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