Allan Savory to Reverse Desertification, Solve Global Warming, Feed World’s Poor

6,867 32 Loading

SH 88_#2 BIG

As a young scientist in Africa, Allan Savory helped set aside national parks. His organization removed indigenous “hunting, drum-beating people” to protect animals. Newly burgeoning herds of elephants were then identified as causing desertification by overgrazing. Savory theorized as much in a paper and sent it to his peers for review. Other scientists corroborated the report, and the government killed 40,000 elephants.

Instead of improving, desertification worsened.

Savory opens his recent TED talk with this story, assuming responsibility for an awful mistake. But, he says, the experience taught him a lesson, “One good thing did come out of it. It made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.” I had to rewind the video the first time I heard that.

According to his account, this was a man already devoted to finding solutions, and those solutions, implemented on a grand scale, failed just as grandly. That experience might imbue some with a severe and undying sense of humility in the face of nature’s grandeur and complexity. Not so, Allan Savory.

Savory says his favored solution—holistic management and planned grazing—is the right solution and should be implemented on an even grander, global scale. “I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children, and their children, and all of humanity.” Queue the standing ovation.

Holistic management goes against the grain. Common wisdom would have it that desertification, or the human degradation of once verdant grasslands, can be caused by overgrazing of large herds of livestock. But that common wisdom underpinned Savory’s mistake with the elephants, and therefore he now believes the opposite is true—if properly managed.

Savory says Earth’s grasslands evolved with large herding creatures feeding, defecating, and moving to greener pastures before overgrazing. The herd’s passage assured good soil coverage, provided manure, and grasslands evolved to depend on it—not unlike how many ecosystems counterintuitively depend on fire to regenerate.

Overgrazing is bad, but no grazing at all is worse. To reverse desertification, we need to introduce large livestock herds and move them according to nature’s rhythms.

Holistic management, according to Savory, addresses “all of nature’s complexity and our social, enviromental, [and] economic complexity.” Restoring half of the Earth’s grasslands will sequester CO2 by the ton and return atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels, while all that new milk and meat will feed billions.

I’m not a biologist, but I pay attention to what people say and how they say it. Anyone claiming they’ve solved all of nature’s complexity and social and economic complexity to boot—well, he’d be the first since God. But what about the science? What do Savory’s peers think of his claims? The talk sparked a fierce online debate.

Enthusiastically in favor were TED's curator Chris Anderson, Michael Pollan, and Discover Magazine. One blogger called for a Nobel Prize, already.

Meanwhile, others criticized the talk. Adam Merberg's thorough blog post notes Savory isn’t short on doubters among his peers and there is by no means an avalanche of data saying he’s right. There is one research trial backing holistic management, the Charter Grazing Trials conducted in 1960s Zimbabwe. Explaining how the trial worked, Savory told the TED audience the key was “movement, mimicking nature, and using a sigmoid curve, that principle. It’s a little bit technical to explain here, but just that.”

And maybe that’s the problem. Savory attributes the failures associated with holistic management, and there have been a number, to improper administration, not the method itself. How useful can such a method be on large scales if it’s so difficult to implement—perhaps it doesn’t address all those social complexities after all?

As for the theory itself, Ralph Maughan notes, that although some grasslands evolved with big grazers—particularly in Savory’s own Africa—not all grasslands did. In North America, many grasses evolved with small grazers like rabbits, mice, tortoises, and insects. And none evolved with large herds of cattle and other livestock.

SH 88_#3

Further, Savory circles all the world’s  arid areas on a satellite image—2/3 of the Earth’s land mass, he estimates—and says they are desertifying. But it doesn't follow that because a region is desert, it's desertifying. Most of Earth’s deserts are naturally occurring and some are even cyclical.

Maughan notes the Sahara turned from desert to grassland and back again twice since the last Ice Age—without human intervention or the presence of large grazers. And while deserts may appear devoid of plant life, the algal crusts Savory calls “the cancer of desertification” do sequester carbon and prevent erosion.

Although Savory may be onto something great with holistic management, many of his peers remain unconvinced. Like other scientists, he could continue rigorously testing his methods, building a stronger case, and winning over naysayers. Instead, he seems to be working harder on the marketing than the method.

Savory understands the world is complex and rendered in countless shades of grey. Yet he also believes himself and others capable of understanding the complexity, selling holistic management as a panacea. When it comes to such broad claims, skepticism is warranted. Silver bullet solutions are rare, silver bullet sales commonplace.

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 32 Responses

  • hushpeople May 2, 2013 on 5:25 pm

    This guy sounds like he needs to stay very far away from any decision making whatsoever except for what he’s having for dinner. I say he’s done quite enough damage with his crackpot nonsense and he shouldn’t even be given a forum to spout his nonsense ever again.

    • Scrove hushpeople May 3, 2013 on 1:10 pm

      I have no problem with him being allowed to speak and present ideas, the problem lies in the fact that many are trying to throw a noble prize at the man for doing nothing that I can see other than go the exact opposite approach of his early in life blunder. Hell, people want this idea to work despite the evidence to the contrary and are likely to ignore anything that contradicts this and use it simply to confirm that they where correct.

  • why06 May 2, 2013 on 6:47 pm

    He said 40,000 not 400,000. For clarification.

    I always agree more research is needed, but I think he is on to something. I think this sounds like an excellent idea. And there’s little damage to the animals and if there IS damage to the land, the process can always be stopped, with the only side-effect being desertification.

    • why06 why06 May 2, 2013 on 6:58 pm

      After watching the full video. He had some excellent examples.

      I’m convinced this man deserves a Nobel Prize. His work will prbly save the world.

      • t why06 May 3, 2013 on 4:50 am

        you are convinced after watching his video?

        • why06 t May 3, 2013 on 5:48 am

          I’m not a scientist, so if you want to link me a counter argument to his actual research then I will look at it. But I don’t believe this article really contradicts his basic research. And the american grassland had buffalos & mammoths, so idk what he means that our grasslands did not evolve with large herds of animals.

          • t why06 May 6, 2013 on 3:32 am

            I dint imply that his research is wrong or whatever. But saying that someone deserves a noble prize just by looking at their videos seems farfetched.

      • hushpeople why06 May 4, 2013 on 4:07 pm

        And the Brazilian that gave us all “Killer Bees” was just trying to make Brazil the honey producing capital of the world. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and man needs to stop meddling in nature’s business. Nature always has a way to fix what gets broken! Just look at the co2 levels and the rapid growth of trees in the Southwest. 40,000 elephants because someone couldn’t look past his own Nobel Prize attempts to see cause and effect. I’m sure the Charles Manson followers have learned their lesson too but it doesn’t mean they should get a second chance at freedom. Same concept.

        • why06 hushpeople May 4, 2013 on 8:20 pm

          I understand what your saying, but then where does this idea ever be put to the test or any idea for that matter. He has shown many examples of his project in action in many different areas, with many different type of herds.

          And do remember the Nobel Peace Priz itself wasn’t invented by Alfred Nobel, in redemption for the invention of TNT. Sometimes some good does come out of former mistakes. Just please consider the approach for what it is and evaluate its merits and not bring any predisposition due to previous failures.

          • why06 why06 May 4, 2013 on 8:22 pm

            This rapid growth of trees. Could you be more specific?

        • Che Mort hushpeople May 20, 2013 on 1:56 pm

          LOL Awesome comment

      • Amare Sisay why06 October 3, 2013 on 4:49 am

        i couldn’t agree more.

  • fishead62 May 2, 2013 on 8:03 pm

    We’ve done enough damage with introduced species and his track record at solving problems on grand scales isn’t good. I’m open to managed, holistic approaches but perhaps he’s not the guy to come up with the solutions.

  • Vector May 3, 2013 on 12:17 am

    I’m highly impressed with the presentation by Allan Savory. He seems to have learned well from his mistake, and now he offers humanity a more evolutionary method to ameliorating many of the climactic and agricultural dilemmas our planet faces. A Nobel Prize may not be too unreasonable.

    • Che Mort Vector May 20, 2013 on 2:04 pm

      Really, managed is better? Let’s see with the evolution of technology 50% of the farmland in the US in 1949 is no longer being farmed and has reverted back to its natural state. If other nations did the same the amount of farmland needed worldwide would drop precipitously. If the idiotic crusading against oil with biofuels was stopped, the rain forest would be saved as the #1 destroyer of rain forests today are the greens.

      If you went on a Manhattan project style plan to build small modular nuclear reactors worldwide instead of carbon mitigation, tax and trading you would make humanity carbon neutral while eliminating world poverty entirely. With cheap abundant energy there is no water shortage as you can now desalinate the seas. With even cheaper abundant energy you can even mine sea water. With a higher per capita income and better lives population would decline dramatically naturally, so draconian population programs wouldn’t be needed.

      Oh there is a solution to all our problems and it does not entail a green reactionary revisionist return to the middle ages ancien regime solution. FREE THE TECHNIUM!

      • Brian Williams Che Mort July 29, 2013 on 9:15 am

        Your claims of success in the US completely ignores the staggering fossil-fuel that short-term success in built on, and the many now increasingly more apparent problems with it, such as the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi, ever-increasing need for agricultural poisons, etc. etc. This is no long-term solution.
        Same goes for your simplistic call for modular nuclear reactors. Building a nuclear reactor is like building a house without a toilet and telling the owner you’ll figure out where to put the s–t in a few years, except that human excrement is at least fertilizer, while nuclear waste is some of the longest-lasting, most insidiously deadly poison ever created, and for which there is STILL no effective means of disposal. I fear your blind faith in the “Technium” misses most of these inconvenient truths.

        • Brian Williams Brian Williams July 29, 2013 on 9:21 am

          In fact, it is our misguided idea that we can “conquer” Nature, rather than work with and within it, that is at the root of many of our current dilemmas. This man understands that and is working with nature, and producing impressive results everywhere he tries his methods. You have nothing to show but your arrogant and simplistic opinions, so rooted in the failed ‘technology over nature’ paradigm.

  • Jim Seko May 3, 2013 on 2:54 pm

    Everyone knows overgrazing is a bad thing but undergrazing could also be a bad thing if grassland and grazing animals have a symbiotic relationship. Given what we know about evolution how could grass and grazing animals NOT have a symbiotic relationship?

  • Travis Hansen May 3, 2013 on 4:29 pm

    “In North America, many grasses evolved with small grazers like rabbits, mice, tortoises, and insects. And none evolved with large herds of cattle and other livestock.”

    Are we ignoring the massive amount of buffalo and deer and other megafuana that existed before the arrival of European settlers.

    • Che Mort Travis Hansen May 20, 2013 on 2:05 pm

      No he is as the gangrenous brain is afraid of methane. Since they themselves are full of methane it doesn’t save us a wit.

  • techfan May 3, 2013 on 5:55 pm

    ” In North America, many grasses evolved with small grazers like rabbits, mice, tortoises, and insects. And none evolved with large herds of cattle and other livestock.”

    Huh? What about the North American Bison. Read the Lewis and Clark Journals regarding the immense herds of bison that they encountered.

    • Sine Arrow techfan May 5, 2013 on 2:05 pm

      While I agree with Savory that his methods should be tested on far larger numbers of projects, and adopted everywhere they make the grade, this particular example, of bison, is overdrawn. We now know that the huge herds of bison seen by European and US explorers were a *pathological* phenomenon. They resulted from the death of most of the primary predators of bison until the 1530s, … native Americans. The Great Plagues, from the time of Hernando De Soto’s ramble through the American Southwest and on into the Great Plains were what pushed that removal.

      Radiocarbon dating of buffalo skulls show an explosion of this species at the same time that humans nearly vanished from areas that De Soto’s chronicler described as highly populated. For instance he described the Mississippi banks, seen from bluffs above the river, as being a continual string of cook fires and light at night. 70 years later, all that was gone, according to the French explorers who journeyed the length of the river, coming from the North.

      This does *not* invalidate Savory’s point about compacted herds that must move often, because they don’t want to sleep in or eat grass they have defecated or urinated on. Humans that went beyond hunting into pastoralism, and their successors in agrarian societies, stole from the grasslands ecosystems something very important. They removed fear of predators in grazers. Since herds were their livelihood, they killed predators without mercy. Their herds and the herders no longer needed to huddle in a small defensible area. This, in turn, allowed herds to spread out, and find grass uncontaminated a few feet away, instead of the whole herd staying in motion.
      Thus, the herds could exploit a local area far more thoroughly, to the point that overgrazing became possible. This also removed the density of trampling that Savory mentions as a needed part of grass germination.

      With fear, the buffalo, though in smaller herds, could still help the grasslands stay healthy. We also know that native Americans made sure the plains stayed grasslands, with fire. So, even though the huge herds were pathological, the principle Savory states remains intact.

  • Aubree May 5, 2013 on 3:14 pm

    No. We need to create massive desalination plants that are piped inland to service our dedesertification efforts, vegetation, and water consumption requirements. We do NOT need more animal meats in our food chain, but MUCH more plant based food stock. Then of course there is this small issue:
    We need to change the dietary requirements of the world more towards vegan and less animal stock. Utilizing nutrients from the sea in proper proportions this would be an immensely expensive but planet saving endeavor that could also be quite profitable if done correctly.

  • Jim Seko May 16, 2013 on 11:39 am

    If grazing animals and grass have a symbiotic relationship, under-grazing can be as detrimental as overgrazing. It’s that simple. The only people who don’t get it are vegetarians. I believe vegetarians are well-meaning people but I feel compelled to bust some vegetarian myths.

    Myth #1. Killing animals for food is unethical.
    It’s not unethical for a naturally omnivorous species to eat animals. There is a mountain of evidence that our ancestors were omnivorous going back millions of years.

    Myth #2. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for our health.
    When vegetarians make this assertion they make no distinction between confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and pasture raised animals. The difference is huge. Grass fed beef is every bit as healthy as wild-caught salmon.

    Myth #3. Eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for the environment. Again, vegetarians make no distinction between CAFOs and pasture raised. The difference is huge. CAFOs are an environmental nightmare. When vegetarians will not even acknowledge there is a viable alternative to CAFOs, other than abstaining from meat, it’s because they are stuck on myth 1.

    Vegetarians want myth #2 and myth #3 to be true because it supports myth #1. The vegetarian belief system is based mostly on confirmation bias.

  • curious May 17, 2013 on 1:55 am

    The moderator asked a very reasonable question (the one that was one my mind): how does introducing a herd on an already desertified area kick-start grassland growth if there is not a single blade of grass? AS replied it had to do with the sigmoid curve which was too technical to get into. Reading more about holistic grazing management based on AS’s teachings, I learned that the sigmoid curve refers to having cattle graze mature grasses (high on the sigmoid curve), rather than young grasses (low on the sigmoid curve). Still does not explain how putting a herd on a desertified area kick-starts grass re-growth (unless the herd has to go hungry until their manure creates better soil and grass re-growth?). Does anyone have any answer for this?

    • curious curious May 17, 2013 on 2:05 am

      hmmm…. might have partly answered my own question. AS says (in his paper ‘A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change’): “The planning procedure for livestock that is reversing desertification mimics the movement and grazing patterns of the wild herds of old, minimizing overgrazing of plants while harnessing the beneficial soil-preparation effects of trampling hooves that knock down old vegetation, chip bare soil surfaces, and cover them with fertilizer (dung and urine). The increase in vegetation that results gradually fills in bare spaces, keeping the soil covered year round, and once again storing both carbon and water.” Why didn’t he just say this in the talk? And how long before the cattle get something to eat?

    • Brian Williams curious July 29, 2013 on 9:04 am

      His answer is that he actually did it and it worked. How about less nit-picking and more looking at actual results, from someone who is actually doing something!

  • erich May 19, 2013 on 1:00 am

    Here is what I sent Dr. Jim Hansen for his new “Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climat Change” paper. This new paper goes beyond his previous 100 GtC of new forests, including a new version of his Tax and dividend on carbon including a formula where each country’s liability for drawing down CO2 parts per million is calculated.

    Most of the addenda I sent him concerned building soil carbon utilizing Biochar soil technologies. His paper included cautions about the heavy carbon footprint, or should I say; Carbon Hoof Prints of a developing world eating more meat. I sent him the following citations concerning rotational grazing / holistic management to show that livestock can be a solution, storing more carbon in the soil.

    To appreciate the wider applications of Biochar, the use as a feed additive and nutrient management tool, Please review my presentation and slides of this opening talk for the USBI Biochar conference in Sonoma California. This is the third US Biochar conference, after ISU 2010 and Colorado 2009;

    “Carbon Conservation for Home, Health, Energy & Climate”

    Modern Thermal conversion of biomass burns only the hydrocarbons in that biomass, conserving the carbon for the soil. At the large farm or village scale modern pyrolysis reactors can relieve energy poverty, food insecurity and decreased dependency on chemical fertilizers.
    To review other developments in cleanburning cook stoves, pyrolytic home heating stoves etc. Please review my Sonoma Biochar Conference Report;

    Evidence Supporting Holistic Management (HM)

    Teague has measurements of SOM and Weber has measurements of volumetric-water content (%VWC), a proxy indicator of SOM. Both are favorable for the land under the HM-like regimen. Teague calls it “adaptive management with multi-paddock grazing”, and Weber calls it “simulated holistic planned grazing (SHPG).”

    Teague (2011)
    Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie
    Weber (2011)
    Desertification and livestock grazing: The roles of sedentarization, mobility and rest;


    O’Mara, F.P. 2012. The Role of Grasslands in Food Security and Climate Change. Annals of Botony. 110:

    Follett, R.F., and Debbie A. Reed, 2010. Soil Carbon Sequestration in Grazing Lands: Societal
    Benefits and Policy Implications. Rangeland Ecology Management. 63. 4-15.

    Neely, C., Bunning, S., Wilkes, A., eds., 2009. Review of Evidence on Drylands Pastoral
    Systems and Climate Change: Implications and Opportunities for Mitigation and Adaptation.
    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1-50.

    Conant, R.T., 2010. Challenges and Opportunities for Carbon Sequestration in Grassland Systems: A
    Technical Report on Grassland Management and Climate Change Mitigation.
    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Vol. 9. 1-67.

    Fynn, A.J., P. Alvarez, J.R. Brown, M.R. George, C. Kustin, E.A. Laca, J.T. Oldfield, T. Schohr,
    C.L. Neely, and C.P. Wong. 2009. Soil Carbon Sequestration in U.S. Rangelands Issues
    Paper for Protocol Development. Environmental Defense Fund, New York, NY, USA. 1-47

    Sanjari G, Ghadiri H, Ciesiolka CAA, Yu B (2008) Comparing the effects of continuous and time-controlled
    grazing systems on soil characteristics in Southeast Queensland. Soil Research 46, 348–358.

    Follett, R.F., Kimble, J.M., Lal, R., 2001. The Potential of U.S. Grazing Lands to Sequester
    Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. CRC Press LLC. 1-457.

  • Che Mort May 20, 2013 on 1:54 pm

    Just what we need another technocratic moron filled with hubris to run our world. He was wrong “only once” before and killed over 40,000 elephants, but “trust me Ill get it right this time!” Hmm, they were wrong about DDT and killed over 50 million humans. They were wrong about bio fuels and have increased hunger for over 200 million more human beings. etc etc etc. Yeah, omnipotant elites can run our world better then anyone else….NOT!

  • davidflynn May 21, 2013 on 11:52 am

    Savory is another globalist parrot. The bottom line is “they” need depopulation first before they force us into their technical utopia. From their perspective, there isn’t enough resources for the earth’s carrying capacity.

  • Brian Williams July 29, 2013 on 9:01 am

    Savory’s confidence is based not so much on his rationale, but on his successful results. Nit-pickers who have few or no successful results of their own to show would do well to look at what he as actually achieved. Maybe he got a few facts a bit wrong and maybe there are events such as the Saharan fluctuations that don’t jibe with what he claims, BUT the results he has achieved are spectacular, very convincing, and offer a great deal of hope. He deserves far better than snide remarks about the marketing of silver bullets!

  • Amare Sisay October 3, 2013 on 4:56 am

    he has found a way for the world to live in harmony with the livestock. this is a big news for Africa, and other places under the threat of desertification. I believe he deserves noble prize.