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.

| Summer 2017

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.