But so-called “regenerative ranching” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. – Spencer Roberts, June 14, 2021
In recent years, cattle ranching has been championed as everything from a solution to industrial agriculture, soil degradation, and even climate change. But so-called “regenerative ranching” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
…emitting greenhouse gases is far from the only damaging environmental side-effect of ranching. In the United States alone, studies have shown that it vectors the spread of invasive plants, endangering endemic flora. It accelerates the erosion of stream banks, clouding waterways and propagating harmful algal and bacterial growth.
It [ranching] desiccates streams, groundwater, and aquifers, diverting them into pastures, stock tanks, and feed crops. It encloses vast expanses of land within fencing, entangling wildlife and inhibiting migration of native grazers like elk, pronghorn, and bison.
It [ranching] entails the trapping, hunting, and poisoning of predators and “pests”, such as prairie dogs, coyotes, and wolves. It promotes the wholesale destruction of ecosystems such as sagebrush and pinyon-juniper forests by methods such as bulldozing, chaining, and even napalm air strikes to create more range land.
It [ranching] produces vast quantities of effluent waste, polluting waterways and washing into river deltas, begetting hypoxic marine dead zones. It incubates zoonoses such as mad cow disease. It expropriates immense quantities of crop yields that could be used more efficiently to feed humans directly.
It occupies an estimated 60% of global agricultural land while providing only 2% of calories consumed worldwide. And although the regenerative ranching movement posits itself as an alternative to the industrial feedlot system associated with many of these repercussions, virtually all grass-fed cattle in the United States spend the final quarter or more of their life in a concentrated animal feeding operation.
The proliferation of industry messaging has been less successful in altering the scientific consensus, but has provided an orchard of alternative narratives, ripe for cherry-picking.
[B]etter management of grass-fed livestock, while worthwhile in and of itself, does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon. This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate.
The godfather of regenerative ranching, however, is a man named Allan Savory. Savory rose to prominence in the United States after a breakout TED talk, a media venture by CNN founder and ranching tycoon Ted Turner. Savory now has a consulting firm, an online school, and a farm certification. The consensus among ecologists—and even many ranching scientists—regards him [Savory] as a crank, but he compares himself to Galileo, claiming that it’s impossible for peers to review his methods of holistic range management. Regardless, his theories are flattering to business and convenient to consumers, which means they still find plenty of advocates in media.
Agribusiness not only funds an increasingly significant proportion of agricultural research in the United States, but a number of state-mandated marketing programs. In 1985, during the Reagan administration’s campaign to fleece federal lands for privatized grazing, congress passed the Beef Promotion and Research Act, placing a small tax on cattle sales to fund industry advertising in public spaces, which has grown over the years with the expansion of the industry.
…ranching industry infiltration into the academy is vast, including on-campus slaughterhouses built with industry funding and parallel institutions such as range ecology and animal sciences, which help to avoid peer scrutiny of industry scientists’ business-related priorities in conventional ecology and zoology departments.
…the ranching industry’s extensive public relations strategies also help to promote ranching pseudoscience in the more progressive corners of popular culture. Ranching has been promoted as a means of combatting climate change in media outlets such as The Nation, The Guardian, Scientific American, and CNN.
The scientific reality is that the concept of sustainable carbon-negative ranching is little more than meat marketing mythology.
In short, Savory’s basic theme is a variation on what has been called “short duration grazing” or “mob grazing.” Under such scenarios livestock, typically cattle are tightly herded through a confined pasture (small pastures) or rangeland so that the animals cannot be selective in their choice of food. Then the livestock are moved rapidly on to the next grazing area, and the previously grazed area is rested from livestock for an extended period of time, so the plants can recover and regrow. Savory’s advocacy for monitoring and careful attention to livestock plant utilization is consistent with well-established range management principles.
However, many of his observations about animal behavior, plant ecology, evolutionary history and carbon storage are well outside the accepted scientific consensus. And these ideas can lead to damaged ecosystems and in the case of his ideas about livestock and global warming may actually be counterproductive—leading to greater GHG emissions if implemented according to his ideas.