Dear George,

I am a long-standing fan and an admirer of the stances you have adopted on many key environmental issues, so I hope you won’t mind if I take public issue with you on some of the points that you made in your recent Guardian article about Allan Savory and his advocacy of holistic grazing management systems.

I should first declare my various interests: I am a farmer of ruminants myself, with 85 Ayrshire milking cows, plus their various offspring on my mainly, but not exclusively, grassland farm in West Wales, (which you visited very briefly back in 2007); I have a long-standing interest and engagement with developing improved systems of pasture management, although none of these experiments have been monitored; and, while you were in the library checking out the science on Savory’s claims, I was attending and speaking at the Savory Institute International Conference in London last week, which provided the hook for your Guardian piece.

As I understand it, your key critique of Savory is that he is has made a series of unsubstantiated claims relating to the capacity of holistic grazing management systems (which you referred to as Intensive Rotational Grazing, or IRG), not only to increase ruminant stocking densities but also to build soil carbon in the form of stabilised organic matter.

What clearly rattled you most was his assertion that were such systems were to be applied on a global scale, they would have the potential to sequestrate a significant percentage of the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In summary, my response is that whilst accepting your points about the relative scarcity of the scientific evidence supporting his claims, and the possibility that he may have been over claiming on his assertion that such methods could have the capacity of ‘reducing CO2 to preindustrial levels’, I still think he may well be right on both counts.

The reason I particularly wanted to write to you about this is because I am very worried about the anti-ruminant bandwagon, which seems to be gaining momentum daily, based on three assertions, all of which need to be challenged: the inefficiency of feed to meat conversion, the unhealthy nature of red meat and methane emissions.

You may be aware that my colleague Richard Young has been countering some of these charges in a separate series of articles, but for the purpose of this exchange, I shall focus on my assertion that ruminants will need to play a central role in the development of more sustainable food systems. This is because they alone are able to digest and turn into food the cellulose based plant material, which constitutes the fertility building phase of sustainable, rotational farming practice.

This unique capacity is very important, partly because if the world is to wean itself off our current addiction to nitrogen fertiliser, then producing food from arable land during its fertility building phase, which in most cases will constitute a mixture of legumes and grasses, will be of critical importance in developing strategies for feeding a peak world population.

Another, and possibly even more important factor relates to so-called ‘rangelands’ the vast areas of predominantly grassland ecosystems, which cover a quarter of the worlds land area and on which the ruminant animals that form the basis of Savory’s observations have evolved and coexisted over millennia.

I am no great expert in the management of these areas, but I did have the very good fortune to spend some time in northern Kenya two years ago with the nomadic pastoralists of that region. These tribes subsist almost entirely upon the products of ruminants and their grassland management practices, which involve seasonal grazing of herded animals ranging over very large areas seem to demonstrate Savory’s theories very well, so long as they remain undisturbed by the devastating intrusion of land grabbing.

Turning to somewhat safer home ground and using the example of my own farm, at any one time around 70% of the total area is devoted to grassland, mostly in the form of permanent pasture, with the balance in short term leys, building fertility for arable crops, which in my case have been vegetables, oats and peas.

Influenced by the ideas of Allan Savory and other advocates of holistic grazing, I have been introducing the basic principles of this approach into my grazing management over the last few years. For clarity, this means dividing my grassland fields into small parcels, often referred to as ‘paddocks’ on which we graze the whole herd intensively for between 12 and 24 hours before moving them on, thus allowing the rapid recovery of the grazed area.

Historically, my practice has been to turn the herd into large fields and either let them roam freely, or ‘strip graze’ it section by section behind an electric fence. To understand why this system is inefficient in Allan Savory’s terms, one has to know something about cattle grazing habits. Let’s say I turn my entire herd into a ten acre field, containing a good crop of lush grass, after a period of relatively wet weather, not uncommon in Wales! What the cattle will do, is range over the entire field, taking one bite of the very best grass, then graze it for a second time and so on, until the least palatable grass has been eaten, by which time the field will have been trampled on eight or ten times, over a period of up to a week.

Under such treatment, the recovery of grass is delayed, partly because of the compaction and soil damage caused by repeated trampling over time, and also because the cows stay on the field for much longer than would be the case in a ‘paddock’ grazing regime.

Interestingly enough, at the Savory conference, I learned of a third reason why such ‘extensive’ cattle grazing systems are not conducive to maximum grass output or building soil fertility. This is connected with the behaviour of plants after defoliation, either by cutting or grazing. Apparently, when a plant is defoliated – a tremendous shock to its system – it exudes a strong pulse of sugary plant sap into its root zone, thus stimulating activity in the symbiotic community of bacteria and fungi surrounding the roots upon which the nutrition of all plants depend. This gives rise to the phenomenon, which I have often observed, of how a field (or even lawn) which has been cut, recovers amazingly quickly, as evidenced by tender young leaf regrowth of two or three inches in just a few days.

However, when plants are repeatedly grazed after defoliation, apparently this triggers a defensive response, the result of which is that the plant jettisons a substantial proportion of its roots, since such carrying capacity will no longer be required if the plant is unable to regrow.

The combination of my own observations as a farmer and the influences of Allan Savory and others, have been sufficient to result in me deciding to redesign my grazing systems over the last couple of years, installing the necessary infrastructure for paddock style rotational grazing, which includes farm tracks, water troughs and electric fencing.

As with Savory, my initial observations of the impact of these changes are unscientific and anecdotal, but nevertheless I can say with some confidence, after having been farming without any nitrogen fertiliser for 41 years, that the introduction of holistic grazing management has the potential to further increase the ruminant carrying capacity of my farm from the already strong base I have achieved through many years of biological soil management.

This takes me back to my earlier point, which is that in my opinion, holistic grazing management principles have the potential to be applied on all the world’s grasslands, both permanent and on the temporary leys which farmers will use to rebuild soil organic matter in a post nitrogen farming regime. Because of this, the issue of whether holistic grazing management regimes can improve ruminant productivity and soil carbon outcomes is of absolute critical importance.

I can imagine in response you might say ‘show me the science’ which would be perfectly legitimate, but before we are able to amass a sufficient body of research to validate the concerns of skeptics, I would urge you to be a little more cautious before you throw this particular grass fed ruminant baby out with the collective bath water of intensive livestock farming.

In that connection, I know you place a lot of importance on validating hypotheses with evidence, but I think it’s worth pointing out that we are hopefully emerging from a chapter of agricultural practice which has been based on reductionist science and chemistry and entering a new phase where the informing principles will be related to complexity and biology. In this field, the capacity and track record of practical farmers in making grounded observations about the efficacy of different systems, is not only of greater value, but often more useful than the contributions from the scientific community, who in addition to their attachment to reductionism are often influenced by vested interests.

I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say that agricultural policy and subsequent practice has been massively influenced by the agro-chemical lobby over my entire farming lifetime and I have not always been particularly impressed by the work of the major research institutes due to the aforementioned problems.

Having said that, I do fully accept the need for evidence based policy and with that in mind, I have done a little trawling through the published studies on the impact of different grassland management systems on soil carbon outcomes, the initial conclusion of which is that there does appear to be at least a reasonable body of evidence indicating that different management practices do impact very significantly, both on stocking capacity and soil carbon.

Hopefully, you will feel inclined to respond to this provocation and continue the discussion, in which case I shall continue to bury myself in the ‘virtual’ library of the internet and supply you with the fruits of my research in a further exchange!

One final point. I know that you are not a great fan of sheep, but it may even be that the application of holistic grazing management principles could have a similarly positive effect on extensively grazed areas, such as the Cambrian mountains, which have undoubtedly been overgrazed in the past, with obvious negative consequences on biodiversity and soil carbon.

I do hope you will find this of interest and look forward to hearing your response.

With best wishes,

Patrick Holden

Chief Executive, Sustainable Food Trust

Feature image by TED Conference

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  • Thanks Patrick, we appreciate you going to the trouble of writing this excellent response to Mr. Monbiot’s article. We too tried to comment on the article in question however were a day outside of the 2-3 day period for response.

    We did end up with a very lively debate on our Regrarians Facebook Group ( that was concluded by Allan Savory’s response which will follow the letter that we posted and emailed to Mr. Monbiot personally (no response to date).

    Very much appreciate all the great advocacy that you and the SFT does and it was great to finally meet you in London recently.

    All the very best,

    Lisa Heenan, Isaebella Doherty & Darren Doherty
    Regrarians Ltd.

  • Darren J. Doherty’s letter to Mr. George Monbiot:


    G’day and thanks for your article Mr. Monbiot,

    I was a speaker and very interested attendee at the @SavoryInstitute conference (‪#‎SavoryConf‬) over the weekend. We represented the Australian-based non-profit, @Regrarians Ltd. which we (my wife & eldest daughter) are Directors of & which I founded. We are an independent organisation that actively seeks the most effective tools available to serve our primary directive: the regeneration of the biosphere’s ecosystem processes.

    The work of Regrarians Ltd. around the world broadly recommends that all people use the ‘Holistic Management Frameworks for Decision Making’ as developed by ecologist Allan Savory and his colleagues over the last few decades.

    We agree with Mr. Savory that the only tools available to humans are 1. Rest 2. Technology & 3. Fire and that the use of any/combination of these should be tested beforehand via an array of ‘testing decisions’ as outlined in the aforementioned framework. This includes the the creation of a ‘Holistic Context’ of the humans/enterprise involved and the detailed analysis of the ecosystem process (i.e. water & mineral cycles + community dynamics) of a given site/situation ahead of planning any specific treatment (s). These of course have incredibly variable permutations as every human’s/enterprise’s ‪#‎HolisticContext‬ will be completely different.

    We also suggest a ‘softly, slowly’ approach where un-trialled treatments are suggested and that these be assiduously monitored to determine their social, financial and ecological efficacy and outcomes. This was not always our way and we have Holistic Management to thank for that.

    What’s not clear from this article and the comments submitted is if people, including Mr. Monbiot, have not gone beyond the Savory Institute’s website or Mr. Savory’s @TED talk for info. Certainly Mr. Monbiot did cite a selection of research reports & other blogs however I am concerned that this literature review did not extend as far as it could and accordingly I’d invite readers to do their own research and read the various texts out there on Holistic Management.

    For balance printing a full transcript of the interview with Mr. Savory would be illuminating as one could establish the complete context of the questioning. Further to this any reading of Mr. Savory’s books (and others in this space) would perhaps bring a context to some of his comments.

    If I could now direct my attention to grazing systems. Whilst there is conflicting research outcomes when it comes to various grazing systems, what is often confused is what the actual grazing methodology is being applied as there are a great number and if they are not following the very distinctive ‘Holistic Planned Grazing’ methodology, then I feel its unfair to discount Mr. Savory’s (and many others) broad recommendation that the highly planned reintroduction or management of herbivores on dry or so-called ‘brittle’ (i.e.. climate zones where evaporation exceeds precipitation) grasslands and savannahs is inappropriate. Again for balance this needs to be absolutely clear. Many of the comments so far clearly don’t discern between any of these methodologies and indeed are broadly ignorant of the differences. Unfortunately I would suggest that many of the scientific research papers cited evidently do not consider the differences either and this is clear from their titling.

    Notwithstanding it is important, vital in fact, that we have all of our cards on the table and for this fact the emergence of ‘citizen science’ which is scientifically valid, longitudinal and captured using highly integrative & holistic monitoring methodologies are now emerging and their ‘open to view’ outcomes will also illuminate both traditional science and the public as to the efficacy (or not) of a whole range of land management systems on a myriad of landscapes and climate zones. This is what is being called for from within the ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ industry and also by policy makers who are interested in applying a whole number of methodologies.

    Finally it is worth noting that the Holistic Management framework that is both repeatedly funded by and continually supported by a number of governments and their departments (particularly those charged with land management) around the world for decades. Their continued support is based on the positive feedback of the adoption of HM frameworks and some of the land management treatments that many producers have used.

    Thank you,

    Darren J. Doherty,
    Regrarians Ltd.

    • Penelope Livingston

      One of the important sources for soil carbon sequestration numbers
      comes from Rattan Lal, Soil Scientist and director of the Carbon
      Management and Sequestration Center According to Rattan Lal, If we
      can increase the humus content by 1/6% on
      all the aerable land (this is an average) to 1′ in depth we could being
      the atmospheric CO2 back to near pre-industrial levels.
      the Marin Carbon Project is looking as Savory’s
      methods of grazing management and is doing a study on soil carbon
      sequestration on drylands with compelling results. This study is being
      done by Dr. Whendee Silver a biogeochemist and PhD in Ecosystem Ecology.

  • Allan Savory’s response to Mr. Monbiot’s letter posted to the Regrarians Facebook Group (

    “…I put this on Regarians site following some criticism based on ignorance of what we do and then thought it would help others too.
    Let me briefly summarize because there is confusion about holistic management that leads to endless meaningless criticism such as Monbiot engaged in recently, and Briske as well as Holocheck, whose papers are constantly cited, although repeatedly refuted because their criticisms bear no relationship to holistic management. When people manage holistically – from household, to community, farm, ranch or to government policies and development projects – they use what is called the holistic framework to guide management. This process is to ensure our actions are addressing the complexity that is always involved. If you think about any management the context for objectives/actions is usually need, desire, profit, or in the case of policy and development projects, is universally the problem being addressed.

    Because management can never avoid social, environmental and economic complexity such simple contexts for management actions do not work well. That is why we experience endless problems in management from global finance, global economy, agriculture, etc. culminating in global desertification and climate change. That is why many past civilizations failed although having no oil, coal or any of today’s technology or vast monocultures. Dealing with complexity in management is essential if we are to avoid repeated unintended consequences and to have any hope for a less violent future by addressing global desertification and climate change.

    So when managing holistically, in any situation, the people involved develop a unique holistic context – tying people’s lives to their life-supporting environment. And then this becomes the context for all actions as they now open their minds to all science and other sources of knowledge. In addition we use a set of ten filters if in doubt to ensure actions are in context, and are also socially, environmentally and economically sound both short and long term. And if the action is an entirely new one, then no matter how much it is backed by research and this filtering process, we automatically assume the action is wrong. On this basis a feedback loop is established thus moving management from adaptive, as it has been for thousands of years, to proactive.

    Holistic management is based on using the latest science known in any relevant field. It also involves opening our minds to new knowledge or scientific insights. Through this we were able to understand that while we behave as though we have a great many tools to manage agriculture and our environment, we actually only have had two for most of human existence – technology in some form, or fire.

    Other than that we had the concept of resting the environment to allow biodiversity recovery (conservation). There is no tool here that can maintain rapid biological decay so essential to all life over most of the world’s land areas. This can only be done by large herbivores of some sort – and for practical purposes that means livestock properly managed. This use of properly managed livestock becomes an essential additional tool to be used in croplands, forests, grasslands, etc. in all regions not permanently humid throughout the year. There are no peer-reviewed publications that have studied holistic management. There are a great many that support the science used and increasingly researchers are collaborating with the gathering of data concerning results – the only way we can measure the effects of managing holistically, socially, environmentally and economically…”

  • Craigsams

    This discussion should also consider the Rodale Institute white paper on Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Change which was recently covered in the Wall Street Journal. The Rodale Institute have 33 years of comparative trials that show the benefits of organic agriculture and this paper covers the climate benefits of improved pasture management.

  • Barbara Carseldine

    Thank you Patrick Holden for such a great response

  • Lobma Thundrup

    Monbiot, has to his credit, in the past admitted to making harsh judgments, thus I hope he will at least look further into this matter and write another piece on the subject. He seems too hampered though by scientific validity, whereas we know that science does not always play devils advocate.
    What was shocking too, to me, in his original; article was the way he dismissed almost out of hand Alan Savory’s conclusions, as well as his
    cute dismissal of the phone conversation he had with Savory, as rambling and muddled. As Alan has pointed out since, he is in his 80’s and it was a very bad connection. My hearing is awful too, especially when trying to conduct phone conversations.

  • Caleb Williams

    I recommend the new book by Courtney White called “Grass, Soil, Hope” published by Chelsea Green Publishing. It contains stories of people who are putting these ideas to work in the practical world. I have been a farmer for 25 years, and I have seen these ideas work. The difficulty with the criticism that Mr. Monbiot puts forth is that he never left the library. He really needs to go visit these places and see for himself and talk to the people who are doing it.

    • SustainableFoodTrust

      Hi Caleb, thanks for the recommendation. We actually published a review of Grass, Soil, Hope recently, as part of our top 10 books for summer -

  • An excellent and fascinating article – thank you. I agree we need scientific evidence to form policy – but in the absence of systematic evidence we have to start somewhere and building up a body of reputable anecdotal evidence from informed observers and practitioners seems the best way to start – this would provide the basis for further testing of various hypotheses.

  • Natasha RegenAGUK