On cows' potential to improve the environment: Thoughts from the Savory Conference

For the last half century, Allan Savory has promoted the idea that "Holistic Land Management" (or "HLM") -- or intensive, rotational cattle grazing -- can have myriad environmental and economic benefits. Savory argues that cattle, when moved around ranches in patterns that simulate the movements of large herds of wild grass eaters, can help stimulate the restoration of some desertifying ecosystems by rebuilding soils that have degraded over the past centuries from intensive agriculture. These rebuilt soils, Savory claims, could store immense amounts of carbon and water, helping humans mitigate and adapt to climate change. After decades of promoting his HLM ideas, however, Savory has been unable to achieve widespread adoption of HLM techniques. Skeptics remain unconvinced of the true potential for HLM to combat climate change, as many of the scientific nuances of Savory's claims remain unresolved (here, here, and here). In addition, the economics of holistic land management are not clearly better than the economics of conventional farming in the eyes of most traditional investors and ranchers.

Yet the lack of scientific and economic consensus hasn't stopped Savory's ideas from gaining steam in niche communities of farmers and sustainability advocates across the globe, as was evidenced by the two-day Savory Institute Conference this past week in London.

Truly restorative land management techniques with CDR potential couldn't come soon enough for many parts of the world where ecosystems are in decline and soils are degrading. So what did the Savory Confernce have to say about the prospect for HLM to achieve this promise?

  1. The proverbial elephant in the room was the lack of scientific data supporting Savory's HLM claims. The Conference felt wrought with tension between speakers who, on the one hand, highlighted the need to bring holistic land management into the mainstream and, on the other hand, neglected to produce scientific support for many of the claims about HLM. Several times presenters were asked point-blank about the status of scientifically robust data -- not just anecdotes -- on HLM, and the general answer was that such data didn't exist just yet. On the bright side, the Conference shared a number of updates from the growing scientific community that has begun to study the claims of holistic land management in earnest. Ongoing research from Peter Byck and his team at ASU, as well as from a consortium of USDA funded researchers in the Pacific Northwest, should provide more data in the coming years that show to what degree Savory's claims hold merit.Above: Before and after photos of the Loess Plateau in China make compelling anecdotes...but much more scientific analysis is necessary to support all of holistic management's purported benefits. Credit: cleanbizasia
  2. The business case for holistic land management is beginning to emerge. Savory claims that his techniques save money in addition to saving the planet by reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals, all while increasing revenues for ranchers by enabling them to graze more cattle on a given acre. These claims are sure to pique the interest of many farmers struggling to say afloat under the conventional farming system, yet the adoption of holistic management has grown slowly so far, suggesting that there might not be as much substance to proponents claims of increased profitability. Holistic managers are quick to point out that farmers are a very conservative bunch and are slow to change their generations-old conventional grazing practices, but this argument seems incomplete given how business-minded so many farmers have to be. A much more likely explanation of why the business of holistic land management is only beginning to emerge comes from Tony Lovell of SLM Partners, who has recently raised $75M from a Danish pension fund to implement Savory's cattle ranching practices at scale in Australia. Lovell says that his company convinced the pension fund to invest not by touting the absolute returns that holistic management could generate, but instead by explaining the promise of lower exposure to weather extremes (and thus lower volatility of returns) possible through the HLM techniques Lovell employs. Environmental benefits could provide significant upside to holistic techniques, but investors will not factor such benefits into their business cases for holistic management until there are more robust environmental markets. As a result, the business case for large-scale holistic management project developments will remain in the purview of investors with long time horizons and/or a personal interest in holistic management for the near future. Holistic management project developers like SLM Partners, Grasslands LLC, and Soil Capital will provide an interesting bell-weather for where the economics behind holistic land management stands over the next decade.paduaAbove: Cattle at SLM's holistically managed ranch at Padua, Australia
  3. Communication is key for scale up. Presenters at the Conference frequently spoke of imminent societal "collapse" on one hand, and on the other, the the idea for holistic land management to "save the planet." Such hyperbolic language is unlikely to win many mainstream converts to this concept, yet Allan Savory himself stated quite clearly that he "would love it if [he] could speak to everyone in London and all of the world's biggest cities." Again, scientific data and project demonstrations will be critical to start telling this story more clearly, but communicating any positive results in rhetoric that resonates with mainstream audiences will be equally critical for holistic land management proponents to see their approach flourish.
  4. "Livestock" is a very broad term. All livestock is not raised equal -- thus to say categorically that cows will destroy/save the planet is neither true nor useful. Assessing the degree to which livestock generate net ecosystem benefits/costs is of critical importance in the fight against climate change and ecosystem degradation, but such assessments are currently quite difficult and/or expensive. Advances in science and technology hold great potential to reduce these costs, making it easier for ranchers to communicate exactly the environmental/health/ethical impacts of the livestock they are raising, and for consumers and regulators to understand the myriad-but-presently-opaque distinctions.  Above: Industrial cattle farms have quite different environmental/health/ethical profiles than holistically managed cattle farms. Credit: James McWilliams
  5. The enthusiasm for holistic land management among believers is genuine and palpable -- but it's now time to see if holistic land management can make the leap into the mainstream. Hundreds of people gathered at the Savory Conference from across the world to share their stories on holistic land management and to discuss ways to further grow the practice. The conference had a quasi-religious fervor at times -- nothing like I have ever seen around any other potential CDR approach, save potentially for biochar. It will be interesting to see how the Savory Institute channels this enthusiasm to increase support for holistic land management over the next few years. For events like this conference to translate into wider adoption for Savory's techniques, the Savory Institute will need to start targeting a new, more mainstream "customer." Scientific data will need to start replacing the anecdotes as the primary substance of the event, and the circle of partners for the Savory Institute will need to widen considerably to include more investors, ag tech companies, large established companies and financiers, and regulators and policy makers. Most importantly, it will be critical for the Savory Institute to further integrate with the other communities seeking to advance systemic approaches to managing land with the goal of regenerating depleted ecosystems (e.g. no-till, bio-dynamic, etc.) in order to build the most effective coalition of organizations seeking similar end goals.

In conclusion, the Savory Conference demonstrated the positive progress that holistic land management is making towards unlocking its potentially vast CDR potential, but also showed that the road to achieving this potential remains long and fraught with obstacles.

Updated 4 Aug 2014