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In the past decade, we have been told repeatedly by environmental campaigners, the UN, and scientists the world over that cows are a major contributor to climate change. The logic goes something like this:

1. Cows (and all ruminants) eat grass and other plants.
2. Ruminants release methane while digesting their food.
3. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Conclusion: Ruminants are a major contributor to climate change.

It also makes for great headlines: "Cows fart, burp. World Burns." It is funny, catchy, and true- to an extent.

While it is undeniable that ruminants produce greenhouse gases, there is one major flaw with this logic- nowhere in this reductionist line of thought do the ecological services provided by ruminants enter the equation.

This diary will introduce what is known as Holistic Management and how its implementation is akin to setting a bull into a china shop of reductionist thought. It also runs in tandem with my previous diaries on ecological gardening, but since its content is more applicable to larger land areas than a garden (at first glance), I've broadened the title to the umbrella of agroecology.

[Edit- The title of this diary is a direct lift from the title of Allan Savory's lecture which I discuss in this diary. I think it fits, but if anyone is truly concerned, let me know and I may change it.]

[Edit 2- Thank you to gmoke for informing us that Allan Savory will be speaking at The Fletcher School in Medford, MA on Friday Jan 25th!]

[Edit 3- 28.03.2013: Attaching proper citation for the photographs from China.]

Last time here...

My last diary in this "series" (link is photo and embed heavy) ended a two-piece showcase of the transition from lawn to forest garden at my parent's place in North Carolina. It has been a very long time since I have posted a diary that talks about techniques or design frameworks. What prompted this diary was my discovery that very few have been speaking about Holistic Management on Daily Kos. In all actuality, there has been very little discussion about agroecology and the benefits of holistic planning beyond just food production and into habitat restoration, watershed and hydrological cycle restoration, community empowerment, fire prevention, poverty alleviation, and conservation of non-industrial cultures.

This community is rendered poorer by the silence. It is my hope that this diary will help readers to challenge their belief that cattle- and by extension other ruminants- are detrimental to their immediate environment and have a net negative effect on climate change.1 I will not be arguing against the notion that cattle produce greenhouse gases. What I will be arguing, or, rather, presenting, is that the equation does not begin and end with "Cows fart, belch. World burns."

Wait a minute, the diarist is ignoring the main point of contention over livestock- their systematic destruction of ecosystems. What is this ecosystem services nonsense?
If you agree with the above statement, keep these questions in mind as you read this diary:
"If it were true that ruminants are inherently destructive, how is it that we still have reasonably functional grasslands tens of thousands of years after the evolution of ruminants?

Would they not have caused desertification, biodiversity loss, and climate change before humans domesticated the first goat, sheep, or cattle?

What is the fundamental difference between domesticated livestock and their wild relatives?

Why are the former demonized and the latter showered with love?"

1. This can be widened to negative views of livestock in general.

Introduction to Agroecology

My first diary on the broader subject of agroecology defined and showcased awe inspiring examples from around the world of agroecology in action. Since the diary was published in December of 2011, allow me to briefly refresh our collective memories.

Agroecology, as defined by Wikipedia:

Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals. The term encompasses a broad range of approaches, and is considered "a science, a movement, [and] a practice."
Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens, goes on to add in a powerful article, "Stabilizing the Climate with "Permanent Agriculture", that:
Permanent agriculture doesn’t just sequester carbon. It is also a fantastic way to restore degraded land to productivity. Much of the carbon we are pulling from the air becomes organic matter, the foundation of productive agricultural soils. The Global Assessment of Human-Induced Soil Degradation (concluded in 1990) found that vast amounts of the planetary surface have been degraded by human activity, through erosion of sloping land, desertification, salinization, and nutrient depletion. [emphasis added, link is original]
The implication is that human decisions and consequent actions have already degraded much of the planet. As we progress into the Anthropocene, it would be wise to remember what has come before. Shifting baselines, a concept which describes the phenomenon where humans remember the way things were earlier in their life and in turn, create a baseline against which all change is measured. Even though we live in a literate society, all too often our personal baselines fail to take into account the way things were in previous generations. Eventually, degraded states become "normal" and we become enamored with sustaining these degraded ecosystems. If this can occur in literate societies, imagine the profound effect on largely illiterate societies where the power of oral history is being stripped away by modernity. Luckily, agroecological methods are being proven the world over to halt and restore biodiversity and ecosystem function. In turn, our baselines can begin to ascend towards ecosystem recovery and regeneration rather than ecosystem collapse.2

Agroecology is a rapidly evolving science and movement that is just as broad and deep as its parent ecology. There are variations in implementation, techniques, and ideas. Also included in Eric's article were a couple of diagrams which mind-map the concept. Click here for a larger view.

Note that Holistic Management is included under "Design Systems." Version 1.5 Developed by Eric Toensmeier and mind-mapped by Ethan Roland

As you can see, this becomes complicated quickly if we begin to investigate each concept in depth without an understanding of what these techniques hope to accomplish. Simply put, agroecology implores us to study natural systems and mimic their structures to accomplish our goals. Protecting the soil, fostering a diverse food web, restoring hydrological functionality, and integrating humans into the system as wardens are prime considerations with these design systems.

Here is a collection of before and after photographs, again, from around the globe, where this concept has been put into action. As a teaser, I have decided to include just one view of the Loess Plateau in China.

Caption from link: Loess Plateau example 3a: Early September, 1995. Photograph by: Kosima Weber Liu

Caption from link: Loess Plateau example 3b: Early September, 2009. Photograph by: Kosima Weber Liu

It is imperative that you take a look at the full set of photographs before continuing to read this diary. Without an understanding of what is possible, these concepts will remain just that: constructs rather than spectacular paradigm shifts for the locations involved.3

If photographs are not enough, John D. Liu (whose photographs of the Loess Plateau I've included) has recently released a documentary named "Green Gold" where he tours the Loess Plateau, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Jordan to reveal locations where these concepts are being put into practice with jaw-dropping results. You can follow his and many other people's work on his website.

I think the evidence arrayed in this first section does a solid job of establishing the credibility of agroecology.4 Now let's discover what Holistic Management has to offer.

2. Although agroecology has been shown to restore these functions, we should keep in mind that restoring an ecosystem to a past state is more than likely not possible. Extinctions, non-anthropogenic climate change, human impacts, and our incomplete knowledge (including the question of "Restore to what [time]?") are just a handful of factors which make it neigh impossible to "restore" a habitat.
3. The link will take you to a talk on Resilience Science delivered at the 10th International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, two years ago, by Owen Hablutzel.
4. For further validation, see this report from a UN scientist declaring that agroecology is the future.

Holistic Management

In the 1960's, Allan Savory, a "research biologist and Game Ranger in the British Colonial Service of what was then Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia)" began experimenting with ways to restore grassland function to the benefit of the ecosystem and the humans who rely upon it.5 After decades of success and failure (and exile to the United States), Savory and his colleagues have developed a system of managing grasslands which stands in stark contrast to conventional wisdom. Four principles guide the design process:

Nature functions in wholes:You can’t control or change one thing in one area without having an impact on something else in another area.
All environments are different:It is crucial to acknowledge nature’s complexity and that an action can produce completely different results in different environments.
Properly managed livestock can improve land health: When domestic livestock is properly managed to mimic the behavior of wild herbivores interacting with grasslands, they can reverse desertification.
Time is more important than numbers: Overgrazing of plants is directly related to the amount of time the plants are exposed to the grazing animals and the amount of time that lapses between consecutive grazing events.
His radical notion of mimicking the symbiotic relationship between wild ruminants (and other herbivores) and grasslands with domesticated stock saw him shunned by universities and institutes until very recently when the results of his work have become readily apparent. While there still remains debate over these techniques, I believe that the results speak for themselves. The restored land, the communities saved, the farms turned around, the carbon sequestered, the healthy produce, return of biodiversity and ecological function are undeniable.

In 2003, the Allan Savory was awarded the prestigious Banksia International award "for the person or organization doing the most for the environment on a global scale."6 In his acceptance speech, Allan Savory had this to say:

I did not know that in attempting to address these questions, the path I took would lead to discovering a totally unsuspected root cause, which was tied to the way people make decisions rather than the many things we scientists have been blaming for years -- overgrazing, overstocking, communal tenure of land, overpopulation, etc. Nor did I realise how this cause could be addressed by Holistic Management, which involves a profoundly simple framework for decision-making that empowers people, corporations and governments to begin reversing thousands of years of environmental degradation.


[Ever humble, Savory remarks near the close of his speech that...]

We scientists achieve little on our own merits and I, like all, have built on the work and ideas of others and stood on their shoulders:  Jan Smuts, who gave us Holism and Evolution in 1926 as a forerunner to today’s complexity theory; Andre Voisin, the French pasture specialist who enabled us to understand that overgrazing was not caused by too many animals but rather by time of plant exposure to animals; John Acocks, the South African botanist who first stated that ‘South Africa was overgrazed but understocked;’ Navajo medicine men and Scottish shepherds who first noted the connection between the health of the land and the hooves of the sheep, amongst others.

Just two years ago, Savory's Africa Center for Holistic Management (ACHM) was awarded the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award. BFI has this to say:7
The work of the Africa Center for Holistic Management (ACHM), the 2010 Challenge winner, is a living testament to Allan Savory's breakthrough methods for reversing desertification and its insidious impact on livelihoods, biodiversity and climate change. Allan Savory has transformed large swaths of parched and degraded areas of the ranch into lush pastures replete with ponds and flowing streams even during periods of drought through a dramatic increase in the number of herd animals on the land. Savory's seminal work on the subject is called Holistic Management - A New Framework for Decision Making. [emphasis added]
This begs the question:
If cattle are inherently a contributor to climate change, as many would have you believe, why is an organization predicated on the management of such creatures receiving environmental awards for its work on ecological restoration and climate change?
5. Allan Savory's biography from the Savory Institute, an organization which takes its name from its co-founder. I should also mention here that there is another organization, Holistic Management International, which does similar work. I won't go into the differences, but they should be mentioned as well.
6. Actual embedded link takes you to the award citation. The long quotation that follows is excerpted from a copy of his acceptance speech which was forwarded to me by the Savory Institute after I inquired about a citation for his award. AFAIK the speech is not publicly available online. This particular award is no longer offered, which may explain why it is not on Banksia International's website.
7. For a full overview of their award and BFI's continued coverage, see this link.

Cattle and Climate Change

Let me introduce Allan Savory. In this nearly hour long lecture delivered at Trinity College, Dublin in 2009, entitled "Keeping Cattle: Cause or Cure for Climate Crisis?" Savory compares the conventional wisdom surrounding livestock and their grazing habits versus what he and his fellow practitioners have shown to be true.8 Savory was speaking at the request of the Feasta Foundation, a Dublin-based organization whose mission is to "explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society, and to disseminate the results of this exploration to the widest relevant audience."

Now, I know what you are thinking- I just read all of that and now I have to watch an hour long lecture! oi!

I have two things to say to that. First, you came this far in a diary that is addressing one of the most common beliefs regarding land degradation and climate change. If this could be properly explained in less time, less thoroughly, then you are following the wrong diarist! Honestly, this is a topic that deserves your full attention. Although I guess I should not admonish you if you have made it his far!

Secondly, you are in luck. I know many folks do not have the bandwidth to watch such movies or are browsing from work where they simply cannot watch videos. And I know many people just don't have the time, nor want to watch, a lecture.9

So follow me on past the embed and I will walk you through Savory's lecture.

At the beginning of his presentation, Savory shows a slide entitled "World Views." The reductionist world view sees three separate serious issues: biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.

The holistic world view sees these three serious issues as one large issue resulting from ecosystem malfunction. While explaining how the hockey stick graphs of climate change, desertification, and biodiversity are but "three legs of the same stool", Savory has this to say:

They are indivisible. Without biodiversity loss, you don't get desertification. It doesn't occur. Desertification is a symptom of the loss of biodiversity. Plant cover, litter cover on the soil. As simple as that. If you get bare ground forming it changes the microclimate. By the time bare ground is the size of the Sahara or the big deserts of Australia and so on it's changing macroclimate. What I'm saying to you is that if we'd never discovered fossil fuels we would still be facing climate change brought about by humans. ... There's just mass ignorance that we are dealing with because of our reductionist point of view. [emphasis added]
Anthropogenic climate change is the culmination of a series of decisions made by human beings. We have been adversely affecting the climate and ecology of the planet for tens of thousands of years. Deforestation and desertification are not new to the human story. What is new is the scale. Environmental degradation is, more often than not, the result of humans misunderstanding the relationships between elements in an ecosystem- usually our own. Anthropogenic climate change is accelerating due to the burning of fossil fuels and the subsequent environmental destruction these energy sources enable us to inflict upon the biosphere.

Savory then lays out a litany of symptoms of environmental malfunction- everything from desertification to violence against women and children. He explains that most of our governments treat these symptoms as separate issues (again, reductionist thinking rears its ugly head). If we are to alleviate these issues, we must stop treating them separately and look for the underlying problem- the way we interact with the biosphere.

Continuing with the theme that we would be causing environmental malfunction even without fossil fuels (albeit not as rapidly), Savory then looked for a common denominator across time and cultures that would explain how we arrive in a degraded state.

The answer is: human decisions. Savory then examines the mainstream view of the problems in Africa:

Overpopulation; Overstocking and overgrazing; Communal ownership of Land; Poverty and no access to capital; Lack of education & training; Lack western extension services
Sound familiar, especially the overstocking and overgrazing bit? These are taken straight from the UN, independent think tanks, and other paragons of mainstream scientific and rational thought. The first three of these are blamed the most for the environmental problems Africa faces. Savory explains that we are so sure, that the mainstream scientists have "total certainty," that these are the factors. Then he takes a look at West Texas because it has a similar climate.
"It is easier to look at Africa than it is to look at ourselves."-Allan Savory
West Texas is the polar opposite of Africa: low and declining population, few animals after 100 years of destocking (on land, not on feedlots), private ownership, great wealth and access to capital, well funded education and extension services.

Take a guess as to whether or not the lack of the "African" factors has allowed West Texas to remain a land of abundance. Since I do not have written permission to copy images from the lecture, I will point you to the time stamp where he begins showing images from West Texas- skip to 11:11. Ghost towns, sand dunes, and environmental degradation.

How can this be? If environmental degradation is caused by overpopulation, especially that of livestock, how can an area that is almost devoid of livestock be turning to sand?

Herbivores, including ruminants and grasslands co-evolved. If you remove herbivores from the grasslands, they die.
For images of American experiments with removing and excluding livestock from the land, skip to 13:00.10 We've been experimenting for over five decades, in some locations, only to find that without a functioning food web, grasslands die. Complete and total rest does not work. They must have their symbiotic partners acting in a natural fashion to survive.11

What is the natural fashion of herbivores in grasslands? They form herds. Why do they form herds? To protect themselves from predators, who due to the abundance of prey, can form packs. As Savory explains in this lecture- you don't find packs of tigers in the forests of India.

What happens when herbivores form herds? The land is heavily impacted- all the plants in a given area are grazed (not just the preferred plants). Heavy hooves push organic matter into the soil, such as the prodigious amounts of manure and urine that the herd leaves behind. This fertilizes the earth and decompacts the upper layer allowing for rainfall to infiltrate. No creatures enjoy living in their own excrement. One only has to look at a modern feedlot to witness why. Under pressure from predators and this simple fact, the herds then move on- disturbing a location for a day or so before exhausting their food resources.

How does this natural behavior differ from how most humans manage their livestock? First, we have done our best to wipe out as many predators of our domesticated animals as possible. We have destroyed the ecosystems which allow them to roam freely and we have systematically persecuted our competition. By securing safety for our livestock, we have removed the impetus to form herds. Now the impact of the animals is spread thinly, without concentration, and the animals are able to eat whichever plants they wish- allowing undesirables to finish out their life cycle and become "problems."  

The evolutionary link between grassland plant species and herbivores has been fundamentally broken by human action.

Managing livestock in this way can easily contribute to climate change and environmental degradation in brittle climates (while the results are slow to show themselves in humid ones). But what happens if we learn from nature and apply the principles of Holistic Management?

A teaser photograph from Montana shows itself soon after 43:00. For the "Results" section of the lecture, you can skip to 52:19. Savory shows photographs from the very same day in a Hwange community in Zimbabwe and a ranch where Holistic Management is being implemented.

I kid you not when I say that the results are similar to those at the beginning of this diary depicting the Loess Plateau in China.
8. This video is also freely available for download on Vimeo. Right click on the word "vimeo" at the bottom right, click "watch on Vimeo" and you will find a download icon with three options.
9. Even if it is about a paradigm shift in the way we interact with the biosphere, even if it gives hope that we may one day put back the remaining pieces of our ecosystems and live in a regenerating world. Made you look. Seriously though, the fun is just about to begin- I promise you!
10. Savory will continue for almost thirty minutes documenting the failure of our belief that total, as well as partial, rest will allow grasslands to recover.
11. Plants even react differently to the chemical signature of saliva from diverse sources. The relationship between herbivore and grass (and other species of plants) is one of the oldest in evolutionary history.


By following the example set forth by nature, it is possible to increase biodiversity, restore degraded landscapes, provide a means of income for people from the developing to first world, and increase the population of ruminants at the very same time. In fact, it is almost impossible to restore grasslands without restoring herbivores in their evolutionary role in the environment.

The implementation of Holistic Management is based upon common sense and is a framework that everyone can understand and implement. It is restoring grasslands and being implemented across the globe- even in humid environments by the likes of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms in Virginia. Holistic Management is turning conventional wisdom on its head and returning prosperity to ailing communities.

Here is yet another video, created as the Savory Institute's submission for TED's "Ads Worth Spreading" competition.

[In places that] haven't known water in 100 years in the dry season...we have open water, fish, water lilies, geese... no fear of droughts or floods. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are truly showing a way to address the most pressing issue that is facing humanity. [...] Is in line with the culture and livelihoods of pastoralists and agropastoralists. [...] Pastoralists are saying it is the first thing that has offered them hope in their lives of saving their cultures."

Livestock are not the problem.

Cattle are not inherently destructive.

The ecosystem services ruminants provide when managed properly restore rather than destroy.

The restoration of grasslands, savannas, and beyond, will sequester more carbon and do more to combat climate change than the damage ruminant emissions could ever cause in the process.

The way human beings manage livestock and the biosphere at large is the problem.

Additional Resources

[Note- I will be updating this list as I wait for comments]

Most pertinent: the Savory Institute.
The Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
Holistic Management International.

Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit. I'll have to do a diary on this documentary. It is astounding.

There are some excellent video presentations from last year's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from 2011 (around the time of the Convergence). John Liu's Green Gold also features the site and is probably newer than the 2011 pictures. If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence. Most were delivered in Bedouin tents near Wadi Rum.

You can also find a few more great documentaries in the first diary of this series- one about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods as well as a documentary about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian noted for his ability to cultivate citrus in the Alps.

My favorite books:

Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!

For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List. The article I linked to up top is also a great read.

There are plenty of materials online as well.

The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.

The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.

Originally posted to Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living on Fri Jan 11, 2013 at 12:58 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, Climate Hawks, DK GreenRoots, and Community Spotlight.

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