Soil and Livestock: Poverty, War and Climate Change

Moses Seenarine

(Talk presented at the Soil Not Oil Coalition Conference
Richmond, California, September 4th, 2015)


Demand for animal products is projected to increase by 50 percent from 2013 to 2025. Even if the world went fossil free by 2100, increasing animal consumption will continue to cause catastrophic global warming. Plant-based diets can stop climate chaos! Livestock emissions must be part of COP21 climate talks in Paris and at all other climate summits.

Reducing livestock consumption will lead to improved soils, reforestation and sequestration. By eliminating subsidies and adding a consumption tax, we can reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level by globally replacing between 50 and 85% of today’s animal-based foods with foods made from plants.

There can be no life without soil. It feeds us and we are responsible for it. Everyone has a right to soil. This right must be safeguarded for future generations. Overgrazing, from the uplands of Ethiopia to the mountains of Nepal, creates loss of soil as well as flooding. The chief ecological impacts of overgrazing are loss of biodiversity, irreversible loss of topsoil, increase of turbidity in surface waters, and increased flooding frequency and intensity.

Policy changes that result in improved conservation of soil and vegetation, and restoration of degraded land, are fundamental to humanity's future livelihood. Securing food and reducing poverty can have a strong impact on efforts to curb the flow of people and environmental refugees, inside countries as well as across national borders.

Livestock overgrazing practices are substantially reducing many grasslands' performance as carbon sinks, worldwide. Overgrazing occurs on 33% of all rangeland, and often, marginal rangelands are used intensively when historically productive adjacent range has become overgrazed and unproductive. The cycle of overgrazing, soil degradation, top soil erosion and loss of vegetation is rapidly expanding on all continents.

Overgrazing causes severe land degradation, and has been a major factor in wars in Darfur and Syria. Livestock is destroying valuable top soil and food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries. Increasing livestock production will lead to more global conflicts and impoverishment of millions to benefit the appetite of a global middle-class.


Soil is formed from decomposed rocks are broken down by the weather, and by plants and animals. Under natural conditions it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil.i

Soil is alive, with a handful of soil containing billions of microscopic organisms. Soil is much more than the dirt that sticks under our shoes or holds up our plants. Soil is a jungle of living organisms that break down organic matter to make the nutrients available for plant roots. A quarter of the world's biodiversity live underground, and they are essential to life above ground. These micro-organisms tunnel through soil, optimizing water holding capacity, aeration and drainage and compete with harmful organisms in soil that can damage plants. They fulfill essential soil services; in fact, life above the ground is intimately linked to life below the ground.

Soil quality is the capacity of a soil to function as part of a healthy agricultural or natural system. This means:

- Sustaining biological productivity (ie: growing healthy crops and vibrant gardens)

- Maintaining air and water quality (ie: filtering polluted runoff and keeping ground and surface water clean)

- Promoting plant, animal, and human health (ie: promoting plant resistance to diseases and pests, breaking down toxins, and decomposing waste products).

Under natural conditions, like forests and grasslands, soil acts as a sponge for carbon dioxide, sucking it in through plant respiration and storing a little more each year than is lost to oxidation in the process of rotting. But under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as a "modest carbon sink"— sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.


In the late 1950s, Rachel Carson studied environmental problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was her book, Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to the American public. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

More than 50 years after Silent Spring, massive amounts of herbicides like glyphosate, and insecticides continue to be used, killing the soil, polluting waterways, and causing massive dead zones. Some insecticides found in GMO crops are linked to the deaths of 1 billion butterflies. Pesticide use has also caused a collapse of other pollinators — wasps, beetles and especially honeybees.ii

Feed crops poisons the soil with chemicals, and pollutes the surrounding water resources with chemical runoff. The FAO 2006 and 2013 reports suggests that agriculture is the main cause of top-soil loss, and soil and land degradation.

However, the fossil fuel industry also degrades soil through mining, mountain-top removal, tar sands digging, oil spills and water pollution, and so on. These two global warming industries have combined their exploitation of natural resources to supply the massive amounts of water needed for livestock production. In California farmers are watering their crops with oil wastewater, and no one knows what is in it.

For example, Chevron recycles and sells 21 million gallons of wastewater to farmers, which is applied on about 10 percent of Kern County’s farmland. The water has high levels of acetone and methylene chloride, compounds that can be toxic to humans, and oil, which are then washed into local water resources. A gas station that is spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water would be shut down and fined. Yet, Chevron has been selling oil wastewater to farmers for two decades.

Interestingly, the US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly bans petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells.iii

In addition to the problems raised by Rachel Carson, soil is also seriously threathened by degradation and erosion from livestock grazing and production. The link between soil and diet is a critical one, and represents a new alarm for the 21st century.


Forests can act as major carbon sinks, but for some forests, that role is changing. "Earth has lost 100 million hectares of tropical forest over the last 30 years, mostly to agricultural developments.iv

If humans continue on their current path of deforestation, around 289 million hectares (1,115,840 square miles) of tropical forests will be cleared from 2016-2050. That is an area of forests the size of India, and one-seventh of Earth’s tropical forest area in the year 2000. That’s bad news for the creatures that depend on these forest ecosystems for survival, but it’s also bad news for the climate, as the loss of these forests will release more than 169 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is equivalent to or one-sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if the rise in Earth’s temperature is to be held below 2 °C.

The amount of emissions that can be avoided at low-cost by reducing tropical deforestation will increase rather than decrease in future decades.v


Lost of forest cover leads to soil erosion. The majority of soil erosion is caused by water, either through flooding or poor irrigation, with the rest lost to winds. Farming practices such as ploughing also damage soil, as does repeated planting in fields, which depletes the soil of nutrients.

The causes of soil erosion are need, greed and ignorance. Some pressures on soil resources come from simple human needs, where people don't have any option but to grow crops. But in other instances world markets demand produce, so farmers try to meet those markets. And sometimes, there will be land that's cleared that should not have been, or grazed when it shouldn't have been. All these place great pressures on soil resources.

In the 19th century, Iowa had 14-16 inches of topsoil. Today, it has just 6-8 inches, and more is being lost all the time. Iowa has lost fully one-half of its topsoil in 150 years of large-scale 90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.vii

Floods damage crops and washes away massive amounts of topsoil. And, we can expect more floods in the US and around the world as the planet gets warmer. In 2011, The Midwest and the South were in the middle of record floods as the mighty Mississippi River grew to six times its normal size. The 2,320-mile-long Mississippi drains approximately 41 percent of the continental US. The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop yields and lead to more soil erosion in the coming decades.viii


During the past 200 years, humans have been rapidly releasing carbon that nature accumulated for over nearly 500 million years. This is leading to rapid global warming that is occurring a lot faster than is being publicly acknowledged.

NOAA just reported that the “combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for July in the 136-year period of record.” That is 1.46°F higher than the 20th century average. The previous record was set in 1998. And since July is climatologically the warmest month of the year globally, the monthly global temperature of 16.61°C (61.86°F) was also the highest among all 1627 months in the record that began in January 1880. For the past fifteen years, average July temperatures in the American West have been at least 1°F higher than they were between 1920-1980, perhaps nearly twice that. Summers are longer and hotter and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced.ix

The next four decades are likely to move many parts of the planet to “a new, permanent heat regime in which the coolest warm-season of the 21st century is hotter than the hottest warm-season of the late 20th century.” From this point on, we can expect about a third of the summers in the American West to be hotter than the hottest season we experienced between 1980-1999. By mid-century, most of them will be.x

Global warming may cause changes in evaporation that dry out the soil much more than normal. One degree of average increase in temperature can make for a lot more rain than snow. And it is snow, not rain, that remains on the shaded forest floor until March or even April in a slow melt that soaks the trees for a burst of bright green growth each spring.

With climate change, the likelihood of a megadrought goes up considerably. Megadroughts are sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought. Based on climate models, there is an 80 percent chance that an extended drought will exist in North America between 2050 and 2100. The amount of precipitation in Arizona will be half of what it was between 1950 and 1999. North America’s last megadroughts happened in medieval times, during the 12th and 13th centuries.xi


Soil is being depleted rapidly. Forests and plants protect the soil, but very year 13 million hectares (50,000 sq miles) of forests are cutdown. In addition, crops are grown in an unsustainable way, and then fields are left bare, which accelerates erosion. In 2011 alone, 24 million tons of fertile soil was lost, or 3.4 tons per person worldwide.

Erosion costs close to $500B each year. Each year, we continue to withdraw from our soil bank account to grow crops and livestock, but we never make any deposits, and our soil account is being depleted rapidly. By 2050, the FAO projects the world's population will be 9.6 billion, and the available arable land per person will be reduced by half. The world already has one billion hungry people.

To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced worldwide over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined. Climate change and an increasing population could trigger a global food crisis in the next half century as countries struggle to find fertile land to grow crops and land to rear animals. In many countries a combination of poor farming practices and deforestation will be exacerbated by climate change to steadily degrade soil fertility, leaving vast areas unsuitable for crops or grazing. Competition over sparse resources may lead to conflicts and the losers will inevitably be the environment and poor people.

The 2007 UN millennium ecosystem assessment ranked land degradation among the world's greatest environmental challenges, claiming it risked destabilizing societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty. Some 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded. Among the worst affected regions are Central America, where 75% of land is infertile, Africa, where a fifth of soil is degraded, and Asia, where 11% is unsuitable for farming.xii


The Dust Bowl is one of the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history. This happened because the frenzied wheat boom of the "Great Plow-Up," was followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s. The combined effect nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Severe dust storms caused by wind erosion (the Aeolian processes) greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies. The unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky.

These choking billows of dust traveled cross country, reaching as far as such East Coast cities as New York City and Washington, D.C. On the Plains, they often reduced visibility to 1 meter (3.3 ft) or less. The storms covered 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2), centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. The storms forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many of these families, who were often known as "Okies" because so many of them came from Oklahoma, migrated to California and other states.xiii

In many regions, more than 75% of the topsoil was blown away by the end of the 1930s. The economy adjusted predominantly through large relative population declines in more-eroded counties. The Dust Bowl demonstrate that America's capitalist high-tech farmers have learned nothing. They continue to work in an unsustainable way, devoting far cheaper subsidized energy to growing food than the energy could give back to its ultimate consumers. Under prolonged drought conditions, another Dust Bowl could easily occur in the Plains, Western States, or South West.xiv


In 2013, California received less precipitation than in any other year since it became a state in 1850. California is now well into its fourth consecutive year of drought and around 80% of the state is in extreme drought. Towns in the north, where it typically rains a lot, are running out of water, and reservoirs are ever-dwindling. The problems of the drought has been exacerbated by inaction and mismanagement by the state's top officials since only in January 2014 was a drought State of Emergency declared throughout the entire state.

Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, is now dried up. Four rivers once fed Tulare Lake, but with rainfall sporadic at best, no water flows through there anymore. Agriculture accounts for 80% of the water used in California, and for a long time environmental groups have been critical of the unsustainable, over-use of the state's limited water resources for farming in dry areas. Due to poor planning, water mismanagement, and short-sighted and inappropriate development, many of the state's agriculture fields and groves are now parched, and nearly half a million acres of crops have been left fallowed and unplanted.

Early in 2014, the state began to restrict the flow of irrigation water to farms, partly to protect endangered species and wildlife in deltas and wetlands. However, as the drought progressed, rather than tighten them, the state soon eased water restrictions due to intense lobbying from the industry. Decades of intense pumping of groundwater have dropped water tables dangerously low, causing 1200 square miles of California's soil and land to sink as much as a foot a year.xv

Climate change has likely played a pivotal role in exacerbating the California drought. One driver for this is a persistent region of high atmospheric pressure off the state's coast, keeping storms and rainfall away from land. These conditions are much more likely to occur with the high greenhouse gas concentrations that we are experiencing today, and it appears that the situation will get worse.

Temperatures in California are expected to rise on average by 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) by 2080. While rainfall at that time will drop between 2 to 16 percent below current low levels. These changes will have a devastating effect on cities, crops and ranching operations across the state. Cattle farming and dairy production are California's largest agricultural exports. Ranches and healthy pastures for grazing are essential to those operations, but rangelands will experience a wider range of impacts than croplands.

California is a warning to regions being transformed to drought-prone by climate change, that water-intensive agriculture and factory farms are going to fail spectacularly and rapidly. Unless they change quickly, the people in California and elsewhere are in for a rude awakening.xvi


Already pushed to the brink by the prolonged drought in California and elsewhere, many ecosystems and animal habitats are being denied access to the few remaining water basins and deltas being drained and diverted to agriculture.

Fish and wildlife need water to survive. As the drought in California has deepened, state and federal water officials have repeatedly pushed regulators to relax flow and water quality requirements to free up more supplies for agricultural and urban use - this happens even as even as the numbers of some fish species have crashed to record or near record lows.. When scarce fresh water sources like streams and wetlands are drained off to irrigate arid and semi-arid soils, this has a major impact on the surounding fish and wildlife. And as semi-arid grasslands becomes desert, critical species die-off.

If California’s severe drought continues the way it has for another two years, its salmon, steelhead and smelt are in danger of going away forever. They are a major forage fish, feeding other fish and birds in the marine ecosystem. The same is starting to happen in Oregon and Washington, where moist climates are giving way to drought conditions. Shallower waters warms sooner. Warm water carries more diseases that attack fish that prefer waters cooler than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Adult and young fish are affected in their migrations in rivers to and from the ocean. Large fish kills occur as waters heated by higher temperatures drain and lose oxygen.

Thousands of migrating birds are crowding into wetlands shrunk by drought, risking the spread of disease that can cause huge die-offs.

Rodents are critical in an ecosystem, and are a main source of food for snakes, badgers, weasels and other animals Rats dig for burrows which creates moist habitat for insects. Before the recent California drought, 60 percent of giant kangaroo rat's habitat was covered in grasses that they eat and seeds that they store for hard times in a network of underground burrows. Four years of little rain has reduced the cover to 18 percent. Without grass, long-legged kangaroo rats cannot eat. One study recorded a 95 percent population loss since 2010. And as they go, so go a variety of threatened animals that depend on this keystone species to live.

Land animals are forced to seek water and food far outside their normal range. Herbivores such as elk, deer and rabbits may move to urban gardens, pursued by hawks, owls, eagles, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, snakes and other animals in search of food that no longer exists in their habitat.

Hotter and drier weather and earlier snowmelt mean that wildfires in the West will start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. This will have further negative impacts on wildlife that depend on snowmelt for much of their water.xvii


Croplands: Yields suffer as temperatures rise and rainfall dips. Most critically affected are lands essential to our food security, yet which also require the most water: croplands.

Industrial farming is being done in areas that are clearly unsuitable, for example in Saudia Arabian and other deserts. Only a few centimeters (about one inch) of rain falls in the Saudi Arabian desert each year, but crops still grow thanks to aquifers deep below the surface, which contain water trapped during the last Ice Age and rainwater that fell over several hundred thousand years. Hydrologists estimate that it will be economical to pump this water only for about 50 more years.


Animal agriculture is also responsible for vast amounts of fresh water use as well - Texas, California, Oklahoma, and North Carolina each used more than 125 Mgal/d for livestock, and accounted for 35 percent of total livestock withdrawals in 2005 in the US. Animal agriculture is highly water-intensive - the total amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is 1,799 gallons and one pound of pork takes 576 gallons.

In the Central Valley of California, many livestock farms and animals are reeling from the effects of the drought. Hay prices have doubled in California, and ranchers who can afford it, are sending their herds out of the state. Between January and April of 2014, a hundred thousand cattle were hauled away. Given the limited resource water has become in the state, continuing livestock production is increasingly unsustainable, and downright reckless.

With the industrialization of supply chains, millions of Westerners now eat meat two, or three times, a day. Food production is responsible for releasing vast amounts of global greenhouse gases, and climate change is already having a significant impact on food production. Moreover, livestock overgrazing is leading to massive loss of top soil, wars and climate change.

Governments, donors, and development agencies have all been active agents in the expansion of animal-based agriculture by pushing for aid and policy reforms that promote livestock production as one of the main means of solving global poverty and hunger. In practice, the funding of livestock and feed crops in the less developed world is a form of neocolonialism since the supply chain is controlled by multinational corporations, and the animal-based protein and crops are largely exported to Western, developed countries. Further, top soil preservation in the global South is a climate justice issue since overgrazing results in the displacement of thousands of indigenous and local groups.

This "solution" is also unsustainable since overgrazing of pasture land and savanna leads to reduction in long-term grazing productivity. For example, in Botswana, farmers' common practice of overstocking cattle to cope with drought losses made ecosystems more vulnerable and risked long term damage to cattle herds by depleting scarce biomass.

According to FAO report in 2006, Livestock's Long Shadow, over 70% of former Amazon forest is now used for grazing, and 20% of pastures are degraded through overgrazing. Further, 70% of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity. Overgrazing can be considered the major cause of desertification in arid drylands, tropical grasslands and savannas, worldwide. Moreover, in arid and semi-arid drylands around the globe, overgrazing is the major cause of desertification.

Placement of high densities of livestock on a grassland removes biomass at a rapid rate, which produces a series of accompanying effects. The residual plants decline in mass density, and surface water infiltration is reduced. There is also a decrease in fungal biomass that rely on grasses.

Ground surface temperatures rise, which exaggerates the amount of evaporation and transpiration, and leads to increase aridity. In addition, overgrazing has a characteristic effect of reducing root depths. With impeded water uptake from the soil, a positive feedback loop of growth retardation is established.


Livestock grazing in southwestern Idaho and across the West has contributed significantly to intensity, severity, and enormity of fires this summer. Despite the livestock industry’s claims to the contrary, the fires are burning hotter and faster because of the impacts of cows and sheep on our arid western lands.

Livestock eat large amounts of forage, removing the native grasses that burn at a lower intensity than the fire-prone invasive species that dominate many areas. While cattle and sheep grazing decreases the presence of fire-suppressing bunch grasses and forbs, it also spreads plant species like cheatgrass that increase fire intensity and frequency. Combined with drought, high winds, and low humidity, the impacts of livestock grazing are a root cause of the West’s intense wildfires. The presence of livestock only increases the long-term probability of more intense and more frequent wildfire.

Livestock grazing not only increases the intensity and frequency of fire, but also exacerbates the impacts of wildfire on the post-fire landscape. The removal of vegetation from the land coupled with heavy hoof trampling results in the increased severity of erosion that often occurs after wildfires. These degraded soils set the stage for further infestations of invasive species, and the cycle continues.

Soil desertification increases the risks of wildfires in a positive feedback loop. The fire removes grass and shrubs which increases desertification. And conditions that dry out vegetation, which lead to more wildfires.

For a century and a half, livestock grazing has wreaked havoc on the sagebrush landscapes of the West, stripping away wildlife habitat, plant communities, and beautiful scenery. More frequent and faster-burning fires move across the West, and we as federal taxpayers continue to subsidize the grazing of over 225 million acres of public land. The sage-steppe landscape goes up in smoke, we lose money, and the livestock industry gets a free ride.xviii


Livestock is destroying valuable top soil, and food shortages is leading to civil unrest and a refugee crisis. Overgrazing causes severe land degradation, and has been a major factor in wars in Darfur and Syria.

Gianluca Serra argues that over-grazing and desertification in Syria are the root causes of war. Civil war in Syria is the result of the desertification of ecologically fragile Syrian grasslands, a process that began in 1958 when the former Bedouin commons were opened up to unrestricted grazing. A major role in this unfolding disaster was played by affluent urban investors who threw thousands of livestock into the grasslands, turning the grazing into a large-scale, totally unsustainable, industrial practice. That led to a wider ecological, hydrological and agricultural collapse, and then to a 'rural intifada' of farmers and nomads no longer able to support themselves.

Serra spent a decade trying to advocate to the Syrian government that livestock over-grazing of the rangelands was the key cause of its ecological degradation. In 2009, Serra predicted that if the rampant desertification was not halted soon, it could eventually become a trigger for social turmoil and even for a civil war. The Syrian government once again ignored his advice that the grasslands, which covers over half of the country's land mass, was in desperate need of recuperation.

In 2008, Serra showed the Government a picture that portrayed a fence separating a terrain in two parts: the area on the left was open to sheep grazing; the area on the right had been instead protected for at least 10 years. The image revealed a lunar rocky landscape on the left, and a blossoming pasture on the right. The image provides simple evidence, without need for any words, that the Syrian grassland ecosystem is perfectly adapted to cope with droughts, even with extreme droughts exacerbated by climate change. But the image also reveals that the land is unable to adapt to livestock overgrazing.

A combined ecological crisis of croplands and rangelands created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the rural areas of the country, followed by massive internal displacements, that the government clearly failed to tackle and manage. For the first time ever Syria, known to be proudly autonomous in terms of food production (and actually even exporting food), had to rely on large amounts of international emergency food aid in 2008.

It is not a coincidence that the uprising in 2011 started in provincial towns rather than in the major urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo. It was a "rural Intifada" - one in which Bedouin tribes of the grasslands played a key role.

The same sort of conditions led to the Darfur war that that took place from 2003 to 2010 not far from Syria. Darfur suffered from precisely the same sort of over-exploited semi-arid ecosystem, while once again rural and indigenous people were the victims, including nomadic pastoralists. Overgrazing is leading to civil war, the displacement of millions, and fueling a European and global refugee crisis.xix



Perhaps the greatest soil myth is the entirely unsustainable model of using soil to plant crops to feed livestock. Feeding half the world’s grain crop to animals raised for food instead of directly to humans is not only grossly inefficient, but a disastrous waste of natural resources, depleting cultivable land, topsoil, water, forests, fossil fuels, and minerals. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of manmade greenhouse gases, and the number one source of nitrogen pollution to freshwater rivers. The consumption of meat, dairy and eggs causes unnecessary misery and death to 70 billion land animals every year.

Animals raised for food actually take more from the global food supply than they provide. As much as 80% of the global soybean crop, and 40-50% of the annual corn crop are fed to cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Grain-based feeds cause rapid weight gain, which allows industries to slaughter animals sooner. But feeding grain to animals is an extremely inefficient use of food. It takes roughly 6 ½ pounds of edible grain to produce just 2 pounds of meat.xx Chickens fed a diet of corn and soybeans can only utilize 20% of the protein present in those grains, meaning that 80% is simply wasted; for pigs, 90% of the protein they are fed in grain is lost.xxi

Most of the energy farm animals consume from grains and other sources of food is used to fuel their own metabolism and to form bones, cartilage, feathers, fur and other non-edible parts, as well as feces.xxii

Eating animals also wastes scarce freshwater. In addition to depleting the global food supply, raising animals for meat, eggs and dairy also requires drastically greater quantities of water than raising plants for human consumption. It can take 5 times as much water to supply 10 grams of protein from beef than from rice, and 20 times more water to supply 500 calories from beef than from rice.xxiii

Dependence on livestock imperils malnourished communities. Hungry nations do not need more livestock. In fact, food scarcity is not the major cause of hunger in most malnourished countries–poverty is: lack of income with which to buy food, and lack of access to markets, goods and services.xxiv

Under drought conditions, Pastoral communities use their livestock as currency, selling off animals when they need cash. But drought kills a huge percentage of livestock and weakens the others to the point of little or no market value. Thus populations dependent on livestock cannot afford food during drought, when their animals die.

All farmed animals require food, large quantities of water (cows can drink up to 90 liters per day), shelter from weather extremes, and medical care. Yet these resources are in critically short supply in crisis-subsistence communities. The people of the Horn of Africa raise cattle and other livestock they cannot adequately feed or water, and mostly cannot even afford to slaughter until the animals are already dying, because livestock is their currency.xxv


Ethiopia is a good case in point regarding the unsuitability of livestock production in poor communities.

Although there is significant dependence on livestock as a trading currency in very poor areas, and a deep-rooted cultural attachment to livestock as an indication of wealth or status, animal husbandry is not suited to the food needs of this booming population. Ethiopia is already home to Africa’s largest livestock population, is the continent’s top livestock exporter, and is the tenth largest livestock producer globally, yet more than six million Ethiopians are in need of emergency food aid.

Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of soil erosion worldwide, losing an average of two billion tons of soil each year, including nutrient-rich topsoil. Overgrazing has devastated much of the country’s rangeland, hastening desertification of once fertile soils. As livestock production increases, still more pressure will be put on natural resources, including Ethiopia’s dwindling forests and fresh water. From 1990 to 2000, slash-and-burn clearing of land for grazing and farming contributed to a deforestation rate of 0.93 percent per year, or a loss of 140,900 hectares of forest annually. Between 2000 and 2005, growing demand for land caused deforestation rates to increase.xxvi

Like many countries in Africa, Ethiopia is prone to increasingly frequent cycles of drought; in a drought in 2000, over three million cattle, calves and milking cows died.xxvii The devastating East African drought of 2011, as well as longer and increased cycles of drought over Africa in general, have been largely attributed to climate change.xxviii

In a region devastated by increased drought cycles from climate change, shifting economic focus to increasing livestock production is not only absurd, but immoral. More livestock means more deforestation, more greenhouse gases and further degradation of soils.


It doesn’t matter how often miracles are disproved; our willingness to believe in them remains undiminished. Livestock grazing and feed production are leading causes of topsoil soil loss, land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. However, skeptics of the large-scale impacts of animal-based agribusiness implausibly argue that eating meat could actually save the biosphere. These skeptics often cite Zimbabwean farmer, Alan Savory's long-standing, debunked claim that livestock's damaging effects on soil and the climate can be controlled through "holistic management and planned grazing."

During the 1960s in Africa, Savory was working on national parks, and he blamed desertification on over-grazing by elephants. So he started culling them, and they eventually killed 40,000 elephants, to no avail. This fact does nothing to diminish the reputation of Savory, nor does the fact that he served as a captain of the Rhodesian armed forces. A fellow farmer writes, "History will vindicate Allan Savory as one of the greatest ecologists of all time." Remarkably, Savory's 2013 TED talk, 22 minutes in duration including brief questions, has become one of the most touted mitigation strategies for climate change, with over three million views.

Savory's process purportedly allows domesticated herds to act as "a proxy for former herds and predators" in trampling dry grass and leaving "dung, urine and litter or mulch." Savory assert that his process enables the soil to "absorb and hold rain, to store carbon, and to break down methane." His theory to reverse desertification and climate change, and return the atmosphere to preindustrial levels, requires a massive increase in livestock production, as he argues, "There is only one option, I'll repeat to you, 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."

Irresistible as they may sound, Savory's theory, process and results are not possible. For example, the massive, ongoing additions of carbon into the atmosphere from human activity far exceed the carbon storage capacity of global grasslands. So, soil management on grasslands alone cannot reverse climate change, as he argues.

Savory's soil management theory have found little support from agricultural science, and there are many studies critical of his unscientific methods. For example, one point to Savory's many inconsistencies and changing methods. Another accuses him of piecing together false assumptions to produce ineffective but popular recommendations on climate change. Savory's method has been rigorously evaluated, primarily in the US, by numerous investigators at multiple locations and in a wide range of precipitation zones over a period of several decades. Collectively, these experimental results clearly indicate that it does not increase plant or animal production, or improve plant community composition, or benefit soil surface hydrology compared to other grazing strategies.

Published comparisons of grazed and ungrazed lands in the western US have found that rested sites have larger and more dense grasses, fewer weedy forbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground, and better water infiltration than nearby grazed sites. Algal crust is not the “cancer of desertification” as Savory contends, but just the opposite: a rich, diverse and ancient ecosystem in its own right, that stabilises the soil, increases organic matter and absorbs water. These crusts are fragile, highly susceptible to trampling, and are slow to recover from trampling impacts. Loss of these crusts results in increased erosion and reduced soil fertility.

In 2008, David Briske found no evidence for the ecological benefits of rotational grazing, and no evidence that as production become more intensive that it is necessarily better.

Research from 13 North American sites, and sites in Africa, found little evidence for any of the environmental benefits which Savory claimed for his methods. And using 14 years of satellite imaging data in South Africa, another study found Savory's intensive grazing practices resulted in lower levels of vegetation than more traditional approaches, when rainfall is included. Researchers point out that intensive or cell grazing is only viable where water points are close and labor is cheap. Temporary or permanent fencing is labor intensive, and moving herds daily requires far more labor than most operations can afford.

Animal-based agribusiness emission skeptics also refer to preliminary research by an Australian research team that showed some managed soil can sequester more that 8,760 kilograms (19,312 pounds) of carbon per hectare (2.5 acres) per year. However, their calculations were off by a factor of 1,000. Using the corrected figure, these soils can oxidize only 8.76 kg (19.3lb) of carbon per hectare, per year. Results show that areas used by domestic livestock have 20% less plant cover and 100% less soil organic carbon and nitrogen compared to relict sites browsed by native ungulates. In terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, the intensive grazing of cattle on grasslands can be even worse than producing them in feedlots.

Teague’s research that puportedly supports Savory's theory, show an improvement of soil carbon sequestration from holistic range management practices compared to continuous grazing. Teague does not compare grazing practices to none-grazed, preserved rangelands.xxix

One study modeled the warming effects of five different ways of producing beef, including intensive feedlot systems and pasture-based methods. They found that the most climate-friendly methods of beef production may not be enough to reduce the environmental effects of raising

Repeatedly debunked for over three decades, Savory's method causes severe soil loss, land degradation, and has been a major factor in social conflicts between agriculturalists, traditional pastoralists and urban livestock investors. Nonetheless, Savory and livestock grazing is being promoted by banks, development agencies, free-range and humane-meat advocates, the animal industry, environmentalists and others.

Far from being a solution, animal-based production is an unmitigated climate disaster used to justify environmentally destructive consumption habits. Rather that the desertification caused by Savory's methods, there is massive potential for reforestation in Africa if livestock are removed and the related savanna burning is stopped.xxxi


Although food shortages are a contributing factor to malnutrition, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates that eighty percent of malnourished children in the developing world live in countries that produce food surpluses. During the drought of 2011 that devastated over 12 million Africans, the most afflicted nations–Kenya and Ethiopia– continued to export cereals, beans, roots and tubers from crop regions unaffected by the ecological and economic collapse.xxxii

In Ethiopia, much of the fertile and cultivable cropland, tended for decades by small farmers, is being seized by government and leased to foreign investors who set up huge commercial agriculture operations, producing crops cheaply to sell back in their home markets.xxxiii

In a forced relocation project called “villagization,” indigenous people, subsistence farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land, and forests and fields are razed, destroying wildlife and the communities that have lived on these lands for centuries. By 2013, at least 1.5 million people will have been forcibly resettled by the Ethiopian government in order to facilitate this land grab. Since 2008, Ethiopia has leased nearly 4 million hectares of land to foreign and domestic investors, and an additional 2.1 million hectares is available through the federal government’s land bank for agricultural investment (as of January 2011). These lands and livelihoods are being taken from the local population with no meaningful consultation or compensation.xxxiv


We need to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, place limits on power plant pollution, and stop methane leaks from the fossil fuel industry. However, we also need to phase out livestock subsidies, place limits on livestock pollution, stop methane releases from livestock industry, halt deforestation and soil erosion.xxxv

Necessary local efforts in developing countries include equitable distribution of land and markets and improved agricultural infrastructure and basic technologies.

Farmer education is needed since most farmers don't see themselves as climate villains: While 66 percent of farmers polled believed climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believed that humans had a hand in causing it.xxxvi

The very best results in all of agriculture come from farming methods that reject all industrial inputs.xxxvii

Crop rotation disrupts weed and pest patterns, and allows farmers to dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use. Tilling the soil results in losing any long-term soil-building benefit, so this practice should be reduced. One way is to use "rotational tillage" where you till in some years but not others.

Use of off-season cover crops could help in a number of ways, but they are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year. Legume cover crops can trap nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules at their roots. This allows farmers to grow nitrogen right on their farm, rather than importing it in the form of synthetic fertilizer. And the "complex biological systems" created by cover crops marginalize crop-chomping bugs and disease-causing organisms like molds — meaning fewer insecticides and fungicides.xxxviii

Necessary global efforts include removing all subsidies for industrial farming. Government crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffer farmers losses, giving them little short-term incentive to change.

The solution is not more grazing, but passive restoration of the landscape. Allowing native bunchgrasses to return offers a long-term solution to drought and wildfires. The removal of livestock grazing leads to more native grass production, less intense fires, increased biodiversity, and improved wildlife habitat.

Removing livestock, and better soil and land management that supports healthy soil organisms, can boost the soil's ability to absorb carbon and mitigate desertification. This could result in providing more food for the world and in more carbon being sequestered, thus helping to offset agriculture's own emissions of GHGs.


The United Nations has called for a global shift to a plant-based diet as the most effective way to combat climate change, world hunger, and ecological devastation.xxxix


The Humane Society, “The Impact of Industrialized Animal Agriculture on World Hunger”

PEW Environment Group, “Animal Agriculture and Water Pollution”

The Guardian, "Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile land"

The Guardian, “UN Urges Global Move To Meat and Dairy Free Diet”

Vidal, John, Food Shortages Could Force World Into Vegetarianism, Scientists Warn (The Guardian)

World Watch Institute, Escaping Hunger, Escaping Excess

Clifton, Merritt, Animal Husbandry and the Horn of Africa Famin

Brighter Green: Climate, Food Security & Growth–Ethiopia’s Challenge With Livestock

The Guardian, Drought in East Africa the Result of Climate Change and Conflict

Peebles, Graham, The Ethiopian Land Giveaway

Human Rights Watch, “Waiting Here For Death: Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region”

Soil: Key to solving the food crisis?

Soil Degradation Threatening Food Security in Africa: Expert Panel Says

Soil: Key to solving the food crisis?

World Soil Day Resources

"Peak oil – reached. Peak water – reached. Next on the list? Peak soil"

World Hunger

Commentary: A critical assessment of the policy endorsement for holistic management

Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems

Biogeochemical and ecological impacts of livestock grazing in semi-arid southeastern Utah, USA

Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States

The Future of Forests: Emissions from Tropical Deforestation with and without a Carbon Price, 2016–2050

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery




xiv (Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (2014) p 203)
xx (Nellemann C, MacDevette M, Manders T, et al., (eds.) 2009. The Environmental Food Crisis. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, p. 26).
xxi (Smil V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. x).
xxii (Baroni L, Cenci L, Tettamanti M, and Berati M. 2007. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61:279-86).
xxiii (Postel S. 2006. Safeguarding freshwater ecosystems. In: Worldwatch Institute. 2006. State of the World 2006. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 54).

Dr. Moses Seenarine is a plant-based father and activist, founder of Climate Change 911, and the author of Voices from the Subaltern (2004), Meat Climate Change (2016), and "Who's (h)eating earth?" (Forthcoming).