A revolutionary take on livestock production may prove to be the ultimate weapon for ranchers and producers in their fight to reverse the ecological negativity now attached to meat production.

In a succinct and well-stated commentary Wednesday, Drovers/CattleNetwork Editor Greg Henderson laid out the specifics of a remarkable presentation by an equally remarkable advocate of livestock production, Allan Savory.

Commentary: Savory’s herding instinctSavory’s speech to the prestigious recently concluded TED conference outlined a radical idea: Not only should we sustain cattle and livestock production, we should increase it—dramatically—across millions of acres of grasslands worldwide.

If we wish to forestall the ravages of climate change, ensure food security for billions of people around the world and restore agricultural productivity across two-thirds of the planet’s land mass, that is.

Otherwise, never mind.

The genius of Savory’s research, which as Henderson noted, has been proven on five continents over the course of several decades, is that it provides the industry with an argument—and a philosophical position—that is inextricably linked to the most powerful force activists constantly call upon in their attempts to demonize meat production: Nature.

Pin down an activist who opposes beef production—not literally, tempting as that might be, but figuratively—as to why humanity shouldn’t continue raising cattle as has been done for the previous 20,000 years, and ultimately you’ll arrive at his or her preferred destination: It’s not “natural,” it’s not ecological, it’s not something that’s environmentally sustainable.

By raising farm animals, so the argument goes, we’re wasting non-renewable resources, expending unnecessary energy growing feed instead of food crops and indulging in top-of-the-food-chain dietary practices that are nether sustainable nor desirable from a personal or planetary health perspective.

Oh, and by the way? Meat is murder and animal husbandry’s abusive and anyone who participates in the process or consumes the products resulting from raising livestock is stupid and selfish.

Do as Nature does, not as activists say

But those are secondary arguments.

The current meme anti-industry activists have embraced is less about the horrors of slaughtering—since that was never an issue people could stay focused on—nor the dietary downside of meat-eating—since that’s far less capable of generating traction—nor even the looming threat of food-safety—since mountains of polling data show that people care when there’s an incident, then forget all about it afterwards.

No, the most powerful and promising tactic for activists to pursue these days involves flogging the notion that raising livestock equals environmental destruction. That so-called “industrial agriculture” is ruining the global ecosystem. That every time somebody eats some beef, a little piece of the environment is sentenced to death.

That’s why Savory’s research, which demonstrates that running large herds of grazing animals on acreage that is either too arid to support row cropping or that endures seasonal dry months precluding the survival of year-round vegetative cover, is the best—and only—way to prevent habitat destruction, soil erosion and massively negative impacts on agricultural productivity and climate change.

But the best part of that scenario is that the reason having cattle, sheep or goats roaming the land is a good thing is that it mimics what Nature established millennia ago: Massive, nomadic herds of bison, caribou and other grazing animals that fertilized the soil, cropped the vegetation to prevent shrubs and woody plants from replacing grasses and broke up the “scale” that tends to form on untrammeled soil, such that the often meager rainfall that does occur fails to penetrate the soil.

The key, Savory explained, is large herds and constant movement, the closest approximation humans can deploy to substitute for what Nature originally put in place to maintain environmental sustainability.

That means not only that the notion of vegetarianism itself is as dead as some of the barren landscapes in Africa, Asia and right here in the United States, areas where livestock have been specifically excluded to “preserve” the land, but that in order to make herding economically feasible, meat needs to regain its position at the top of the food chain and in the center of the plate.

If you care about the environment, if you’re worried about climate change, if you’re concerned as to how we’re going to feed another three billion people by 2050, now you have the solution: Start running livestock across as much of the world’s semi-arid grasslands as possible, using the eminently workable model Savory has perfected.

That will improve millions of acres of currently denuded land areas, add billions of nutritious calories to some of the world’s neediest populations and create a powerful counter-effect to the continued problem of excessive greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the future viability of global agriculture.

And it once and for all puts an end to the foolish supposition that soybeans will save us, if only we would stop eating meat and embrace vegetable proteins as our primary food.

From a scientifically sound, ecologically aware, globally conscious perspective, that idea is now officially D.O.A.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.