24 Mar Is “regenerative grazing” the new “clean coal”?
The term “regenerative grazing” has become prominent in recent times. The development may indicate that relevant livestock sector participants have increased their PR efforts in response to extensive criticism of the sector’s devastating environmental record.
Proponents appear to have characteristics in common with those who promote so-called “clean coal“. 
Firstly, the claimed benefits appear to be greatly exaggerated, with inadequate consideration of the negative consequences.
Secondly, proponents generally come from within the sector.
Finally, like many who promote fossil fuel use generally, proponents of so-called “regenerative grazing” tend to demean peer-reviewed science to the extent that it does not support their position.
This article comments on three who are promoting such methods and presents material that challenges their position.
Allan Savory: Placing “regenerative grazing” in the spotlight
One of the key proponents of “regenerative grazing” is Allan Savory, who gained much attention following a 2013 TED talk with the grand title, “How to green the desert and reverse climate change”. 
Although Savory has since denied claiming that his approach can reverse climate change, it is difficult to interpret statements from his presentation and website in any other way. It would seem that TED’s administrators also feel the title reflects his statements. Besides, is there much difference between such a claim and his subsequent claim that his methods can “address” climate change? 
Food Climate Research Network: Challenging the claims
Savory’s claims have been challenged by many commentators. Critics include the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), based at the University of Oxford. In its 2017 report, “Grazed and Confused“, and subsequent material, FCRN refuted many of the claims of Savory and others who support his approach. [4, 5] [Footnote 1]
Although the FCRN authors have said that good grazing management at the right stocking rate (compared to poor grazing practices or conversion to cropland) can help to maintain soil carbon stocks, they concluded that the overall results were negative.
Here are some of FCRN’s main points:
Extentof sequestration is overstated
Carbon sequestration by soil (through plants absorbing carbon dioxide) is
time limitedand reversible.
The Savory Institute assumes: (a) sequestration rates that are multiples of peer-reviewed estimates; (b) a constant rate of sequestration over a 40 year period despite the likelihood of it falling over time as the soil approaches carbon equilibrium, after which emissions and removals are balanced; and (c) an area of grassland globally that is 43
per centhigher than the estimate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [6, 7]
Taking into account those factors, the rate and extent of sequestration claimed by Savory, upon which the claimed ability to address climate change is based, are grossly inflated and erroneous. Whereas the Savory Institute claims that 500 gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon could be sequestered over 40 years, peer-reviewed sources estimate a maximum sequestration potential from any means of 12-60 gigatonnes over 25 to 50 years. Those figures compare to the 555 gigatonnes (+/- 85 gigatonnes) emitted globally since the beginning of the industrial revolution. 
- Soil microbes do not absorb methane from animals
Increased stocking rates that are generally proposed by proponents of “regenerative” grazing would significantly increase methane emissions. According to the IPCC, over a 20-year time horizon, methane is 86 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. 
Contrary to claims by Savory,
soilin his systems will not absorb methane to a meaningful degree, if at all.
It is true that methanotrophic bacteria, which may be present in pasture soil, use methane as an energy source.
However, soil rich in such bacteria can only absorb 17 kg of methane per hectare per year in ideal conditions, such as those found in old growth forests. The absorption rate in grasslands is much lower. Unlike methane emitted by termites, most methane emitted by animals is not in contact with the soil, meaning that virtually none of the methane is absorbed. 
A single cow can emit around 110 kg of methane in a year.
Ten cattle can emit 1.1 tonnes.
1.1 tonnes from ten cattle with no absorption by soil.
That’s certainly not going to address or reverse climate change. [Footnote 2]
- Farm animals emit nitrous oxide.
The excrement of farm animals emits nitrous oxide, another prominent and potent greenhouse gas. After allowing for climate-carbon feedbacks, its global warming potential is 298 times that of carbon dioxide over a
100 yeartime horizon, and 268 times over 20 years. 
- Grazing activity does not meaningfully promote plant root growth.
Evidence in support of proponents’ claims regarding the depth of plant roots in response to grazing (a fundamental component of claims regarding carbon sequestration) is mixed.
Some studies indicate that root biomass is reduced following above-ground defoliation, while others show that it is associated with both increases and decreases in root mass. 
- Manure is not magical
FCRN has observed that manure seems to have acquired a “quasi-magical” status within the grazing community, with the animals seemingly creating something from nothing.
Although manure and urine have the virtue of delivering nitrogen and other nutrients to soils in a form that is available to plants, they add no new nitrogen to the overall farming system. They simply redeposit the nutrients that have been embodied in plant matter grown locally or introduced in animal feed.
A serious negative effect of manure and urine is that much of the nitrogen deposited will leave the system in the form of ammonia or nitrous oxide, or via leaching and run-off, with extremely adverse environmental impacts. Some of the nitrogen also leaves the system in the form of the animal carcass or milk. 
- Animals’ trampling action is not beneficial.
The FCRN authors state that evidence in support of positive claims regarding the trampling action of animals is
lacking,and that a very considerable body of evidence highlights negative consequences. 
Some of those negative consequences result from the breaking of soil crusts in arid and semi-arid grasslands. The crusts consist of bacteria, algae, mosses, and lichens. They are essential elements of those ecosystems, and “help to stabilize soils, increase soil organic matter and nutrient content, absorb dew during dry periods, and fix nitrogen”. 
- Grazing animals supply a negligible share of the world’s protein
Grazing animals supply around 1.2
per centof global protein intake and 3.1 per centof the protein obtained from animals (including sea animals). 
per centof our average protein intake comes from plant products. The protein we obtain from animals, including grazing animals, could easily be replaced by plant products.
- Carbon can be sequestered without animals
Many land management options have
potentialto achieve carbon sequestration in soils and in above groundbiomass. Afforestation, reforestation andrewilding cause carbon to be sequestered above and below ground. (This aspect is addressed more fully below.)
In croplands, options and potential options include adding carbon-rich matter to soils (such as green manure, compost, crop residues or biogas
digestate); and management options that reduce carbon losses, such as reduced tillage or growing perennials to reduce soil disturbance.
Legumes can also be planted to add nitrogen and stimulate plant productivity, thereby increasing carbon inputs to soils.
Other options include catch crops (which grow rapidly between plantings of
a maincrop), crop rotations and intercropping, which maintain vegetation cover and ensure year-round carbon inputs.
In a nutshell:
“The potential contribution of grazing ruminants to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate. The ambitious claims made by advocates of grass-fed livestock about grazing as a significant mitigation opportunity are thus unfounded.” 
“. . . there is no room, environmentally speaking, for more animals.” 
Charles Massy: Sheep farmer and author supporting animal agriculture
Australian sheep farmer and author, Charles Massy, is a prominent proponent of “regenerative” grazing and other forms of “regenerative” agriculture. He has developed a teaching model which is partly based on Allan Savory’s work, as outlined in his 2017 book, “Call of the reed warbler”. 
Like others promoting such methods, Massy writes unfavourably about aspects of conventional (or as he describes it, “mechanically minded”) science.
Rather, he promotes what he calls the “Emergent” mind, which involves, in its application to creative landscape management, “relinquishing the need to control . . . and instead embracing the deeper connections to Earth and its universe (even, for some, pursuing subtle energies and ancient pathways), and to be spiritual”.
Massy has written positively about various people using “cosmic energy forces”; “positive thought” energy; “planetary” energy; and “Earth and stellar” energies.
He says that one of the many farmers whose stories he told was “unsullied by overtraining in educational institutions”.
That statement reminded me of Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown” (referred to below) indicating that published (peer-reviewed) papers had been unable to “taint” one of thepeople featured in the book, who had been promoting increased farm animal numbers.
One of those featured by Massy had a “breakthrough” that “came from the ancient practice of geomancy”.
Massy describes “geomancy” as “being able to divine subtle-energy flows in the landscape”. He said the person “had learnt to accurately water-divine from an old uncle”.
A footnote in the book describes “subtle energies” as “a range of esoteric, hard to measure energies emanating from lunar and planetary influences, and also from within our own Earth”.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “geomancy” as “divination from the configuration of a handful of earth or random dots”. It defines “divination” as “the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means”.
The fact that the person involved has won environmental awards provides little comfort. I have previously highlighted concerns over various awards, such as Banksia Foundation awards for Meat & Livestock Australia. They included an educational award despite the fact that MLA was providing erroneous climate change information to school children (including primary level) in so-called “study guides”. 
The FCRN authors (referred to earlier) noted: “Observant, motivated, knowledgeable, highly skilled farmers are more likely to achieve better outcomes on their farms than bad managers.”
That comment can apply to farmers within and outside animal agriculture, as can Massy’s reference to “natural intelligence agriculture”.
Here are some other concerns with Massy’s work:
Methane not mentioned
In over 500 pages, Massy did not use the word “methane” or its chemical symbol, CH4.
That is despite the gas conservatively representing around 44 per cent of the livestock sector’s greenhouse gas emissions globally (expressed as CO2-equivalent emissions). 
When a 20-year time horizon (rather than standard 100-year period) is used for converting methane to a CO2-equivalent, its share increases to around 70 per cent.
Also of note is that methane emissions are far more significant in grass-fed animals than in grain-fed. [22, 23]
Concerns regarding a study cited by Massy
The closest Massy may have come to addressing the previous point was referring to a study published in 2016 into carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions on a New South Wales sheep and cattle farm between 1980 and 2012. 
The study, which the authors declared had been “supported” by Dairy Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, reported that carbon sequestered on the property far exceeded emissions.
However, the study authors utilised out of date “global warming potential” (GWP) figures for determining the impact of the various greenhouse gases, thereby understating the emissions. They utilised figures from Australia’s national greenhouse gas inventory report for 2011, which was published in 2013. That report, in turn, utilised figures from the IPCC’s 1995 Second Assessment Report. 
Updated figures, with increased multipliers for methane, were released by the IPCC in its fourth and fifth assessment reports, released in 2007 and late 2013. Allowing (as should occur) for climate-carbon feedbacks, the warming impact of methane had increased by 62 per cent in the 2013 report, from a multiple of 21 (in the 1995 report) to 34. Even without those feedbacks, it had increased by 33 per cent to a multiple of 28.”
Why would the study authors not utilise the most recent IPCC figures, which had been released two years before their study had been submitted for publication?
They had also utilised the standard 100-year time horizon (GWP100). The IPCC has indicated that the choice of time horizon is a value judgement. A shorter time horizon, such as 20 years (GWP20), is critical in the context of climate change tipping points, beyond which we can lose any chance of influencing the climate system in a positive manner. Methane’s updated GWP20 was four times the GWP100 figure used for the study.
Even where GWP100 was used, study authors would generally enhance the discussion if they were also to report on a GWP20 (or shorter) basis.
Using the alternative GWP100 and GWP20 figures would have increased on-farm emissions reported in the study from 2,800 tonnes (CO2-equivalent) to around 4,200 and 9,500 tonnes respectively.
Another important feature of the study was that 61 per cent of the carbon sequestration occurred in trees, with the farm’s owners planting around 220,000 on 115 hectares during the study period. Furthermore, the planting of trees aided carbon sequestration in soils due to the fact that more roots were available to break down into the soil.
Another 30 hectares contained virgin forest, while 100 hectares were grasslands used for grazing.
19,300 tonnes of carbon was sequestered in trees and 11,800 tonnes in soil. It would seem likely that a higher level of sequestration would have been achieved if trees had been planted across the remaining grasslands. Certainly, if the sheep and cattle had been removed, greenhouse gas emissions would have been negligible.
The stated soil sequestration rate was equal to that which Allan Savory has claimed would be achieved on a global scale for “regenerative” grazing. As indicated earlier, FCRN believes it is unrealistic on such a scale. (Refer to further comments on sequestration rates below.)
Massy has highlighted the progress of a grazing business in outback Australia toward adding 600 water points (including bores and related infrastructure) across the property. Beef production is extremely water intensive, and developments such as the one described (along with others he referred to that were adding bores) may place considerable strain on the underlying water table, with detrimental effects elsewhere.
Researchers Arjen Hoekstra and Mesfin Mekonnen of the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the Water Footprint Network have concluded :
“Replacing all meat by an equivalent amount of crop products such as pulses and nuts will result in a 30% reduction of the food-related water footprint of the average American citizen.”
“Managing the demand for animal products by promoting a dietary shift away from a meat-rich diet will be an inevitable component in the environmental policy of governments.”
Increasing number of farm animals
The business involved in the previous point intended to increase the number of farm animals five-fold.
Multiplying farm animal numbers is a common feature among those involved in “regenerative” agriculture.
As mentioned earlier, the planet cannot tolerate more farm animals, particularly when they emit large volumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
Unrealistic sequestration figures
Massy has stated :
“. . . I can say to you with the utmost conviction that regenerative agriculture can save both [sic] the planet and renew human health at the same time.”
I comment on the health aspects below.
In terms of “saving” the planet, a key focus is carbon sequestration.  Like Allan Savory (referred to earlier), Massy’s claims regarding sequestration appear to be unrealistic.
Massy mentioned the issue in a radio interview with ABC presenter, Philip Adams, a fellow animal farmer.  The interview was an example of questionable claims not being challenged by those in positions of influence, in this case someone with similar interests to the author.
Along the same lines, Adams’ wife and fellow animal farmer, Patrice Newell, provided a testimonial for Massy’s book.
Loss of tree cover
In a paper in the journal Science from June 2018, researchers Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek indicated that a general transition to an animal-free diet would reduce food production’s land use by 76 per cent or 3.1 billion hectares (31 million square kilometres).  That is an area similar to (but slightly larger than): (a) Africa; (b) four times the contiguous United States; and (c) four times Australia.
The massive area involved reflects the gross and inherent inefficiency of animals as a food source, and would provide enormous opportunity for reforestation, afforestation and rewilding.
In the Australian state of Queensland, livestock-related land clearing has been responsible for 10 million hectares of land clearing since 1988, representing 91 per cent of total clearing. The clearing has occurred at the rate of 46 rugby fields, or 72 American football fields, per hour.
Measurements since 1995 have distinguished between remnant and non-remnant clearing. Conservatively assuming that livestock production’s share of remnant clearing has been the same as its share of total clearing, it has been responsible for the loss of 3.6 million hectares of remnant vegetation.
Legislation and anticipated legislation concerning livestock-related land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales was the reason WWF included eastern Australia in a list of global deforestation fronts in 2015 (and recently re-confirmed).  [Footnote 3]
Much of the clearing in Queensland has been in a massive area known as the Brigalow Belt, which extends south from Townsville in the Queensland tropics into New South Wales. It is classified as a threatened ecological community under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
It once extended across 96,492 sq km, distributed among 10,136 patches of vegetation. It has been reduced by 87% to 12,665 sq km distributed among 48,618 patches, primarily due to cattle production. [32, 33] [Footnote 4]
In discussing one of his favourite birds, the yellow-faced honeyeater, Massy blamed the loss of habitat, including the “brigalow lands of south and central Queensland”, on “the giant machines of modern cropping agriculture”. He erroneously omitted any mention of clearing for cattle grazing.
General environmental impacts
Poore and Nemecek (referred to earlier) have stated that the conversion by ruminant animals of grass dry matter to human-edible by protein involves immense environmental impacts “under any production method practiced today”.
Where is the looming global protein shortage?
Massy claims there is a “looming shortage in world protein”. As indicated earlier, grazing animals supply a negligible share of the human population’s protein intake.
Based on a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Minnesota, we could feed an additional 3.6 billion people globally by transitioning away from animal agriculture.
The paper’s lead author, Emily Cassidy, has said :
“We essentially have uncovered an astoundingly abundant supply of food for a hungry world, hidden in plain sight in the farmlands we already cultivate. Depending on the extent to which farmers and consumers are willing to change current practices, existing croplands could feed millions or even billions more people.”
Massy may not like the current food system, but that does not change the fact that it is capable of addressing the tragedy of world hunger.
According to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the United States could feed 350 million more people than at present by adopting the same approach. 
A paper from researchers at the Institute for Social Ecology, Vienna, published in April 2016, reported on the potential to avoid further deforestation while feeding a growing global population.  They considered 500 food supply scenarios using forecasts for crop yields, agricultural area, livestock feed and human diet supplied by the FAO. The lead author, Karl-Heinz Erb, has stated: 
“The only diet found to work with all future possible scenarios of yield and cropland area, including 100% organic agriculture, was a plant-based one.”
Massy claims significant human health benefits from his approach to animal agriculture but fails to comment on the overwhelming evidence of adverse health outcomes from consuming animal products.
An April 2016 study by researchers from the Oxford Martin School (University of Oxford) reported on the health and climate change benefits of changing diets, including reduced consumption of animal products. The researchers estimated that if the global population were to adopt a vegan diet, 8.1 million lives per year would be saved by 2050. 
More than half the avoided deaths would be due to reduced red meat consumption. The results primarily reflect anticipated reductions in the rate of coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
The results are consistent with findings of the World Health Organization, the World Cancer Research Fund and researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, the German Institute of Human Nutrition, and elsewhere. [39 – 43]
Although Massy has done much to reduce the incidence of mulesing (a cruel practice involving the removal of large sections of skin) in the wool industry, he appears oblivious to contradictions regarding his attitudes toward animals.  He frequently refers to ethics and love for the planet and its inhabitants, while ignoring the unnatural processes of birth and death involved in the sector in which he operates.
For example, he refers to the joy of watching lambs play in spring sunshine, while ignoring the fact that they were engineered into life through forced breeding, solely to be used for their wool and eventually slaughtered for their flesh.
He also notes proudly that, when young, he learnt to “hunt with gun and rifle” and to “kill and butcher a sheep or a steer”.
He describes the confinement of animals in cages and feedlots as representing “a culture of death”, while ignoring the premature death of animals that are used as products in the pastoral sector.
In another example, he casually notes that one of his interviewees would shoot parrots with a shanghai (slingshot) when young. Three pages later, he opens a chapter with a poem about “one bird sitting quietly on a leafless tree branch”.
Paul Hawken and Drawdown: Excessively relying on animals
“The Project Drawdown concept has much merit, but its excessive support for animal agriculture appears to conflict with its stated aims.”
Ignoring conventional science
Consistent with others who support “regenerative” grazing and similar approaches, Drawdown ignored or dismissed conventional scientific commentary that failed to support it.
This meant that it was promoting approaches that lacked scientific credibility despite its claim that the book was “scientifically valid” and based on “meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world”.
Emissions from increased number of farm animals effectively ignored
In terms of “managed” grazing specifically, the Drawdown authors casually noted that the calculated sequestration of 16.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050 “does not reduce the 10 gigatons of methane that are emitted on that grazing land today”.
That comment was somewhat vague, but regardless of the specifics, a key point is that the supposed sequestration benefits would be overwhelmed by an increase in farm animal numbers on a scale generally proposed by proponents of such methods. [Footnote 5]
The same problem may apply to other measures involving animal-based food consumption.
It would be accentuated by the application of a 20-year time horizon for determining the global warming potential of the various greenhouse gases, as referred to earlier. That approach would be far more consistent with Drawdown’s 30-year time frame than the standard 100-year GWP time horizon, but has not even been alluded to by the authors.
Plant-rich diet: An opportunity missed
Drawdown rated a “plant-rich” diet as number 4 of 80. It would have been higher if: (a) more than 50 per cent of the global population (as proposed) adopted the measure; (b) the people adopting the measure reduced animal-based food consumption by more than the amount proposed; (c) resultant reforestation, afforestation and rewilding were attributed to this measure; and (d) a 20-year global warming potential was utilised.
In relation to point (b), Drawdown’s online analysis assumes that those who reduce their meat intake will consume an average of 57 grams of red meat per day. That is equivalent to two average steaks per week or 20.8 kg of red meat per person per year. That is actually higher than the global average of 20.4 kg. For those located in two high meat consuming countries, the USA and Australia, it would represent a reduction of 55 – 60 per cent in red meat consumption.
When our ability to retain a habitable planet is at stake (no pun intended), the measure seems overly modest.
The analysis provides no indication of any reduction in consumption of: (a) animals classified as “poultry”; or (b) sea animals. The respective annual average global consumption per person is 13.5 kg and 17.2 kg, representing total average annual consumption of specified animal products of 51.1 kg per person. [47, 48].
Consumption of sea animals has a significant, under-reported global warming impact, with (for example) loss of kelp forests and vegetated coastal habitats. 
State-led restrictions in animal-based food production and consumption may become attractive to the Chinese government in terms of climate change mitigation. The nation may be facing massive water shortages due to the climate induced loss of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and the related loss of natural controls over seasonal water flows. In 2008, the potential impacts were described by Australian climate change researcher David Spratt as “global and mind numbing”. 
We need not rely on livestock production to feed the global population
Despite a claim to the contrary in Drawdown’s online information regarding managed grazing , there is much evidence, including material referred to in this article, indicating that a general transition to a vegan diet could easily feed the planet’s growing population. (Of course, there would be exceptions.)
Overstating the potential benefits of intensive silvopasture
The authors initially significantly overstated the sequestration rate of intensive silvopasture (another measure involving animal-based food products), which they had said “may sound too good to be true”. It was eventually found to be precisely that, and an erratum on the website subsequently reduced the figure by 70 per cent. 
To the extent that people continue to consume animal products, any measures to reduce related global warming impacts are welcome. However, we face an existential crisis in the form of climate change, and a general transition away from animals as a food source is essential.
Paul Mahony is an environmental and animal rights campaigner based in Melbourne, Australia. He has presented to The Greens, Sustainable Living Festival, Australian Climate Action Summit, and numerous university, Rotary and Probus groups. His articles have also appeared on national and international websites, and his campaigning efforts were featured in the book “Guarding Eden” by Deborah Hart. His website is planetaryvegan.net.
- Institutions participating in the “Grazed and Confused” research were: Universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Cambridge, and Wageningen; the Centre for Organic Food and Farming (EPOK) at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland; and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia.
- In terms of its global warming potential, the methane released is equivalent to 95 tonnes of carbon dioxide on a GWP20 basis.
- Land clearing laws depend very much on the government of the day in the eastern Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland Labor government introduced a partial ban on broadscale land clearing with effect from December 2006. The partial ban was overturned by the conservative Liberal National Party government in 2013, only to be reinstated by the Labor government in May 2018. In New South Wales, the Native Vegetation Act was repealed by the conservative Liberal-National coalition government in late 2016, with an anticipated increase in land clearing.
- The University of Queensland has estimated that the extent of Brigalow forests was 130,000 square kilometres, with a reduction of 92% in 60 years to around 10,000 square kilometres. 
- Within the section on managed grazing, the authors acknowledged the detrimental effect of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. However, their point was less clear than it could have been, as they erroneously referred to “net sequestration”; nitrous oxide does not contain carbon atoms so does not affect net carbon sequestration rates.
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