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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

No, Cattle Grazing Won't Save Us From Climate Change


Holistic Cattle Grazing: Allan Savory’s Big Idea

Can eating beef save the world?

Can we turn back desertification and fix climate change by grazing livestock better?

I was shocked to discover many think so.

Not long ago I came upon Allan Savory’s famous 2013 TED Talk arguing that grazing ruminants like cattle, sheep, and goats can pull massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and regenerate dying landscapes. And not a little bit, either, but all the way and then some. It’s stated right there in the title: “How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change.”

At first, I scoffed at the idea grazing could accomplish these feats. How ridiculous! No easy answers exist for wicked problems like these, especially when the solution (grazing) has historically been part of the problem. But I did some digging and learned how today thousands of ranchers worldwide are practicing Savory’s holistic grazing methods.

Savory didn’t come out of nowhere. The octogenarian Zimbabwean livestock farmer and head of the Savory Institute has been fine-tuning his Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) methods for decades. This is no quacky charlatan with a grand theory and no experience to back it up. He’s done the work by experimenting in the field to see what works and what doesn't. He thinks he’s found a solution. So he stepped up onto the TED Talk stage and took those ideas mainstream.

The 22-minute video hits all the right emotional and intellectual buttons we’ve come to expect from TED Talks and does so with a confident, soothing guru vibe tailor-made for the Youtube age. After all, what is a TED Talk but an extended elevator pitch for someone’s mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting idea?

Anecdotes and before-after photos from his forty-plus years of field experience lent credibility to his claims, priming the audience to conclude that there is only one way out of the climate crisis: grazing, and not any old grazing, but Holistic Planned Grazing. He didn’t hide behind qualifiers and caveats, either. No way. You don’t hedge with a TED Talk. You go big.

According to him, nothing else will save us.

There is only one option. I repeat, there is only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind(TedTalk)

Only one option to fix a multi-faceted problem; only one man with the answer; either we do it this one way, or we’re doomed.

My bullshit detector started going off.

Toward the end of the talk, he concluded with the following attention-grabbing claim:

People that know far more about carbon than I do calculate for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you here [holistic grazing], we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere, and safely store it in the grasslands and soils, for thousands of years. And if we just do that on about half of the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels, while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity. Thank you(TedTalk).

Chew on that for a moment. We can return to pre-industrial levels of carbon by grazing on enough of the world's grasslands. That’s quite a provocative claim.

And it's rubbish.

Rubbish or not, the TED Talk turned Savory into a celebrity. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Tweeted after the talk, “Eat MORE meat?” Michael Shermer from Skeptic Magazine proclaimed this was “moral progress in climate change," echoing sentiments of conscientious omnivores worldwide hungry for optimistic news amidst the daily drumbeat of climate doom.

Savory won awards. He got speaking engagements. Documentaries explored his hopeful theory. His time in the spotlight was at hand.

I sensed reading the Youtube comments a renewed hope from people desperately seeking solutions to climate change that didn't involve any sacrifice. Well, here was a man with a solution served up with a cheeseburger.

Savory has become a kind of eco savior for many, a piped piper of wishful thinking, a grandfatherly figure telling people they can have their beef and eat it too while solving the climate crisis.

That’s a problem.

Because you know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true….

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Is Holistic Planned Grazing the Answer?

Some quick stats for context: Almost half (46%) of the world's habitable land is used for agriculture, equaling 4.8 billion hectares (11.4 billion acres). Over three-quarters (77%) of this agricultural use supports animal agriculture through grazing or growing the crops used to feed livestock. That comes to about 3.7 billion hectares. Even so, animal agriculture’s enormous ecological footprint yields only 18% of our calories. It’s a tremendously inefficient way to feed ourselves, not to mention the environmental damage and biodiversity loss that comes with it.

Savory knows that grazing is viewed as a major contributor to desertification (TED Talk 4:15). According to the Savory Institute’s website, 70 percent of the world’s grasslands have been degraded, making land more vulnerable to desertification. However, this number is probably greatly exaggerated, with much of the scientific consensus ranging between 10-35% (Nordborg 23). Some of this can be blamed on overgrazing, though droughts and the cumulating effects of climate change play roles.

This should lead to an obvious conclusion: If grazing is at least partly to blame for desertification, then we should have less of it. Right? Having fewer or no livestock on the land will help it recover faster. Right? Leave the land alone and let Mother Nature do her thing.

Not according to Savory. Counterintuitively and controversially, he wants to double down on grazing despite its lamentable environmental track record. He contends we’ve just been going about it the wrong way, that’s all. The problem isn’t too many domestic ruminants roaming the planet’s grasslands but too few.

The way to avoid all of the traditional problems associated with grazing is to take a more “holistic” approach that doesn’t treat the environment like a resource to be exploited and works instead to integrate livestock operations in more sustainable ways complementing and invigorating the lands they are on. This is the heart of Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) method.

As we saw, Savory claims HPG could solve overgrazing, desertification, and, as a major bonus, climate change. But at its core, it’s really just an integrated decision-making framework to help manage complexity. Ranchers pay the Savory Institute to become certified holistic land managers, using his holistic principles for more intentional decision-making on how to graze their animals. Everything must be factored in, including social and economic factors, climate, season, acreage available, ecosystem type, vegetation species, and soil health, to name a few.

When this is done right, Savory argues that grasslands are regenerated and massive amounts of carbon are sequestered in the soil. This happens by moving large, tightly-packed herds through small areas where they intensely graze for short periods, though not too long or we’re right back to classic overgrazing. Before this happens, the herd moves on, giving the newly-grazed paddock sufficient time to recover before the herd returns to feed again.

Maybe that’s a year, maybe two, maybe less. It all depends on the circumstances.

Concentrations of fertilizing dung, urine, and a layer of freshly trampled grass help supercharge plant growth and regenerate the soil. The process enriches the soil and supports stronger grass with deeper roots, resulting in a healthier grassland better able to store water, support livestock, and sequester carbon.

This is a simplified version of how Holistic Planned Grazing works. Of course, there’s more to it, but that’s the gist of it. Under the right circumstances, HPG delivers on its promise of locally reversing desertification and greening degraded landscapes. I want to be clear about that. HPG can be much better for the land than traditional grazing. That said, localized success here and there doesn’t translate into a global fix for climate change, far from it. But there are other problems.

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Holistic Grazing and Carbon Storage: Hype vs. Reality

The basis for Savory's claim that holistic grazing can reverse climate change is its increased carbon storage potential. Holistically-grazed land promotes more carbon sequestration. The big question is how much and whether that is enough to support his climate change claim. The answer is almost certainly not.

The claim falls apart when you look at the numbers. Pre-industrial (circa 1750) atmospheric CO2 levels were around 280 PPM. Today, we’re over 420 PPM and counting, so we’re talking about a drop of 140 PPM from current levels, even with all the other existing emissions from burning fossil fuels. Reverse all the desertification you want, it won’t take carbon levels back to pre-industrial levels by grazing alone.

Nevertheless, the Savory Institute claims that employing its grazing methods could remove around 500 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere over 40 years, equating roughly to the 555 billion tonnes emitted since the Industrial Revolution.

To make this even theoretically possible, at least 2.5 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year (2.5 C/ha/yr) would need to be sequestered on 5 billion hectares of grasslands over 40 years (Grazed & Confused 57). This is highly unlikely.

A 2016 study by Maria Nordborg from Sweden’s Centre for Organic Food and Farming noted that an average hectare can store only 0.35 t C/ha/yr, many times less than the 2.5 t C/ha/yr figure used by the Savory Institute. This is roughly in line with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 0.3 tons C/ha/year, and on the average compared to other studies.

In favorable circumstances, that number might reach 0.80 tons C//ha/year. But even if we generously applied the 0.80 figure across the board to “only” 1 billion hectares, which has long been the Savory Institute’s 2025 goal, and not the fantastical 5 billion casually tossed out in the TED Talk, this will only account for 5% of emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, that would help, but we only get this far more modest figure by using a highly optimistic soil sequestration scenario, which is frankly still quite unrealistic (Nordborg 29). In short, Savory vastly overestimates the amount of carbon re-sequestration that is possible which fatally undermines his TED Talk claims.

Moreover, soil carbon sequestration is a slow process taking decades, with the most significant gains coming early on. As time passes, the soil becomes saturated and no longer absorbs carbon. This means the long-term sequestration potential of a given piece of land is limited.

Which leads to another big problem: methane. As holistically grazed lands slowly reach a soil-carbon equilibrium (assuming competent and consistent management over extended periods), livestock continues to emit methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon.

The livestock sector’s contribution to climate change is already around 14.5%, with 39% coming from ruminant methane emissions, disproportionately from cattle (Gerber et al., 2013). The uncomfortable fact is, methane emissions matter if your plan calls for larger herds on the land like Savory’s.

The Savory Institute waves this concern away, arguing that methane is not a significant contributor to warming because it sees no evidence of a correlation between livestock methane emissions and rising methane levels in the atmosphere.

As proof, he asks us to look back in time. Though the pre-modern world was filled with mass herds of wild grazing ruminants like bison and wildebeest, methane levels didn’t rise as you might expect. In fact, over the last 650,000 years, methane levels never exceeded 788 parts per billion (ppb), and were usually below 600 ppb. Interestingly, only since 1750 has methane risen to today’s levels of around 1800 ppb. If methane is such a big deal, why didn’t levels rise with all those tens of millions of bison roaming the Great Plains?

Yet this argument doesn’t hold up because it overestimates the populations of pre-modern wild and domestic ruminants and underestimates current their populations. The estimated number of domestic ruminants worldwide in 1500 was around 130 million. Similar estimates for wild ruminants (bison, wildebeest, giraffe, etc.) in 1500 stand at 165 million, for a global total of just under 300 million wild and domestic ruminants. Now compare this with today’s numbers, which stand at 3.8 billion, of which 1.5 billion are methane-spewing cattle (Nordborg 44).

Nordborg states,

These estimates suggest that the global population of large ruminants (cattle, buffaloes, horses and wild ruminants combined) increased by more than a factor 6 during the past 500 years. During the same period, the number of cattle alone increased by more than a factor of 20. At present, the global population of domestic ruminants is approximately 50 times larger than the global population of wild ruminants.

The conclusion: Methane emissions likely outweigh any benefits from carbon sequestration. In fact, the spike in atmospheric methane suspiciously coincides with the start of the Industrial Revolution and the massive expansion of industrial animal farming.

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Holistic Grazing and Scalability: The Reality

Two other limits to holistic grazing don’t receive enough attention: scalability and human competence. Both are linked.

First, the scalability issue: Numbers out of context don’t mean much, so here’s another reason why holistic grazing won’t save the world from climate change. As of 2023, Savory’s website claims that 21.7 million hectares are regenerating thanks to Holistic Planned Grazing. For some perspective, that's about the size of Idaho, or a little smaller than Romania or Ghana.

While that’s impressive for a small outfit like the Savory Institute, it represents a tiny drop (4%) in the ocean out of the 5 billion hectares (grassland or cropland) Savory quoted in his 2013 TED Talk.

This matters because it shows how, once you set aside the TED Talk hype and the Youtube testimonials and focus on reality, there is little reason to believe this is the solution we’ve all been waiting for. It’s not and probably never will be.

The Savory Institute’s “big, audacious goal for 2025 has long been to “influence the management” of 1 billion hectares of land with 100 accredited holistic management Hubs.But even this more modest goal remains far off as we fast approach 2025.

Think of it this way: Imagine you had a New Year’s Resolution of losing fifty pounds by the end of the year by going on some trendy new diet. But now it’s November and you’re only down two. What do you do?

Perhaps lower the target and extend the time to reach it? That’s what happened here. The Savory Institute’s 2021-2022 Annual Impact Report reveals a more modest goal: 500 million hectares holistically regenerating by 2030. Even that will be hard to reach on the current trajectory.

Why does this matter? Because it shows the limited global impact of holistic grazing so far, even a decade after exploding onto the scene with this TED Talk. Whether it delivers greener deserts as promised or not is frankly secondary at this point when it comes to climate change. It's not working fast enough to make a difference, not at this rate, nor when you factor in the absolutely depressing countervailing trends like deforestation and rising consumer demand for animal products.

Savory is an ardent critic of the current agro-business model and its “reductive and mechanistic” mindset that sustains this status quo. He’s right about that, but it also highlights just how mismatched this contest is between small, idealistic ranchers trying to save the world one pasture at a time and the malevolent Agro-Cthulhu slaughtering 80 billion land animals a year on the altar of our appetites. This industrial monster of our own creation feeds us at the expense of our planet.

Some examples to hammer home the point.

In America's arid mountain west, a century of subsidized overgrazing continues on public and private lands that never had large herds of native grazing animals in the first place, and with predictable results: desertification. Savory seems to confuse desertification, which is caused by grazing, drought, and climate change, with natural deserts like the Great Basin, the Mojave, and the Chihuahuan Deserts. There's a difference.

Natural deserts all have their own native grasses and wildlife that have evolved to survive in drier climates. Introducing mass herds of cattle risks destabilizing these beautiful but fragile ecosystems. And who loses when the choice is between a rancher's livestock and the native wildlife competing with them for the same limited resources? You guessed it: Wildlife “pests” are culled in the tens of thousands to protect livestock from predators and other resource competitors.

Deserts don't need grazing cattle to save them; they are natural ecosystems worthy of conservation on their own merits. Leave them alone. This is a great point that Idaho-based conservationist Dr. Allan Maughan made in an article written in response to Savory's TED Talk.

Animal agriculture's footprint in the American Southwest also extends to water use. Over half (56%) of the Colorado River’s finite and drought-strained water resources go to prop up animal agriculture where it otherwise couldn’t exist.

People blame the two-decade drought (it is a desert, after all) for the Colorado River's woes, which is partially true. But really, a large part of the blame goes straight back to our misappropriation of its water resources to maintain environmentally wasteful enterprises.

Now zoom out, and these countervailing trends are even more overwhelming: Brazil and the United States exemplify the industrial meat model, whereby tens of millions of hectares are dedicated to growing grains that feed our livestock that end up feeding us. Globally, 80% of soybeans go to feed livestock. The United States, the largest producer of corn, dedicates 48% of corn crops for livestock feed. That translates into tens of millions of hectares of grasslands converted into croplands which are terrible at storing carbon.

Around 6 million hectares of forest are lost every year, mostly to clear space for even more animal agriculture. The biggest driver (80%) of deforestation in the Amazon is the creation of new grazing lands for cattle. The remaining 20% goes to plant new soybean fields, grown mainly to feed livestock.

Over 800 million trees were cut down in the Amazon over the last six years to make more room for beef. All that natural carbon sequestration potential is gone. And that’s only the Amazon. Since 1970, 17% of the world's largest rainforest has vanished to feed our food. That translates into 83 million hectares of rainforest gone in the name of beef. And that's only in the Amazon.

I could go on and on and on, these are but a few examples to highlight the mismatch we have here.

Holistic grazing isn’t to blame for all of these other depressing trends. It wants to slay this monster and get us back onto a more sustainable course. But that’s not happening.

Against this sobering tally, I'll remind the reader that holistic grazing can today boast 21.7 million hectares regenerating.

So who is winning here? Where does the momentum lie? Many hectares of rainforest disappear and grasslands morph into cropland for every hectare of holistically restored grassland.

It’s no contest. The monster wins. It always wins.

Gimme another cheeseburger!

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Holistic Grazing and Application: The Human Factor

Rapid scalability is even more challenging because Holistic Planned Grazing is complicated with a steep learning curve for those who haven’t done it before. The truth is, managing complexity is complex. HPG only works when implemented the right way. That might seem obvious - you can say that about anything - but it’s an important point where the environment is involved.

After all, you find the usual factors which plague any human endeavor. People often screw things up. They’re half-assers, bumblers, corner cutters, and hit-or-miss when it comes to attention to detail, even when you give them detailed instructions. They’ll miss some things, forget others, overestimate expertise, or underestimate complexity. HPG only works when its core principles are understood, executed, and then tracked meticulously every step of the way. In other words, professional competence is mandatory. Amateurs need not apply.

Imagine a bell curve of competence, but now for grazing management. On one end, you’ll have those who do it by the book and get the promised results. They’ll snap before and after photos, write testimonials, and make Youtube videos touting the success of holistic grazing, all reinforcing the idea that this is the magic solution to our problems. And why wouldn’t they? It worked for them.

But you’ll have quieter cohorts on the other end of the spectrum who don’t succeed, either because they didn’t apply Savory’s principles precisely as prescribed or because the ecosystems were too brittle for grazing in the first place. Those won’t become Savory Institute testimonials.

As the authors of the 2017 “Grazing and Confused study point out, the defense of holistic grazing can sound tautological: good managers succeed because they manage well (G&C 56). Inversely, bad managers fail because they don’t manage well.

Do you see the problem? This gives holistic grazing a circular way of claiming success and dismissing failure. Advocates also have a ready-made rebuttal to scientific field studies that question specific claims like those made in Savory’s TED Talk.

Forget bad grazing management for the moment. How does HPG work when only average ranchers do it? Do they achieve the same results? If they fail, are they dismissed for not following instructions? It’s their fault. They did it wrong. Doesn’t count. If they had done it right, it would have worked.

Good managers manage well. Bad managers manage poorly.

This performance spectrum ties back into the scalability problem. Holistic planning takes skill. Some will have it; some won’t; most will fall somewhere in the middle.

Suppose you scale up too fast without the necessary training and tutoring the Savory Institute provides. Then the results will be more akin to standard grazing, which is to say, shitty for the environment.

Or suppose it doesn't scale up fast enough to roll back climate change, as is the case now.

What then?

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Final Thoughts: Are We Screwed?

I get it, though. We’re bombarded daily with climate catastrophism, so it’s natural to latch onto anything that looks like a way out. Even if HPG is not the magic solution that Savory claims, he and his acolytes are staunch critics of the current industrial farming model that is transforming the planet into a vast meat harvesting machine dedicated to feeding our junkie addiction to animal flesh.

Holistic ranchers at least understand the business-as-usual model is leading to more desolation, more extinction, and less biodiversity, and it rightly terrifies them, as it does me. So at least they’re trying to find a way out. I don’t fault them for that.

But they’re addicts too, wanting guilt-free meat without all the environmental cost. It’s possible in some limited sense, but not anywhere on a scale that will meet consumer demand, even if we pretend as Savory does that there’s enough potential grazing land out there to meet everyone’s needs. There just isn’t.

Think about it for a moment. Grazing is already a significant contributor to desertification and thus a factor in climate change. Are we really going to bet on more of the same in the hope that it will be different this time?

Can we believe that just a few tweaks in grazing techniques will solve our climate problems? Mitigate them a little bit, maybe? Sure. But reverse? Not a chance.

Do we cling to the hope that enough people will practice HPG with the kind of top-tier performance needed, and over several billion hectares, to make even a modest dent in climate change, never mind turning it back altogether to pre-industrial levels?

Does that sound reasonable? Does that sound like a good plan? It’s fantasy.

Concerns like mine, and posed by far better-trained experts, have taken their toll on Savory, whose tone in recent years has devolved into what I would describe as defensively cranky.

The post-TED Talk honeymoon swoon Savory enjoyed also brought some badly-needed scientific scrutiny. Much of that has been critical, calling out Savory for making misleading or grandiose claims and overstating the applicability and effectiveness of holistic grazing. His famous Youtube video now has a note and a link stating scientists hotly dispute his claims.

He hasn’t taken it well, and spends quite a bit of time these days waxing philosophical about how radical and innovative new ideas like his are always shunned by the scientific establishment when they first appear.

He indirectly compares himself to Galileo, which says a lot about how he sees himself and how invested he is in believing he has found the solution to climate change and desertification. This nudges him uncomfortably close to ideology, not actual science, which is accepted only when it validates his priors.

And so we get the aggrieved and besieged tone of Late-Stage Savory, who spends less time inspiring TED Talk-style hope and more bitterly complaining about narrow-minded scientific villains who can’t see the truth that’s looking them in the face. Here we have a genre example of the beleaguered guru, the solitary man of genius battling against the malevolent mob of status quo thinkers who want to persecute him and his beautiful ideas. Allan Savory stands alone, bathed in the revealing light of truth, the clear-eyed iconoclast whose radical ideas will ultimately triumph no matter how much today’s establishment mocks them. History will vindicate him. He's sure of it.

The posture of the ridiculed visionary feels like a way to deflect legitimate criticism. Not every maverick’s big idea will save the world. Sometimes the scientific consensus is correct, or at least more correct than the alternatives. Not every iconoclast deserves to be worshipped.

Savory routinely caricatures his critics as out-of-touch university academics who put far more stock in peer review than in field observations. Their pathetic university educations suffocated any ability to think critically for themselves.

This isn’t fair, and he often sounds guilty of his own reductivism, preferring to reduce his critics to flimsy little strawmen he can beat up in front of friendly, like-minded audiences. That’s not hard nowadays when trust in institutions and expertise is at an all-time low. Yet what’s more reductive than believing one, single idea can solve so many climate and environmental problems?

The fact is we’re going to need a myriad of approaches to solve climate change if we're going to have even a remote chance of getting through the next hundred years without massive climate disruptions. Holistic Planned Grazing might help some, though not much, and far less than Savory claimed in his TED Talk.

You know all the boring stuff we have to do. You've heard it a thousand times. It's not complicated at this point to identify the way forward, though the collective will to do what needs to be done is still lacking.

Dramatically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will be a good start. But so will developing innovative clean alternatives that can run our high-tech civilization without filling the atmosphere with carbon and methane. And, yeah, eating a lot less meat is going to have to be part of the solution.

More than anything, if Mother Nature is to sustain us going forward we must stop treating her like a giant factory farm. And we must do so very soon. Human prosperity is inexorably tied to hers. If we ruin our planet, we ruin ourselves. Maybe not today or next year, but finally, a reckoning must come. The choice is ours. And the consequences too. There is nowhere else to go, no backup planet, no do-overs.

Savory understands what's at stake. He knows the clock is ticking and we don’t have much more time to fix this. He also understands success will depend on engaging Mother Nature on her terms “holistically,” if you will.

Unfortunately, his remedy is not the panacea he claims it to be. It won’t stop what’s coming. Nor will it do much to slow it down. The best we can do is brace for impact. The worst is yet to come and there's so much we haven't done to prepare for it.

This is the point in the essay where I finish up with some uplifting bit of inspiring nonsense to leave the reader feeling hopeful for the future.

But if you wanted a happy ending, you came to the wrong place.

This isn't a TED Talk.


Supplementary Materials


Sources Consulted

Dondini, M., et al. “Publication Preview Page : FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 23 Feb. 2023,

An Exploration of Methane and Properly Managed ... - Savory Institute, 2015,

Garnett, Tara, and Cecile Godde. “Grazed and Confused? - Oxford Martin School.” Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, 3 Oct. 2017,

Gerber, P.J., et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock - Food and Agriculture ..., 2013,

Howell, Daniella, and Allan Savory. “Savory Institute.” Annual Impact Report 2021-2022: Our Ecosystem, Accessed 15 July 2023.

Nordborg, Maria. Holistic Management a Critical Review of Allan Savory S Grazing Method., 2018,


Links to Sources Used In Order As They Appeared

NOTE: A great way to find historical levels of carbon in the atmosphere

NOTE: This report offers an extended critique of holistic grazing.

NOTE: Savory Institute's argument that ruminant methane is no big deal.

Oxford study that was very critical of the scientific claims made be Savory for holistic grazing


P Wilke

Falls Church, VA

July 2023


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