I, for one, am grateful for Salina Journal editor Roshana Ariel's comments and research. Agree with her or not, she is direct, honest, self-revelatory--and offers many new perspectives for consideration. Most importantly, she doesn't pretend to be chief surfer on any ideological wave.
Her October 19 column had a lot of meat on it, and in it. Plenty of food for thought, from the Hamburger Project's future lab-produced meat to Allan Savory's TED talk, where he claimed we can save the world from becoming a desert--and even mitigate global warming-- through better livestock grazing. That's one tall order.
Especially because beef has always been problematic. Many argue that the most direct protein delivery is straight from plant to stomach, bypassing all the energy and cost, in dollars, water, and calories, to raise cattle or other livestock. Yet steakhouses proliferate, and many fast food chains are still thought of as 'hamburger joints,' even though they serve chicken strips and salads. There is no denying the appetite for beef.
In pursuit of this appetite, staggering acreages are planted to water-thirsty and input-hungry corn, much of which goes (after our other addiction, automobile ethanol) to feed cattle. Far-too-cheap permits for livestock grazing on federal lands remains controversial and contributes to habitat destruction.
Compounding those negatives is the demand for greater and greater production of bigger and bigger cattle.
Perhaps the ugliest example of this trend taken to extremes is the new Belgian Blue. Anyone asking, "Where's the beef?" need only google "Supercow" to get an idea of what the beasts look like. Their sculpted, heavily muscled appearance, known as "double-muscling, " is a heritable condition which results in increased numbers of muscle fibers. It is One. Big. Ugly. Cow. So big it can barely stand on its own. Although leaner (a virtue, for some producers), the beef yield per cow is huge.
This big cow trend, however, has come into disfavor among some cattlemen who have been inundated by large dollar requirements for grain, antibiotics, and other inputs. Back even in 2010, the Kansas Rural Center hosted a Kansas Graziers Conference to investigate raising smaller animals. As presenter Kit Pharo then said, "(Many) Western Kansas ranches were put together and paid for with 350-lb. calves, and now those same ranches are struggling to make it with 600-lb. calves."
So, in the midst of all this doom and gloom for the cattle industry, comes Allan Savory, whose news is, well, savory. At its heart, Savory's recommendation is for 'rotational grazing,' which utilizes moving cattle to different pastures, whether permanently fenced or with mobile electric fence, or moving them by cow herders. All this controls grazing impacts for the health of the land, the animals, and the people who raise and eat them.
I first became enamored of Savory because of an email from Tim Hobson. Tim, now deceased, was one of the most persistent researchers and evangelizers in the Resilience Group. One day last year, he sent out Savory's TED talk to the group for discussion. Savory grabs attention particularly with his claim that wise grazing practice can not only reclaim deserts, but likely reduce spreading deserts, thus combatting global warming.
Other farmer/cattle raisers echo his claims, though not focusing on the climate change argument. Kit Pharo practices rotational grazing. Joel Salatin, featured in recent food films "Fresh" and "Food, Inc.", grazes rotationally. As he states on his Polyface Farms website: "This natural model heals the land, thickens the forage, reduces weeds, stimulates earthworms, reduces pathogens, and increases nutritional qualities in the meat." A former college colleague of mine, now full-time farmer/stockman Dale Strickler, regularly has a graziers' forum at the Kansas Rural Center. When I phoned, he confirmed his long-term and beneficial use of the moving-paddock practice.
Heartening news, all round. Certainly, reclaiming desert land is a goal few would reject.
But the rub comes in Savory's claim that this can be a solution to climate change--not to mention his added claims of increased productivity, water infiltration and utilization, nitrogen availability and carbon sequestration (two possibly competing claims).
As some scientists pointed out in our Resilience discussion, peer-reviewed studies reject such sweeping claims. Convincing as Savory's TED talk is, gripping graphics and swelling music do not a convincing argument make.
It's good to seek solutions. It is, however, unwise to pin our hopes on any magic bullets. Savory or unsavory, the only way to work our way out of world-wide threats to our existence is by working together intelligently, not savior-seeking. And that's no bull.