Allan Savory: How livestock can protect the land

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Allan Savory this week. In the past 50 years, Savory has worn many hats including those of biologist, farmer, soldier, exile, environmentalist — and now co-founder and head of the Savory Institute. Considered the father of holistic management, he has dedicated his life to studying the management of grasslands and fighting the growing deserts with livestock. We talked about the state of desertification on the planet, the mindsets and policies that preclude change, how to engage people and business in the conversation, his TED Talk that took place just the evening prior, and much more.

It became quite clear during our conversation that there exists a universal misunderstanding of how to properly manage much of our planet’s uninhabited land. In fact, nearly two-thirds of it. It is widely perceived that livestock overgrazing is the primary culprit to the erosion of soil, and that the most means of reversing this erosion is to decrease livestock numbers. This, according to Savory, couldn’t be further from the truth. And it has taken him a lifetime in the field to discover the real truth — but not before much heartache.          

As a young biological scientist, Savory had developed a strong affinity for wildlife but not so much for livestock. So, he convinced his government in his African homeland to decrease livestock herds. This tragically resulted in the slaughter of some 40,000 elephants. And much to everyone’s surprise, and particularly Savory’s, the land still showed no signs of improvement. Savory had followed his strict scientific training but that training had led him astray. Fortunately it also strengthened his resolve to figure out his mistakes.

And what he determined was that livestock, like elephant herds, were in fact the only way to save the very land he previously thought were ruining it. They simply needed to be managed correctly.

Why is this so important? Here’s one reason: Agriculture is producing more eroding soil than food. Here’s another: Despite the widespread belief that fossil fuels are the main culprit to climate change, Savory argues that desertification and agriculture are causing as much if not more than these fossil fuels. It is just that nobody is talking about it.

And the problem is universal. Land that scientists deem arid and natural, Savory argues is anything but. By removing animals much land is actually being “over rested”. And Savory argues that much of the problem is in the mindset of our educational institutes, governments, environmental organizations, development organizations and the like. Fortunately, business understands and is starting to take this seriously.

Savory discusses the dire need to formulate government policies differently but is optimistic that the problem is solvable – it’s just a matter of unleashing creativity and removing institutional barriers. He also states that climate change has the potential to unite us all.

I have a feeling that Savory will continue his hard work until he breathes his last breath. It’s very inspiring. His institute is now busy creating hubs or training facilities (100 or more) are large swaths of land so that people have the ability to see firsthand what he is talking about and how the land is transformed. At the end of the day, this land must be locally managed to succeed.

Protecting the land for wildlife needs and producing food rather than eroding soil. Conquering climate change. Big steps but also rather simple when you think about it.