July-August  47
Forget he excible clims of celebriy
chefs nd food wriers: he mos
dmging of ll frm producs is
psure-fed me
Hat Yes: Cle No
Unsavory Alln exposed
By George Monbio
very industry has its apparatus of
justification. The more damaging
the industry, the greater the eort
spent constructing it. Few if any
industries are as damaging as
meat production, especially meat production
from ruminant animals, such as cattle and
The principal reason is their vast hunger for
land. Every hectare of land used for an
extractive industry is a hectare than cannot
be occupied by wild ecosystems. Cattle and
sheep ranching has destroyed more habitat
and seized more indigenous people’s land
than any other enterprise – and continues to
do so. Rainforests, dry forests, wetlands,
natural grasslands and savannahs have all
been converted on a massive scale to
Allied to this is the sectors massive
contribution to global heating. This has two
main components: the opportunity cost of
replacing carbon-rich habitats with carbon-
poor ones and the daily emissions of methane,
nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide from the
animals and the business of keeping, feeding,
transporting, slaughtering and processing
If we were to ensure that our food system
was compatible with a habitable and thriving
planet, the first sector we would phase out
would be cattle and sheep ranching. Forget
the excitable claims of celebrity chefs and
food writers: the most damaging of all farm
products is pasture-fed meat.
As centuries of history show, no industry
voluntarily throws in the towel. No industry
weighs the damage it causes against any
benefits it delivers and decides that, on
balance, the world would be a better place if
it didn’t exist. To sustain themselves in the
face of the evidence, damaging industries
must use public relations. The more damaging
they are, the more misleading the public
relations must be.
So where does the ranching lobby turn? To
a series of claims that, far from being one of
the most destructive of all industries,
ranching is in fact the planets saviour. That,
done the right way, ranching can contribute
to global cooling and the mass restoration of
ecosystems. The best-known exponent of
these claims is a Zimbabwean rancher called
Allan Savory. His Ted talk, asserting that if we
follow his prescription, “we can take enough
carbon out of the atmosphere” to “take us
back to pre-industrial levels” has been viewed
millions of times. It’s clearly a story people
want to believe, and the ranching and meat
industries have pushed and promoted it at
every turn. In their hands, it has a similar
intent and impact to a theme trumpeted by the
fossil fuel industry: “CO2 is plant food”.
I took it seriously and, drawing on all the
available scientific literature, thoroughly
investigated Allan’s claims. I found that they
were comprehensively and unequivocally
false. I wrote up these findings in my book
Regenesis, an extract from which I published
on my website.
The response, unsurprisingly, was a pile-on
by the ranching industry. Allan challenged me
to a debate, and large numbers of cattle and
sheep farmers on social media noisily insisted
I accept. I did so with some reluctance: partly
because such questions are best resolved in
the scientific literature, and partly because we
should be cautious about giving false claims
more weight than they deserve. Oxford
Universitys Museum of Natural History kindly
agreed to host us.
Popcorn emojis abounded, and the general
tenor of the response from the ranching
industry was “fight, fight, fight!. They were
convinced, as several maintained, that Allan
would “wipe the floor” with me.
48 July-August 
Well, to put it mildly, it didn’t work out that
way. You can watch the debate on Youtube.
Allan chose the title of the debate (it was
then tweaked very slightly by the moderator):
“Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating
climate change?”.
But on the night, he flatly refused to discuss
or even address the motion. He rambled about
military strategy, history, art, music and his
own career, and repeated one word over and
over: “oxidation”. He insisted that “oxidation”
occurs in dry places but not wet ones. Sorry,
what??? And that somehow this made all
discussions of climate impacts irrelevant. He
oered no explanation, let alone evidence for
this remarkable proposition.
In fact, he was unable even to say what he
meant by oxidation in this context. Did he
mean decomposition? If so, why use
“oxidation” instead? I can find no scientific
justification for the use of the word in this
context. But he used it so often that I started
thinking about General Jack D Ripper in Dr
Strangelove, endlessly raging about “bodily
In any case, it took us not one inch towards
resolving the motion of the debate. But as a
tactic, it was pretty eective. After all, you
can’t argue with mystical obscurantism. And
I must admit that it threw me. By the time I got
up to speak, I was so spun out by his tidal
wave of non-sequiturs and meaningless woo
that 30 seconds into my response I lost my
train of thought. This doesn’t happen very
Anyway, I recovered suciently to make my
points. I argued that if you are to show that
livestock grazing could mitigate climate
change, let alone is “essential” to it, you
would need to demonstrate that the following
conditions are met:
1. Carbon must be stored in the soil (not
just sequestered). You need to show, meeting
tests of statistical significance, that storage
is sustained across meaningful time
periods[1]. Any demonstrated carbon storage
must be additional, verifiable, and
attributable to the presence of livestock.
2. Any carbon storage has to outweigh the
current-account emissions of the livestock
operation: enteric methane, nitrous oxide, the
carbon dioxide produced by machinery, feed,
transport, slaughter, packing .…
3. Any carbon storage in the soil must also
outweigh the capital account greenhouse gas
losses: in other words the carbon opportunity
costs of not having the wild ecosystem
(including wild herbivores) that could
otherwise have occupied the same land,
minus the carbon costs of producing protein
by alternative means. This carbon opportunity
cost consists of a combination of below-
ground and above-ground carbon, both of
which should be accounted.
I argued that, after an exhaustive search, I
debate in the certainty that I would be routed
either fell uncharacteristically silent or
frantically sought excuses for Allan’s bizarre
and self-destructive performance. Some of
them claimed it was the wrong debate: we
should have been discussing a dierent
motion, or that I should have had it with
someone else, some mysterious personage
whom, despite repeated requests, they were
unable to name.
Some of them resorted to the same kind of
obscurantist wae that Allan deployed. They
claimed I didn’t understand the “deep
meaning” of the things he said. It’s true: not
only did I not understand it, I was unable to
detect it. But they have been unable to explain
it either. Nor, it seems, can Allan. If someone
can’t make themselves clear, it’s a strong
indication that they don’t know what they’re
talking about.
Several of them, including members of the
Savory Network, tried to explain the debate
as a clash between “holism” (Allan) and
“reductionism” (me). Reductionism is a term
often used by people who are freaked out by
empirical evidence. In reality, this was a clash
between handwaving and scientific evidence.
And sorry, but mystifying wae is the exact
opposite of holistic.
These desperate excuses merely highlight
the blow that this variety of greenwash
suered on that day in Oxford. Of course, the
apologists for this devastating industry will
not give up. They never do. They will find
another story, another way of duping people
who don’t have the time or resources to
investigate their claims. So this is no kind of
victory. But at least it will now be harder for
Allan Savory and his network to keep spraying
the particular variety of bullshit with which
they have splattered this issue, for so long
and to such great eect.
I promised a list of references, with key quotes,
for the statements I made in the talk. They can
be found at https://www.monbiot.
com/2023/08/02/all-hat-and-no-cattle/. This
article first appeared on www.monbiot.com
Monbiot nd Svory
Savory ws unble even
o sy wh he men
by oxidion in his
conex. Did he men
decomposiion? A  cic,
i ws prey effecive
could not find a study anywhere in the
scientific literature which shows these
conditions being met. On the contrary, I found
an abundance of evidence showing that these
conditions are highly unlikely to be met under
any circumstances, and that livestock grazing
– whether of Allan’s variety or any other –
contributes significantly to global heating.
How did Allan respond? He didn’t. He simply
repeated what he said in his presentation. He
didn’t even attempt to explain how it related
to the matter in hand. I kept trying to pull the
discussion back to the motion we were
supposed to be debating, to no avail. Instead,
he airily dismissed the importance of carbon
dioxide and methane. It was a weird and
meandering form of climate science denial. So
why did he insist on the title?
I can’t deny that I feel pretty angry about it.
I took the debate seriously and spent a long
time preparing, ensuring I was completely up
to date with the scientific literature. But he
showed no sign of having thought about it, let
alone of ensuring he was capable of
addressing his own motion. It was giant
exercise in trolling – wasting everybodys
time. I felt conned. But I felt worse for his fans,
some of whom had travelled to Oxford from
Scotland and Wales to hear him.
The debate was a powerful vindication of
the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, otherwise
known as Brandolinis Law:
The amount of energy needed to refute
bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than
that needed to produce it.
Except in this case, given the time I put into
preparing for the debate and the complete
absence of apparent research, thought or
preparation on Allan’s side, I would say it was
more like two or three orders of magnitude.
Anyway, I’ve seldom seen such a
spectacular implosion. The livestock farmers
who were crowing and strutting before the