Regenerative Farming: For Taste Buds and Profit or Ethics and Sustainability?

The terms “regenerative farming” or “holistic (grazing) management” are increasingly in vogue as the world tries to grapple with the stark reality of degraded soils, climate change and mass extinctions. It is often touted as a pantheon solution to feeding the world and storing carbon. As always, reality is far more complex and vested interests and belief systems and addictions are often lurking in the background of “breakthrough” concepts involving eating. Here is some discussion from both the perspectives of the ecological scientific community at large and proponents of animal-based regenerative grazing.

Questions:

– How much carbon is stored – is RF the best method of storage?

– Are grazing animals always needed to replenish soils and produce food?

– Do plants need grazers to flourish? What happens to “rested land”?

– Do viable plant-based alternatives exist (“veganic agriculture”)?

– How do ecological regional variations play into these systems?

– How scalable is animal-based RF as a strategy to feed the world?

– How much land does it need per calorie output?

– What are all the inputs and outputs in the system (hidden costs)?

– How does it compare with re-wilding to do the same job?

– How much re-wilding is prevented by land-requirements for RF?

– How many wild-grazers are displaced or prevented from reintroduction by RF?

– Where do the studies claiming benefits of RF get their funding – Are there any conflicts of interest to examine?

 

Key media promoting regenerative farming are the films “Kiss the Ground” (e.g. Netflix)

and a TED talk by “holistic management” proponent Allan Savory

How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change | Allan Savory

 

Criticisms

Overview of peer-reviewed articles and criticisms of regenerative agriculture claims
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSAz-A7S8ow&t=304s

 

2- part criticism

“Dr. Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council has shown, symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil, and human intervention was minimal to none. It is unclear, given that Savory has identified this type of arrangement as his ecological model, how marketing cattle for food would be consistent with these requirements. Cows live up to 20 years of age, but in most grass-fed systems, they are removed when they reach slaughter weight at 15 months. Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological “value” has been exploited undermines the entire idea of efficiency that Savory spent his TED talk promoting. ”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/aug/04/eat-more-meat-and-save-the-world-the-latest-implausible-farming-miracle

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html

“Savory’s narrative is compelling if you accept his idea that deserts are but rarely natural. For him ground that is bare, without grass, is desert and desert is not natural. However, deserts are indeed natural, and they are not simply bare ground areas. Secondly, he believes that deserts and desertification are the same thing. They are not. In fact there is much dispute over the definition of desertification. Wikipedia says there are over a hundred definitions.”

Deserts are indeed natural. They have existed for millions of years before any human influence. They have their own ecosystems, and they, like grasslands, can be degraded

http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/03/18/alan-savory-gives-a-popular-and-very-misleading-ted-talk/

Allan Savory: Myth And Reality

“In Savory’s universe, ungrazed land, known as “rested” land, will always wither away. “It’s just wrong,” said Brewer. A substantial number of studies on desert grassland have found that with rest, grass cover “increases dramatically,” while “intensive grazing delays this recovery.”

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2017-2-march-april/feature/allan-savory-says-more-cows-land-will-reverse-climate-change

“There are relatively few (11) peer-reviewed studies on the effects of holistic grazing that are
‘approved’ by the Savory Institute, i.e., included
in Savory Institute Research Portfolio”

https://publications.lib.chalmers.se/records/fulltext/244566/local_244566.pdf

“Three quantitative meta-analysis models were used to assess data sets from literature between 1972 and 2016. Weighted mean differences (effect sizes) between HPG and continuous grazing showed that there was no difference in plant basal cover, plant biomass and animal gain responses (p > 0.05). Thus, from the balance of studies, if animal impact is occurring during HPG, it has no effect on production. As interesting as the overall result is the significant between-study heterogeneity assessed using Cochran’s Q (p = 0.007 to <0.0001). Studies with positive effect sizes tended to have higher precipitation (p < 0.05), suggesting that only some rangelands have the resources to support HPG. ”

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319352952_A_global_assessment_of_Holistic_Planned_Grazing_compared_with_season-long_continuous_grazing_meta-analysis_findings_AFRICAN_JOURNAL_OF_RANGE_FORAGE_SCIENCE

Decline of elk and neocolonial aspects of “grass-fed”
https://newrepublic.com/article/163735/myth-regenerative-ranching?fbclid=IwAR1qfk16vuekBTyFk-VjtEEKKxHdgAoJ2EseUnr4QVM_zUmEnIt2MIMHxhk

 

“Savory asserts that his grazing practices are an attempt to mimic the bison that once roamed in the west. Apparently the cows can take the place of the bison in the ecosystem. However, “most plants west of the Continental divide evolved in the absence of large herding animals” (Wuerthner, 2003). “When Savory argues that centuries of large-herd grazing in the west maintained healthy grassland, he reinvents history. Until domestic livestock were introduced to the region some 150 years ago, the Great Basin and the desert Southwest were not heavily grazed for 5,000 to 10,000 years” (Raether, 2002). Taylor (2001) cites another source disproving this, Mack and Thompson’s 1982 (Am. Nat. 119:757) classic, which showed grazing adapted grasses of the prairie province were the only ones grazed. In the southwest, large grazing animals, such as bison, have not been around in any numbers since the Pleistocene.

Savory maintains this reasoning in why the land should not be overrested. He argues that without the presence of livestock the land will deteriorate. He claims that the bison also kept the land from deteriorating. However, the land cannot be overrested because all rangelands are grazed. Other herbivores graze as well, not only large livestock. In Yellowstone National Park researchers found that the biomass of grasshoppers is greater then all the other large grazing animals combined. In fact, the grasshoppers exceed the others by three times and are a major consumer of the plants (Wuerthner, 2003). In addition, “This concept has no basis in science and appropriately perhaps, none is cited. Over-rest is a value judgment by ranchers, who object to abundant dead foliage and unpalatability to livestock. Dead foliage has ecological and autecological values, such as carrying grassfires that prevent woody encroachment and protecting grass meristems from freezing, grazing and drought” (Taylor, 2001)

https://www.goshen.edu/bio/Biol410/bsspapers03/Laurestajp/laurestajp.htm

 

Comparing cattle and bison numbers

Bison numbers historically: 30-60 million estimated pre 1800.

https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bisonfaq.htm

Cattle and calves in the USA 2001 2021
93.8 million

https://www.statista.com/statistics/194297/total-number-of-cattle-and-calves-in-the-us–since-2001/

Pre 1800 there was 1. much more natural forest cover, storing carbon, 2. much smaller human population size and extraction of large grazers for food etc. Consider the resulting changes in methane outputs.

 

Is “regenerative grazing” the new “clean coal”?

A widely cited study promoting regenerative grazing

2020 White Oak Pastures and General Mills study

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984/full

 

Analysis of above study. Hidden costs

https://plantbaseddata.medium.com/the-failed-attempt-to-greenwash-beef-7dfca9d74333

 

“Savory asserts that his grazing practices are an attempt to mimic the bison that once roamed in the west. Apparently the cows can take the place of the bison in the ecosystem. However, “most plants west of the Continental divide evolved in the absence of large herding animals” (Wuerthner, 2003). “When Savory argues that centuries of large-herd grazing in the west maintained healthy grassland, he reinvents history. Until domestic livestock were introduced to the region some 150 years ago, the Great Basin and the desert Southwest were not heavily grazed for 5,000 to 10,000 years” (Raether, 2002). Taylor (2001) cites another source disproving this, Mack and Thompson’s 1982 (Am. Nat. 119:757) classic, which showed grazing adapted grasses of the prairie province were the only ones grazed. In the southwest, large grazing animals, such as bison, have not been around in any numbers since the Pleistocene.

Savory maintains this reasoning in why the land should not be overrested. He argues that without the presence of livestock the land will deteriorate. He claims that the bison also kept the land from deteriorating. However, the land cannot be overrested because all rangelands are grazed. Other herbivores graze as well, not only large livestock. In Yellowstone National Park researchers found that the biomass of grasshoppers is greater then all the other large grazing animals combined. In fact, the grasshoppers exceed the others by three times and are a major consumer of the plants (Wuerthner, 2003). In addition, “This concept has no basis in science and appropriately perhaps, none is cited. Over-rest is a value judgment by ranchers, who object to abundant dead foliage and unpalatability to livestock. Dead foliage has ecological and autecological values, such as carrying grassfires that prevent woody encroachment and protecting grass meristems from freezing, grazing and drought” (Taylor, 2001)

https://www.goshen.edu/bio/Biol410/bsspapers03/Laurestajp/laurestajp.htm

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