Science has the answers, so don’t expect one: holistic grazing

Recently I was informed about a very moving and inspiring TED talk by Allan Savory on holistic management: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change?

(To make it clear: ‘holistic management’ is in this context not a way to lead organizations in a wholesome way, providing the best chances for every individual to gain an optimal spiritual balance and peace of mind while performing his/her duties that no longer feel as such, but become a true joy and a source of fulfillment in life – or some management fad along those lines, which would be the result of crossbreeding a commercial organization with a 1960s hippie commune. Holistic management refers here to the way we use the land we live on in such a way that it produces food for the human population and at the same time does not deteriorate into an unusable state.)

Savory’s TED talk is moving because it is about a man in his late 70s speaking about a subject in a way that shows emotional and intellectual commitment, and also life-long experience and enthusiasm with the subject of land management. It is inspiring because Savory presents a compelling argument of why his approach to land management should work on a worldwide scale and present a solution (or part thereof) to two major global issues: climate change and food supply.

The gist of Savory’s idea of holistic management is that desertification can be prevented by periodically letting large numbers of cattle trample the land and graze last year’s growth. This periodic trampling would increase the soil’s capacity to hold water, so run-off of rainwater is reduced and the land becomes more fertile. Because it becomes more fertile, it would also be better able to sustain the large numbers of cattle required for the periodic trampling. Thus, by maintaining a carefully managed grazing cycle, the land becomes less prone to desertification and can sustain a human population that feeds off the animal protein provided by the grazing cattle. Coincidentally, the holistically managed, periodically grazed and trampled land would capture more CO2 due to increased plant growth.

Savory’s argument is inspiring because it is laced with evidence of projects in his decades-long career in which he experimented with his holistic management approach. Several cases are presented, including stunning ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs, showing tracts of land turning from arid and depressing deserts into lush, green environments, sometimes in the span of just a few years. Savory presents a seemingly simple solution to major threats against mankind – a juicy steak for millions of people being merely a side effect of the chosen approach.

Of course, Savory’s ideas are completely at odds with common wisdom in land management, according to the man himself. The average environmentalist would apparently say: “Preventing desertification by dramatically increasing the number of livestock? Outrageous! Everybody knows that the reverse is true – taking away the pressures of overgrazing is key to letting the land heal.”

A message like Savory’s, which goes against the grain of the dominant opinion in his domain, is wont to draw attention. As I write this, over a million of people have viewed his video on the TED website. Are we witnessing a paradigm shift?

Not so fast – recently, Slate published a response under the appealing title ‘All sizzle and No steak‘. The author, James McWilliams (Assistant Professor of History at Texas State University), draws into doubt both the reasoning behind Savory’s approach to land management as well as the evidence presented by him. McWilliams points out a number of conflicting views. The positive effects of periodic trampling in terms of moisture retention are contradicted by evidence, the brief life cycle of cattle bred for their meat would bring the risk of depleting the land even quicker of its potential to sustain life, and let’s not forget that arid desert ecosystems are a legitimate habitat and ‘state of being’ for land.

After viewing both the TED talk and reading the Slate article, the innocent layman (which I myself certainly am, in this matter) will be left confused, wondering “which of these guys is right?” Because, clearly, they both can’t be both right. For policy makers and land owners, the answer should be important: the right approach to land management would be fundamentally different if viewed from the Savory or the McWilliams perspective.

This then, is in my opinion a classic example in which science fails to deliver in the eyes of the public. I will probably not be the only one to be stuck with the so-who’s-right-here question, and I imagine that many people will voice their exasperation at the failure of science to provide a clear answer to major questions, even after decades of research.

Obviously, there are no easy answers to complex issues such as desertification, land use and the food supply. They involve many systems that interact in myriad ways – systems that we do not fully understand in separation, let alone the emergent effects rising from their interactions.

Perhaps what bugs me in the Savory vs. McWilliams story is this: one side (Savory) claims to have a solution that looks (at least as first glance) deceptively simple, but also counter-intuitive. The other side claims that the solution just can’t work and disputes the evidence presented in support of it. Neither side of the argument spends much attention to the question of how feasible straightforward answers are in a complex case like this anyway. In my opinion, science cannot have the pretense to have an answer at all – it can only provide insight in the mechanisms at work and the dilemmas posed. Most academics, as far as I can tell, acknowledge this. And yet, this does little to reduce the exasperation and fatigue of the general public with the failure of science to come up with a clear answers in complicated, multi-level issues.

Science, then, has a profound marketing problem. I believe it is exacerbated by the lack of patience of the popular media and the systematic underestimation of its public. I am convinced that anyone will accept that a complex issue cannot be simplified by adding thousands of pages of scientific argumentation to it.

So let’s not pretend that science has all the answers, especially the easy ones. Let’s take science for what it has been doing very well for centuries: as a source of inspiration to try new things and ask new questions.

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