It’s become a truism of the environmental movement. Eating meat is bad for the planet. A few years back, a couple of researchers published a study claiming that livestock is responsible for 51 percent — 51 percent! — of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO says it’s closer to 18 percent, but still…
Jim Howell, a lifelong rancher and the CEO of a company called Grasslands LLC, says this conventional wisdom is ill-informed and misleading. More important, he has set out to disprove it. Grasslands owns four cattle ranches in South Dakota and Montana, where the company is monitoring the environmental impacts of its unconventional approach to ranching — called holistic management — and forging relationships with nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, hoping to turn them into allies. Last month, Howell’s partner, mentor and friend, Allan Savory, who is a Zimbabwean farmer, politician and environmentalist, delivered a TED talk called “How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change” that rapidly attracted about half a million views. Their argument, in brief, is that traditional ranching methods can degrade land and threaten biodiversity but that, when managed well, cows can actually be restorative.
What’s most interesting (to me, anyway) is that Howell, Allan Savory and their investor-partners in Grasslands believe that they can use markets to drive their unorthodox ideas about ranching to a much, much larger scale. They argue that holistic management is better for business, better for the land, better for the climate and, not incidentally, a way to raise more cattle on less land than conventional methods and thus help feed a hungry, growing planet.
If it sounds too good to be true….well, their arguments have been controversial for decades, and certainly since 1988, when Savory described his methods in a 564-page book called Holistic Resource Management, In a book review[PDF, download] in the Journal of Soil & Water Conservation, a Berkeley range ecologist named James Bartolome wrote: “Holistic resource management itself is a model for a management system with little novelty and severe technical problems…Those who apply Savory’s approach do so at their peril.” The Savory Institute has compiled a portfolio of supporting evidence, including peer-reviewed papers, but the debate rages on.
Howell, 44, comes from a family that has been ranching in Colorado since the late 1800s. He intends to bring further science and economics to bear on the question of whether ranching, done right, can help regenerate the planet, improve the farm economy and, as one of his investors, John Fullerton, puts it, “harness the power of capital and markets to shift the course of capitalism onto a more just and sustainable path.” A former managing director at JP Morgan, Fullerton is now president of the Capital Institute and an investor in Grasslands LLC, along with Larry Lunt, a private investor and environmentalist who runs a family office called Armonia. The Savory Institute, a for-profit company that carries out Savory’s work–Howell’s wife is CEO–is also an owner of Grasslands. Other investors will be brought on as Grasslands grows, as its owners expect it to. [click to continue...]