AS global temperatures set new records, as Arctic ice rapidly melts and as the world literally burns, many now live in perpetual anxiety about the future of the planet. The biggest culprit in our climate crisis is the fossil fuel industry. But a second culprit is the meat industry, a driver of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water pollution.
Numerous scientific bodies and reports have recommended a drastic reduction in meat consumption to help combat climate change. Some have gone so far as to call for a fundamental transformation of our food system. And the public has been listening. Surveys in North America and Europe indicate a growing awareness of the link between meat production and climate change, leading to evolving dietary habits, including reduced meat consumption or the elimination of meat altogether.
Not surprisingly, these trends have sent the meat industry into panic mode. The industry has responded in one of two ways. The first is flat-out denial of any relationship between meat production and climate change. This much is predictable. The second is to argue that cattle ranching can help fight climate change. This is a bizarre idea.
The most extreme version of this claim comes from Allan Savory, founder of the Savory Institute. Born to a British colonial family in what is now Zimbabwe, Savory is a celebrity livestock farmer and proponent of what he calls "holistic management." The basic idea behind holistic management is that properly managed livestock grazing can restore healthy soil and grasslands, which in turn can sequester carbon.
In a famous 2013 Ted Talk, Savory makes the following incredible argument: "We can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands, we can take us back to preindustrial levels, while feeding people."
This isn’t just an extraordinary claim; it’s out-and-out magical thinking, unsupported by empirical evidence. While some studies have shown that livestock grazing can, under certain conditions, enable soil to sequester limited amounts of carbon for limited amounts of time, multiple studies have disputed Savory’s wildly extravagant claim that his holistic management model can reverse climate change to preindustrial levels.
The brute reality is that it’s just not physically possible. Yet this belief has only grown in popularity, including here in North America.
The idea that livestock farming is the key to our ecological and humanitarian salvation is more than just magical thinking. It’s a dangerous colonial fantasy. Cows are not native to the Americas. They were imported by Europeans. Ranching was a key driver of European colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples.
What we are seeing today in Brazil — the expansion of cattle ranches in the Amazon, Indigenous peoples dispossessed of their ancestral lands, the eradication of wildlife — is a centuries-old story now playing itself out in real time. The idea that ranching, one of the classic instruments of European colonialism, land dispossession and wildlife destruction, will now save humanity is the myth of the white saviour all over again.
A recent piece in the Winnipeg Free Press on regenerative agriculture recycles this myth intact. "Civilizations," we are told, "have failed because of poor soil health." The article suggests that ranching will save human civilizations and will bring about "more harmony in the earth." What this story omits is the historical role of ranching in destroying Indigenous civilizations, the eradication of wildlife to make room for non-native species, the routine culling of natural predators to protect livestock, and the greenhouse-gas emissions of cattle.
The salvation narrative of regenerative grazing rests on the erasure of Indigenous history, colonial violence and wildlife destruction. Worse, the enthusiasm with which mega-corporations such as Cargill and General Mills have embraced regenerative grazing should make it clear that this enthusiasm is about protecting profits, not the planet.
Instead of falling for another colonial and capitalist fantasy, we should listen to climate scientists warning us about the link between meat production and climate change, and urging us to change our food system. We should also listen to Indigenous peoples and their time-tested traditions of caring for the land. If we seek to restore anything to preindustrial levels, we should strive to restore the land and the wildlife to what they once were — prior to the genocidal and ecologically disastrous spread of ranching.
Savory, whose misguided thinking about soil once led him to kill 40,000 elephants in Africa, now wants us to believe the answer to climate change is more cows, not fewer. His new advice is as bad as his old advice. Contrary to Savory and his followers, the cows will not save us.
Jason Hannan is an associate professor in the department of rhetoric, writing and communications at the University of Winnipeg.