By John King, author of Curiosity – Farmers Discovering What Works, and facilitator of Beef + LambNZ-sponsored Curious Cockie Clubs
In early July, Oxford University hosted Allan Savory and George Monbiot to debate whether livestock are essential to mitigating climate change.
Everybody understands Monbiot’s position: livestock are parasites and provide a token service to the planet’s wellbeing. Their gases are a primary cause of climate change and all should have their heads chopped off. The situation is this simple.
Savory argues that even if livestock produced 20 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, what other tool is there to deal with oxidising grasslands in the desertifying landscapes occupying two-thirds of the world’s land surface? So why is that a problem and how does it supersede carbon and climate change?
If climate change, loss of biodiversity and desertification are three sides of the same coin, what did New Zealand farmers miss?
In desertifying areas, oxidising grass leads to bare and eroding soil. This results from dead, tall tillers preventing light reaching growing points at a plant’s base for new tillers to emerge. Without disturbance these plants die, oxidise and release topsoil, which drifts and clogs up empty waterways.
As evidenced when reducing wildlife in Africa or livestock in the western United States, landscape function declines, reducing water infiltration and photosynthesis, which is key to sequestering carbon.
As landscapes erode, their ability to support human communities declines, creating mass migration to wealthy democratic countries, producing social and political unrest. Unless eroding topsoil is addressed, the Western world will continue to suffocate under migration pressures, something NZ is sheltered from.
The global fascination with commercially focused technologies to reduce GHG emissions never addresses this problem. Investors, their lobbyists and policy makers never see value in time-proven livestock ecology relationships.
Demonstrations confronting the universal belief that removing livestock heals landscapes are easily found in NZ’s alpine high country. It’s the reason Department of Conservation boundaries are often distinct on Google Earth, all due to a lack of disturbance. It begs the question: is this how DoC’s policy of resting land is contributing to global warming because it creates bare soil and reduces photosynthesis, further exacerbated by cutting down wilding pines? Are civil servants and their consultants fuelling the global climate emergency by overriding government policy?
Savory’s perspective is that science only readily accepts three tools despite everybody thinking there are many: technology, fire and resting land. As mentioned above, resting desert lands cannot address oxidising grass because it removes disturbance. Burning grass just adds to GHGs, which leaves us with technologies. But how do you scale technologies to solve the problem without adding more GHGs?
Look at how much energy and financial resources go into growing grass intensively in the high country. Imagine the amount of irrigation, water, nitrogen and debt that is required for that on a global scale. Monbiot has no examples of how this can be accomplished without debt-driven technology.
At least livestock herds are carbon-based, self-replicating resources. How much more carbon would the world’s deserts hold if managed as livestock-developed pastures, something pastoralists have been demonstrating but which is invisible to intellectuals who miss the practical significance.
Even the Bible says livestock creates deserts but it’s blaming a resource (livestock) rather than its management (pastoralists). Every NZ farmer knows grazing management is key to production and pasture composition. Poor management leads to a decline in both. Education and time management are solutions here, not technology. It’s no different to blaming cars for road deaths when in fact it’s driver behaviour.
So why is livestock the solution to desertifying environments? Biological decay. Landscapes with year-round moist soil surfaces decompose dead plant material. Deserts severely limit that process. However, livestock replace decomposition by fermenting biomass, all driven by free energy, sunlight. Rumen moisture and gut microbes substitute what happens in soil elsewhere. As Savory asks, what scalable tool other than livestock can achieve this? It’s a point consistently beyond conservation and livestock agencies around the world.
Monbiot rightly points out the problems of livestock production and its capture by large, well-funded corporations and institutions, but then so are the laboratory-grown food substitutes in the utopian world he promotes. His ecological understanding is limited to the United Kingdom, where rewilding is now the great saviour, the same tool DoC employs because it works in moist environments. Where rainfall is unreliable and disturbance absent, as the high country shows, ecology declines just like the US’s western national parks and two-thirds of the world’s land area.
Savory’s focus these days is policy as he contends all the world’s problems come from how humans make decisions. This was made clear to him in the early 1980s teaching 2000 US government personnel in policy workshops, where they discovered people make decisions in the same way. It led to one group of professionals claiming all US policy was unsound. Savory argues global migration is symptomatic of poor policy design, reflecting nothing has changed despite there being more scientists and economists than ever.
As global carbon policies divert resources away from people to feed themselves and generate economy where they are, how can the world ever be at peace? Rural decline leads to social unrest. As Savory has stated for 50 years, unless deserts return to grasslands, which also ties up carbon, expect social and political instability to increase along with atmospheric carbon levels while livestock numbers decline.