The Sacred Cow: Fighting Desertification

Allan Savory's Holistic Management Theory of fighting desertification by running more cattle on pasture land falls short on science.

  • Rangeland ecologists question Savory's assertion that large herbivores (like cattle) can be instrumental in restoring grasslands to health.
    Photo by Flickr/89654772@n05
  • In his 2013 TED talk, Savory (right) spent a great deal of time on photos and assertions, but presented very little data.
    Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson
  • Prairie grassland in Dane County, Wisconsin. In Savory's universe, ungrazed land, known as "rested" land, will always wither away. "It's just wrong, " said Brewer. A substantial number of studies on desert grassland have found that with rest, grass cover "increases dramatically," while "intensive grazing delays this recovery."
    Photo by Flickr/wackybadger

Before he became known as an apostate ecologist, Allan Savory was a soldier. Born in Zimbabwe to a family of British colonials, he commanded an elite government unit during the country’s long, brutal civil war. He and his squad — men handpicked and trained by him — spent much of the 1960s fighting communist guerrillas in the veld, the savannas and grasslands where antelopes, elephants, and lions roam. It was hard, isolating, dangerous work. And it prepared him for the decades he has spent battling environmental orthodoxy, first as a farmer and rancher in Africa and then as an agricultural consultant in the United States. 

Savory’s apostasy is based on a controversial idea: that we need more cows — not fewer — grazing on the world’s grasslands, prairies, and deserts, the arid and semiarid two-thirds of Earth’s land surface where soil is especially susceptible to drying out and eroding as the climate warms and droughts worsen. This ruinous process is known as desertification, and it is estimated to be degrading an area the size of Pennsylvania worldwide each year. It ends with soil that has turned to dust. 

Stopping desertification is Savory’s obsession. He watched it spread across southern Africa over the course of decades, spawning poverty and migration, which contributed to war. Savory’s big claim is that the science about desertification is wrong, notably the idea that cattle grazing always contributes to degradation in what he calls “brittle” landscapes. After laboring for years in relative obscurity, Savory eventually built up a significant international following. Today, according to Savory, tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers across the globe, managing some 40 million acres of land, adhere to his philosophy. 

Savory’s ideas catapulted into the mainstream in 2013, after he stood on a stage at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, and offered his grand theory about livestock. Savory told the audience that cows offered “more hope than you can imagine.” The 22-minute talk was titled, ambitiously, “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.” The presentation garnered millions of views — 3,746,905 as of this writing — and quickly became notorious among scientists who study the ecology of grazing.

Savory’s theory goes like this: Cows that are managed in the right way can replicate the beneficial effect on soil of the native herds that once covered the planet’s grasslands. Wild herds lived in fear of predators, and for protection they traveled in tight bunches, moving quickly. If we keep cattle moving across the landscape to mimic this behavior, and if we preserve the ancestral grazer-soil relationship — the animals churning the soil with their hooves, fertilizing it with dung and urine, stomping grass, creating mulch, stimulating plant growth — we can re-green the arid lands and, at the same time, encourage soil microbes that eat carbon dioxide. 

Savory’s vision, in part, follows some of the emerging science of what’s called soil carbon sequestration. With more grass and better topsoils, we can use biological processes to capture and store the carbon that drives global climate change. The most commonly recommended strategies for what’s called “carbon farming” are adopting no-till or low-till methods; boosting soil organic matter with additions of compost; and better managing crop rotation, especially through the use of cover crops. Savory puts a twist on the idea by adding livestock to the mix and recommending that ranchers increase the number of cattle per acre. 

Ian Manning
5/17/2019 11:52:14 AM

To understand Savory's grazing theory (have a look at the Sierra letters to the editor) one has to understand the difficulty in 'proving' holism (Jan Smuts, 'Holism and Evolution') for it is aligned with systems theory in opposition to reductionist approaches. A holistic view is now extremely important, assailed as we are by ecocidal forces. Savory admits to the difficulty and rejects the attempts by critics to impose a reductionist viewpoint. When serving in the Northern Rhodesia Game Department in the 50s he was greatly taken with the stability of the ecology in the Luangwa and Zambezi valleys where small villages were to be found amidst much wildlife. When the villages were removed, the ecology greatly deteriorated for the people moved the game around. Now herds of animals stand as though cast in stone as the convoys of tourists pass by, the reeds of the river gone, the carrying capacity greatly diminished. The experience stayed with him. Of course, trying to get cattle to fit into the elephant/buffalo/people mould is difficult. Each case is different; management is required; or some lion to chase your cattle around. In the dryland areas it can be a disaster. One of the Sierra letter writers, Peter Ardington, made a valuable comment: 'Holistic management methodology with adequate recovery needs further research with recognition of historic observations before the scientific establishment rejects it. Currently, the research is scanty and lacks recognition of such variables as periodicity, drought, wet conditions, and recovery in a broad holistic approach. We cannot expect to get all the right answers unless we ask all the right questions'. In the early 60s, Allan moved to the Southern Rhodesia Game Department and then became one of the pioneers of game ranching (I contracted to him as a game harvester). At UDI, when I knew him, he became involved with the Tracker Combat Unit - leading a stick of civilians against armed insurgents. In 1970 he became an MP, later resigned and brought back to life the Rhodesia Party. Then for saying that "If I had been born a black Rhodesian, instead of a white Rhodesian, I would be your greatest terrorist " he was expelled from the party. In 1977 he and others opposed to Ian Smith formed the National Unifying Force. In 1979 he left the country. In 2006 he wrote Good Governance in Africa:

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