On 11th July 2023, a debate organised by the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery between Allan Savory and George Monbiot took place at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The debate, titled “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?”, and chaired by Dame Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland, was around the concept of regenerative grazing (also known as holistic management), which some claim is the solution to the devastating effect of animal agriculture on the planet, without having to stop raising animals for food. Defending this concept was the Zimbabwean farmer Allan Savory while arguing against it was the British environmentalist journalist George Monbiot, author of the book “Regenesis”.
The debate was clearly won by Monbiot, who was able to deliver evidence-based compelling arguments while Savory seemed to try to avoid the debate. In his introductory remarks, Monbiot said:
“There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for the proposition that livestock grazing can mitigate climate change. In fact, there’s no evidence that it can even wash its own face in terms of greenhouse gas emissions — let alone be net negative… It’s not just that there’s no evidence for the proposition. It’s not even plausible. There’s no mechanism for the proposition either. In order for this proposition to be true you have to rely not on natural processes but on Magic. In fact, there’s loads of contradictory evidence showing that grazing livestock systems are a major net loss of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Indeed, a 2017 University of Oxford study titled Grazed and Confused accepted that managed grazing systems could sequester some carbon back into the soil, but this was only around 20-60 % of the emissions that the cattle produced in the first place, and after a few years the soil reaches carbon equilibrium (meaning that it cannot sequester carbon any more).
Monbiot said that animal grazing is one of the foremost drivers of both greenhouse gas emissions, climate breakdown, and of ecological breakdown. He stated the following:
“We also know that grazing livestock are far more damaging in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than intensively farmed livestock — horrendous as those are. There are two reasons for this. Partly because grazing livestock tend to be ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) which produce a great deal of enteric methane which is a very powerful greenhouse gas… but also grazed livestock grow more slowly and eat more roughage than livestock which are kept in these horrendous intensive conditions. As a result of that too, they produce more methane and more nitrous oxide. So, the worst possible food product of your greenhouse gas emissions is the products of gracing livestock. In other words, pasture-fed or grass-fed beef.”