Allan Savory's career has taken many paths, including researcher, game ranger, farmer, politician, and international consultant. He currently serves as president and co-founder of The Savory Institute, an organization researching livestock management in the grasslands of the world, based in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Savory has made significant breakthroughs in understanding what is causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems. He eventually coined the methodology “holistic management,” which The Savory Institute promotes around the world.
“When something is going wrong on such a global scale, and when so many brilliant minds have worked on it for centuries, you’ve got to say we’re not stupid, we don’t lack knowledge. There’s something systemically wrong. And I accidentally hit on what that is, and it’s profoundly simple to begin putting it right,” said Savory.
In March 2013, Savory gave an inspiring TED talk highlighting how to fight desertification and reverse climate change, which has been viewed over 1.7 million times on TED and over 625,000 times on YouTube.
In his book, The Grazing Revolution, Savory presents a solution that’s radical, yet simple—mimic the behavior of natural herds that once grazed the grasslands.
“We need to manage holistically, embracing all of our science and traditional knowledge—all sources of knowledge. We can do that from the household to government, to international relations,” said Savory.
Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Savory. We learned more about his vision for a more sustainable food system, the “Savory Grazing Method,” how he faces criticism, and his long-term plans for The Savory Institute.
You began your career as a research biologist and Game Ranger in current-day Zambia with the British Colonial Service before becoming an environmentalist, farmer, and much more. What made you shift your work and focus to environmental issues like desertification?
I never did shift my work or focus. We simply did not have the buzz words – environmentalist, biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change – I was seeing massive scale environmental degradation threatening the future of wildlife. And then gradually expanding this vision to seeing it threatened all life and had been the same thing that had contributed to so many civilizations failing. And very early on I saw the direct evidence in the field that floods and droughts were the result of land degradation rather than any change in rainfall as many scientists were claiming.
Over time, my understanding grew to realizing that land could not be managed independent of the culture of the people and their economy – that management needed to be holistic, embracing all science and other sources of knowledge. And that where livestock are involved they are best handled through a long-established planning process rather than any prescriptive grazing system, rotation or other form, no matter how flexible. In this manner we could consistently and successfully address the full complexity of society, economy, environment, wildlife, cropping and livestock.
What is the Savory Grazing Method? How did you develop it?
This was one of the names applied to holistically planned grazing. From the outset I developed today’s planned grazing as described in the TED book. Being entirely new I gave it no name. People began calling my work the Savory System. Because it was virtually the opposite of any management system – being a planning process – I was obliged to put a name to the work. I chose short-duration high-intensity grazing, or short duration grazing (note no use of the word system).
Academics added the word system dropping the planning process. This was because a prescribed system could be replicated where a planning process could not be replicated. When I found that others were claiming that the “short duration grazing system” was developed in Texas I had to disassociate entirely from short duration grazing. On advice, I changed to savory grazing method (not system) but was then told that government agencies couldn’t promote something tied to a person’s name. So I changed the name to holistic planned grazing, which it has been since.
There has also been some criticism based on scientific research that shows increased grazing and land trampling by livestock leads in the long term to soil degradation, rather than soil enrichment, as your method claims. What have actually been the long-term effects of planned grazing? Is soil degradation a heavy risk of this method?
It is to be anticipated that increased grazing and trampling will lead to soil degradation. In all those studies grazing was equated with grazing of the “land.” Only plants can be grazed, not land. And this distinction is important because plants can be overgrazed while the land, or soil, is overresting. And if the grazing and trampling of the plants is not controlled by timing the movement of the animals to the needs of plants and soils (as holistic planned grazing does), some plants can be overgrazed and some overrested, while at the same time soils are degrading through overrest, overtrampling and compaction.
Much of the research allegedly done on holistic planned grazing has eliminated the planning process, and thus the time factor. Holistic planned grazing was developed to ensure that no plants are overgrazed, few if any plants are overrested, and the soil is only trampled at any one place for a few days followed by several months of recovery time. The long term effects of planning the grazing (and trampling) holistically have been beneficial, and this has also been documented in a number of papers, articles, and case studies and photographically (see the list of references and resources here).
What was your vision in founding the Savory Institute? Has the Institute succeeded in working towards this vision?
The purpose of SI agreed upon by the six of us who co-founded the institute was to “expand the holistic framework into international consciousness to sustain life on earth.” We have since created a vision of what we hope to achieve by 2025: To influence the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded grasslands worldwide, and to remove barriers that stand in the way of large scale success, mainly flawed policies and lack of market incentives.
Given the Institute’s short life we are making meaningful progress toward that vision, especially given that new paradigm-shifting insights normally take a long time to be accepted, let alone embraced. That management needs to be holistic was strongly resisted by many within the scientific community 30 years ago, as was the need to use properly managed livestock to restore degraded grasslands. Today, however, many scientists accept and even promote these ideas – in their individual capacity. But the institutions they represent do not, and will likely withhold recognition until there is a shift in public opinion, which is now building.
You have also been involved in politics, serving as a Member of the Rhodesian Parliament in the 1970s. What impact do environmental trends like desertification have on the political and economic realms?
The impact is profound and fundamental, although not seen as such in mainstream political or economic thinking. Agriculture is not simply crop production. It is the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters. Without agriculture it is simply not possible to have an orchestra, a church, university, army, political party or government. It is the very foundation of civilization, which by definition is city-based and dependent on farmers/livestock producers to feed them.
And ultimately the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy or nation, is derived from the photosynthetic process – green plants growing on regenerating soil. Global political stability and good governance is likely to prove elusive as long as agriculture continues to produce more than 10 tons of eroding soil per human alive every year, as it does globally and in the US today.
The Savory Institute is implementing small-scale, local Savory Hubs in various communities around the world that offer consulting and training services, as well financial, network, and material resources to the regions’ farmers. Why is it important to focus on this local level? What unique contribution can small, community farmers make in the effort for food security on a global scale?
Almost all the knowledge required to produce more food than eroding soil is available today – we just need to use that knowledge within a holistic paradigm – managing agriculture holistically, forming the policies that undergird it holistically. Being a new scientific insight, leadership in this quest cannot come from politicians or from any institution, but only from ordinary people.
Accordingly, SI is pursuing a strategic vision for empowering others to manage holistically by working with local entrepreneurs and community groups to create Savory Institute-affiliated learning hubs. There is no way we could do this from one centralized organization if we want to reach the whole world. The hubs would be locally led and locally managed. Those running the hubs will always understand the local context better than SI will. Local entrepreneurs will be far more successful than SI could ever be in finding ways for their hub and its programs to become self-sustaining.
Each hub is in charge of training, consulting, and implementation support for farmers in its region. It also includes a land base that demonstrates the results that can be achieved through holistic planned grazing and provides a place where farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, scientists, and government and non-government organizations can collaborate in learning about and documenting the results of managing holistically. Evidence and data can then be leveraged to inform policies and establish market incentives.
Ten hubs have been established in 2013 and are in the process of being accredited by Savory Institute, and we have close to 40 candidates for 2014. We hope to have 100 hubs operating by 2025. Hubs can beget hubs, as the hub already formed in Zimbabwe (the Africa Centre for Holistic Management) has shown over the past two years, having trained people from throughout Africa resulting in hubs forming in South Africa, Kenya, and elsewhere. Through these hubs trained facilitators are training community facilitators who in turn can train hundreds of people – all of whom can assist their neighbors and spread the knowledge and practices.
Our target of influencing the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of land by 2025 will involve billions of people, from producers and consumers, to corporations and policymakers, to researchers and film producers – none of whom is too small to contribute to the increasingly rich global network of learning hubs. We have to remember that it was a relatively small group of organic farmers who kept organic agriculture alive and growing over many years against institutional resistance and opposition.
• This article originally appeared at Food Tank, a think tank focused on feeding the world better. Food Tank researches and highlights environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and creates networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.