Can Regenerative Agriculture Save the World's Grasslands? This Rancher Says Yes
In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, say many climate-change experts, we have to consume less red meat and dairy. They argue that cattle and other ruminants take up too much land and produce too much methane. Not only that, the crops we feed livestock—including 70% of all soybeans and 40% of all corn grown in the U.S.—require massive amounts of energy, water and land to grow.
Daniela Ibarra-Howell, co-founder and CEO of the Savory Institute, based in Boulder, Colorado, has spent the past 13 years building a global organization around a counterargument: If we graze cattle the right way, she advocates, we can actually restore depleted soils and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from beef production by 66%.
The world is finally paying attention.
Ibarra-Howell, an agronomist born in Argentina and schooled in New Zealand, moved to the United States with her husband in 1994 to study with Allan Savory. The Zimbabwean livestock farmer and researcher had invented an approach to ranching that he called "holistic management." It's based on Savory's premise that, by mimicking the natural process of migrating animals instead of letting cattle overgraze a single plot of land, we can reverse desertification and build soil health. If we applied holistic grazing on all the Earth's grasslands, which make up 40% of its landmass, the effects, he argues, could be world-changing.
In the two years that Ibarra-Howell worked with Savory on a 35,000-acre test ranch in New Mexico, she says, he became a "great mentor and friend." She continued to consult with him during the 17 years that followed, when she and her husband, Jim, managed their family ranch in Colorado, observing firsthand how Savory's methods improved the productivity and biodiversity there. "We did our own boots-on-the-ground research, understanding what this approach was all about," she says. "We became great believers."
When she helped Savory create the Savory Institute in 2009, Ibarra-Howell's mentor tapped her to be its CEO. "Daniela's intelligence and character impressed me when she came through the first full training program I ran many years ago. She was the obvious choice for CEO," writes Savory in an email. Now in his 80s, Savory continues to serve as the institute's president—but Ibarra-Howell has turned his theories into a global movement.
How do you change ranching around the world—especially when every ecosystem, every culture, every economy is different? Even though the institute has trained almost 16,000 farmers who collectively manage 54.3 million acres of land, there is no recipe for sustainable ranching, let alone for making it profitable for farmers in Kenya, Australia and Oregon.
Too many climate change interventions, Ibarra-Howell says, drown in "eddies of intellectual discussions." She takes a more entrepreneurial approach, which is based in the institute's network of 51 regional hubs in 34 countries. Each hub is anchored on a ranch or educational institution that hosts trainings and research studies and helps ranchers who practice holistic grazing succeed economically.
"[Daniela's] a great leader, a great co-worker and a great communicator," says Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grassfed Association. "She understands that this is important work for the soil and for the Earth."
Some scientists have contested Savory's claims about how holistic grazing might reverse climate change. So, under Ibarra-Howell's guidance, the institute has partnered with researchers at universities including Michigan State and Texas A&M to study the long-term environmental effects of practices such as moving livestock from paddock to paddock to spur the vegetation to grow back healthier and denser.
One of the Savory Institute's largest successes is its Land to Market program, which launched in 2018. Companies that source meat, dairy, wool and leather from farms that practice holistic grazing can boast this seal on their packaging. Already, more than 70 major brands—from clothing companies like UGG and Burberry to food manufacturers such as Epic Provisions—have signed on. Both brands and ranchers have shown so much interest that the program now monitors 2.5 million acres of land to verify that farmers are improving soil health, reducing water pollution and improving biodiversity there. And Ibarra-Howell has seen the impact of the Savory Institute's work reach beyond the environmental and the economic. When the land grows healthier, and the environment shifts, there's a consciousness shift that happens, too, she says. "There's a very deep why that comes from a love of the land, a love of people and the desire to be the change," she says of the global regenerative agriculture movement she has helped build. "To have so many different cultures and so many different groups and so many different environments all united by that DNA of purpose is so important."
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