The Savory Institute: Healing the World’s Grasslands, Rangelands and Savannas

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This is the first of a two-part interview with Allan Savory, President and Co-Founder of The Savory Institute, an organization based in Zimbabwe that works with farmers, pastoralists, and ranchers to restore degraded lands through holistic management practices. Savory is a winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which awards recipients for innovative thinking to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Livestock production, particularly cattle, has been blamed in recent years for environmental degradation on both the local and global scales. Do you agree with this perspective?


A desert grassland in southern New Mexico, photographed in 1961. (Photo taken @ Jorada Experimental Range/USDA. Source: Brown et al., Position Paper on Climate Change. International Society for Range Management –2009.)

Yes, livestock are blamed for environmental degradation, and rightly so. They have been blamed for thousands of years, as livestock grazing and burning of grasslands caused the great man-made deserts of the world. They have been blamed for the vast range land degradation in the U.S. and other nations. They are now vilified for the methane they emit adding to global greenhouse gases. They are blamed for the tragic degradation of riparian areas along streams in U.S. public lands. They have in fact caused far greater environmental damage over centuries than their strongest critics write about.

It was for this reason that I, in my days as a young scientist, hated livestock and the people running them. It was for this reason that I first coined the term “game ranching” and initiated the first efforts in Africa to show that we could give wildlife a value and ultimately get rid of livestock. I did this because of what I saw with my own eyes, and what my university training taught me to believe. It was all so obvious, and I could not see why anyone would deny such overwhelming evidence.

While all the critics are correct (as I was also), and were in fact understating the damage that livestock were causing, I did note that most of the damage was in regions with very seasonal precipitation and long dry periods, where humidity was strongly seasonal regardless of rainfall. I noted that much less damage was being experienced in environments where the moisture in the soil and atmosphere was more-or-less constant. Thus, we see the greatest desertification taking place on the roughly two-thirds of the Earth where humidity is very seasonal (including parts of the United States), but not, for example, in England.

People who are critical of livestock are right to be deeply concerned. Climate change is caused by two things: agriculture (the cause of global desertification), and fossil fuel use (leading to emissions of greenhouse gases). In many ways, agriculture, producing more eroding soil than food worldwide, is the most serious cause. I say this because even after we develop benign forms of mass energy, climate change will continue because agriculture is causing the expansion of deserts. Images over time from space are telling: Dr. [Elisabet] Sahtouris gives an interesting description of mankind as “a desert-making species” if viewed from space.

If we look at the other effects of desertification, we see its significance highlighted even more. Increasing drought and flood severity and frequency, poverty, social breakdown, cultural genocide of ranching and pastoralist peoples, increasing violence, emigration to cities, etc. All of these symptoms are due to desertification and not to climate change—although they are now being blamed on climate change, despite the fact that desertification began thousands of years before widespread fossil fuel use.

So we can take it as a given that livestock are gravely endangering humanity—as they have been managed and still are managed.

But you now believe that livestock is the only tool available to reverse desertification. How have you come to that conclusion?

Humans are a tool-using animal, and we can only manipulate or manage our environment by using some tool—through creativity, our labor, or our money. About 2 million years ago, we used our first tools: sticks and stones. But we could develop no further than sharpening the sticks with chipped stones, our first simple technology. Then we got use of the tool of fire and we advanced our technology to the marvels of today, where I can use this computer and the Internet and we can build vast cities and put a person on the moon.

For at least a million years, humans have had only these two tools: technology and fire. Then, sometime after the domestication of plants and animals beginning about 15,000 years ago, we developed the idea of “resting” the land or environment to let it recover—through crop rotations with rest, and grazing systems using resting land periods. Today, the most sophisticated scientific teams addressing climate change and desertification are still using the three tools with which we influence our environment at large: technology, fire, and rest. But there is no tool in our scientific toolbox that could have prevented, or that can reverse, desertification.

Desertification results from biodiversity loss: the loss of the mass and diversity of plant and animal life. Sustaining life in any environment requires sustaining a basic life-cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay, in which nutrients are cycled continuously. In perennially humid environments—roughly one-third of Earth’s land—the decay part of this cycle is maintained by a high population of microorganisms that bring about biological decay. As vegetation dies throughout the year, organisms continually break it down.

In these environments, we can use the tool of “rest” to address the most severe environmental degradation. Old city civilizations that were abandoned in these environments, when agriculture had so damaged the land that people could no longer support a city, are found under recovered vegetation and jungle. This is because resting the land is the most powerful tool available to humans to restore and maintain biodiversity and the full lifecycling of vegetation in perennially humid environments, from oceans to tropical forests.

So why is desertification such a problem in other environments, that are not humid year-round?


The same desert grassland in southern New Mexico that is photographed above but in 2002. Livestock were excluded from the site since the 1950s, but processes resulting in replacement of grasses continued. (Photo taken @ Jorada Experimental Range/USDA. Source: Brown et al., Position Paper on Climate Change. International Society for Range Management –2009.)

In environments that are alternately wet and dry and thus experience seasonal humidity—such as  vast grasslands, savannas, and man-made deserts—things operate very differently. The life-cycle has to be maintained—and it was, prior to human intervention. In these environments, a great amount of vegetation grows during the humid growing season. When the soil and humidity dry off each year, most trees and shrubs lose their leaves, which drop to the ground and decay. Many billions of tons of above-ground grass parts also die off but do not drop to the ground. Thus, a large volume of plant material that has to decay stands dead in an environment where the microorganisms of decay have also diminished due to the lack of humidity. How then does decay function?

The answer is that most of these perennial grass plants developed alongside vast herding herbivores. The animals were dependent on the grass for food, and the grass was dependent on the animals for removal and rapid biological decay of the dying material. Most grasses have growth points close to the ground, out of harm from grazing animals, so the animals could remove leaves without damage to the plant and also allow sunlight to reach the growth points the following season. But if there are not enough large herbivores with vast microorganism populations in their moist gut to cycle this mass of material, then it remains standing.

As dead grass parts stand, without large herbivores to bring about decay, a chemical process of oxidation takes over. Oxidation is a very slow process: experimental plots show that it can take over 60 years for a perennial grass to finally break down if totally protected from fire or animals. Slow oxidation/weathering leads to premature death of most animal-dependent perennial grass plants, and thus to loss of biomass and diversity. Healthy grassland gives way to woody tap-rooted plants that are not dependent on grazing herbivores (if rainfall is high enough). And in places where rainfall is low, it gives way to desert bushes and bare soil—i.e., desertification. (See images for an illustration of these changes.)

Commonly, the perennial grasses that do survive in areas with too few herbivores are what I call “rest tolerant,” and these today dominate millions of acres of U.S. desertifying range lands. Examples of these grasses are aristida, gramma, and tobossa. They are generally recognizable by their short stature, fine sparse stems and leaves, or branching stems like a tree—all allowing light to reach growth points despite oxidizing material.

Humans must have first observed this weakening of grasslands sometime after killing off most large herbivores and replacing them with fewer domesticated animals. And naturally, they used fire to remove the old material in an effort to keep the grasslands healthy and woody plants at bay. This approach is still supported by major environmental and other organizations today because all of these groups use the core decision framework of humans that recognizes only technology, rest, or fire. Train in any university, in any profession, and you will only be trained to use either technology, fire, or rest to manipulate our environment at large. Even water for irrigation is not a tool in the sense that it can only be applied through some aspect of technology.

Fire, although rapid, is still oxidation—and thus represents chemical breakdown and not biological decay. It also ruthlessly exposes soil and contributes greenhouse gases and black carbon, contributing to desertification and climate change. The tool of rest also leads to oxidation—i.e., bare soil and desertification, as shown in the images of New Mexico.

Is the third tool, technology, an option? If not, where does that leave us for combating desertification?

Technology is the only tool remaining in our toolbox, but no imaginable technology can restore biological decay over two-thirds of the world’s land, every year. There is only one thing that can do what is needed: large herbivores with moist guts in which microorganism populations remain high throughout the year. In practical terms, this means livestock, because most large herbivores were wiped out. In some situations, as we are demonstrating on the Africa Centre for Holistic Management’s land in Zimbabwe, we are integrating livestock with the remnant wildlife populations.

I have come to the conclusion that we have no option but to get the public, scientists, politicians, and others to accept that only livestock can reverse desertification. There is no other known tool available to humans with which to address desertification that is contributing not only to climate change but also to much of the poverty, emigration, violence, etc. in the seriously affected regions of the world.

We can now see that it was not the livestock per se that caused significant damage in the past, but the way we managed them. And given that they are now the only practical tool with which to address desertification and its role in climate change, we can now put things like methane emissions into perspective. Livestock do produce methane. And it is likely that they produce more methane on artificial feedlot feed and pasture than on range land grass feed.

But assume for a moment that livestock even on natural range land feed produced 10 times the methane alleged. What would we do? Condemn them and continue dealing with desertification using technology, fire, and resting land—two of which cause desertification and one that cannot reverse it? No, we have no option but to use livestock—no matter what methane they emit. What is most likely is that the methane produced will be countered by healthy grasslands, as in the past.

Many academics, environmentalists, and others have ridiculed, abused, and “shot the messenger” over the last 50 years. But not one has come forward to show us where this reasoning is either wrong or unsupported by science. It is vital for humanity to end this controversy, and to do so soon.

What do you think about using livestock to manage desertification and climate change? Let us know in the comments! And stay tuned for part II of our interview with Allan Savoy in the coming days.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


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