have to combine their herds to have enough animals to do it the right way and have to learn and practice the system properly (which includes fencing big herds in small areas and then moving them intelligently at the right time) or it harms rather than helps. 

* On the other hand, when done the right way in the right place, the effects appear dramatic from what he shows. Savory points out that it makes sense that grasslands would co-evolve with migratory grazers. It’s not a shock they do better with them when grazing happens in the right way.

Unfortunately, contrary to what the linking blog article seems to assume (as does the audience and even the relieved facilitator of the talk), this doesn’t mean we should all head to the local steakhouse for a celebratory dinner. Savory’s work is pretty contested (he’s also that guy responsible for mass killing of elephants; he has a lot to live down.) And even if Savory is right, we’re still eating way too much meat for methods like this to provide. And the way ranchers are working now is still harming rather than helping, expanding deserts the world over when grazing land is depleted. This is truly a global problem. In the US, it seems unlikely we’re gonna take on these practices en masse any time soon because they require more work, planning and coordination than the status quo with no benefit (especially if ranchers are grazing public land they’re not even responsible for). If you happen to get meat from someone who seems to do it the right way, good for you (there are certainly people’s trying as you can see from comments of the linking blog post). But keep in mind that, even if these methods were as efficient as current grazing and ranching methods, we’d still need more grazing area the entire square area of the US to grass-feed enough cattle to feed everyone in the US the meat they want and not hurt the environment. We only do it now at a huge environmental expense. 

The verdict: though Cowspiracy leaves out a lot of detail, the documentary is right: this isn’t sustainable. We can (and should) do it better but not expect it to provide regular tasty food. 

My opinion: We’d probably be better off eating vegetable protein or crickets and trying to rewild large buffalo herds–which do the right kind of grazing without any work on our part at all. (Just watch out for them when they cross the highway). 


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