Allan Savory: The Healing of Grassland Deserts

by Bruce E. Boyers

Desertification is not a word that many people outside of the scientific community have heard. But in February of this year, a soft-spoken 77-year-old gentleman named Allan Savory walked out on the TED stage in Long Beach, California, and defined it for the audience: “Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert.” He showed pictures of grasslands that slowly but surely become very dry and eventually waste away altogether, leaving the ground bare. It is a worldwide problem. While here and there scientists might disagree with Savory and his work, none would likely argue with the fact that half to two-thirds of the open land on Earth is undergoing this process.

Savory then told the crowd, “I have for you a very simple message that offers more hope than you can imagine.” He proceeded to calmly present the results of his research, documented with images of that same type of land transformed back into lush, green grasslands. When he reached the end of his presentation, the awed audience responded with a standing ovation. Since that time, news of Savory and his accomplishments has been spreading steadily throughout the world, and he has been invited to visit country after country.

While most of us are just now hearing of him, Savory’s methods have not been arrived upon overnight by any stretch. His journey has been fraught with decades of frustration and even acute tragedy. But he is now finally getting the word out: over two million viewers have seen that 22-minute presentation, and Savory’s assistance is being requested in many corners of the globe. We caught him just before he left on a trip to Australia, from whence he would be going back to his native Zimbabwe, then on to the UK.

“That TED talk has done more in 20 minutes than we’d achieved in 50 years,” Savory told Calmful Living. “Finally the public are getting the message.”

Grassland Becoming Desert

Savory has very carefully researched the desertification process and its symptoms. He will tell you that he’s not trying revive places like the Sahara or the Sonoran Desert. But areas such as the African savanna—widespread grassland that has seasonal rainfall followed by months of dryness—are the prime targets for his methods. “If you take high- or low-rainfall areas where the humidity is very seasonal, you will find millions of acres where the soil is predominantly bare between plants,” Savory explained. “In the United States you see it all over Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and much of California.”


Click here to read what Joel Salatin has to say about about Allan Savory and his work.

There are obvious places where one can look out across open plains and see no life whatsoever; but by the time land has reached that stage, it is the most advanced state of desertification. Savory points out that the telling signs are there long before such a level is attained. “It won’t look bare as you drive by in the car because you’re looking across grasslands,” he continued. “But if you walk out into them and look down, you see patches of bare ground. In the bulk of the United States where there is seasonal humidity, you can go to almost any location at random and if you look down between the plants it will be anywhere from 50 to 90 percent bare soil.”

Why doesn’t the available rainfall revive it? “We get the rain,” Savory said. “We’re not short of rain even in some of the very dry areas. But what happens is if that rain hits primarily bare soil, then even if it all soaks into the soil, over the next few days it simply evaporates back into the atmosphere. If we get it in heavy falls or rapid snowmelts, the bulk of it runs off as floods. Both droughts and flooding become ten times worse than they need to be because of the desertification of the land.”

Contribution to Climate Change

Savory also makes the point that desertification is a significant contributor to climate change. “[pullquote]If we don’t address desertification, we will not stop climate change even after we eliminate fossil fuels[/pullquote],” he said. “In addition to fossil fuels, climate change is also being caused by the water that’s going into the atmosphere, evaporating from the soil. The soil is our greatest reservoir of fresh available water; it’s greater than all the lakes, all the rivers, all the dams, in the world. But in over two-thirds of the world we’re losing a lot of the moisture by it just going back into the atmosphere because of desertification. And since the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils they give off carbon—carbon goes back to the atmosphere.”

Savory explained in his TED talk that a bare patch of ground is much colder at dawn and much hotter at midday than if it’s covered with plant matter. Hence the microclimate of the area has been changed. But when this is occurring on over half of the world’s land, it is affecting the macroclimate.

The Frustrating Search for Answers

Concern with this issue originated for Savory all the way back in the 1950s, when he embarked on his career in what was then the country of Rhodesia. “I began as a wildlife biologist, recognizing that habitat destruction was more dangerous to wildlife than poaching,” said Savory. He became part of a project setting aside lands for national parks, and following the age-old belief that livestock grazing was the cause of destruction of grasslands, he made sure that the land he was setting aside would be untouched by livestock.

To his great surprise, Savory found that the lands so isolated deteriorated rather than improved; the desertification process increased. Conducting further research, he concluded that wild elephants were to blame and recommended their numbers be reduced. Very unfortunately, a team of government experts agreed with his findings, resulting over the following decades in the killing of some 40,000 elephants.

“Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave,” Savory told the shocked, silent Long Beach audience. “One good thing did come out of it: it made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.”

Savory continued to search for answers. “After the government went ahead and shot thousands of elephants, the situation as I watched it got worse, not better,” he said. “We then had one area where all of the livestock died of starvation and drought. Then 50,000 head of game died of starvation. We had almost nothing left on the land, and I along with other ecologists thought that the land had reached a point where it could no longer recover. I actually published a paper on that, and it was approved by my peers. That’s embarrassing today because we were all wrong.”

The First Discovery

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Savory engaged in a long-term project to discover if desertification could be reversed counter-intuitively by increasing livestock planning and grazing to mimic nature before human intervention. He found that, to some degree, it could. “I developed the planned grazing to solve the problem of traditional herding and modern rotational grazing systems accelerating desertification,” he said. “But I was still getting erratic results.”

When in 1979 Savory came to the US, he was to discover that desertification was not at all a problem peculiar to his native continent. “I found national parks with no livestock, no big game, nothing—just totally rested land where the government had spent millions of dollars on planting grass and other soil conservation measures,” he recalled. “I found them to be just deep arroyos and gullies, and worse desertification than I was dealing with in most of the areas in Africa.

“American range scientists were certain that overgrazing and overstocking was the problem. They created research plots with totally rested land scattered all over the western states, and when I began looking at the ones located in areas of very seasonal humidity and particularly low rainfall, I found them all desertifying. They had pretty well shown that by removing the animals it got worse; yet because of the deep belief about overgrazing and overstocking, they couldn’t see that the data was challenging the belief.”

But there was an additional confusing factor: desertification wasn’t only occurring on land that was being totally rested from livestock. “I still couldn’t understand how rest was the biggest factor, because much of the desertifying land in the United States had animals on it—elk, deer and others,” said Savory. “Then all over Africa where the land was desertifying we had animals—in the national parks, in the communal lands; so it was inconceivable that the land could be overresting.”

Thus, which was the real issue—overrest or overstocking? It was here that Savory made an interesting discovery. “I began looking inside the plot, then outside the plot, to see what we could learn. Inside the plot we had all animals removed. Outside the plot we had plants being overgrazed, but actually by relatively few animals. I began to realize that whether you totally rested, or decreased the animals and partially rested, the effect on the land was almost identical: it deteriorated.”

The Breakthrough

That investigation carried forward into the mid-2000s, when Savory finally discovered the ideal balance. As he explained to the TED attendees, “What we had failed to understand was that in these seasonal humidity environments of the world, the soil and the vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals, and that these grazing animals developed with ferocious pack-hunting predators. Now, the main defense against pack-hunting predators is to get into herds; and the larger the herd, the safer the individuals.

“Large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, and they have to keep moving. And it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of the soil, as we see where a herd has passed.”

Initially Savory attempted to apply this observation in fenced areas where livestock was conventionally kept. “Try to picture you’ve got a bit of land, and let’s say it’s divided into ten paddocks with fences,” Savory said. “You plan the moves of the herd to get the animals in the right place at the right time. You hold them there for one or two or three days and then move them on so that you don’t overgraze the plants; you don’t come back until the plants have recovered. In this way you’ve partially rested the land.”

While Savory certainly saw results, they weren’t of a consistent level. He then decided to exactly mimic his original observation. “Now take that same land, and those ten paddocks are not fenced; they are just roads, elephant paths, rivers—anything that the herders can see on the ground and recognize as divisions. So, our land in Africa is divided into about ten paddocks, but there’s not a single fence. We do exactly the same planning and plan the moves of the animals; however, when they are in one of these areas now for, say, twenty days, following which the area will have perhaps two months of recovery time, they are herded, and the herders are trained to not have the animals graze and trample any part within the paddock for more than three days. In this manner, day or night, 500 cattle are on less than two acres. They’re bunched the whole time as they would be if they feared predation.

“That made a world of difference. We literally ran out of bare ground even for teaching purposes—we have to hunt for it now. This year we’re in what would have been a catastrophic year, drier than we have seen for 15 years, and we’ve grown more grass, shrubs and trees than we did in the best of years in the past.

“That’s purely because we’ve made that rainfall effective. You make it effective by keeping it in the soil through keeping the soil covered, which the cattle hooves do by laying the litter. Each year you’re accumulating more; so each year you become more and more drought resilient.”

Vital Need of Agriculture

At the TED conference, Savory showed how this process of holistic planned grazing, using livestock to mimic nature, is being employed to revive farmland in Africa. Livestock are being moved over land that will later be used to grow crops, and as a result they have seen a marked increase in crop yields. This leads to applications across the agricultural spectrum, which of course includes the raising of livestock as well—an activity that takes the majority of agricultural land use.

Because so much of the world’s land is utilized for agricultural purposes, Savory targets agriculture as the most critical recipient of his methods. “We’ve got seven billion people on Earth, and one billion go hungry most days,” he stated. “We need roughly half a ton of food to feed a human for a year. Soil scientists estimate that we’re producing four tons of eroding soil per human alive, every year, from the croplands, which is where they’ve done most of that research. If we look at the loss of soil from the other 80 percent of the land, we don’t have figures; nobody’s got them and I don’t know how you’d get them. But I would conservatively say we have to be losing eight to ten tons of eroding soil every year for every human alive today, and that has to be the most frightening statistic in the world. Without agriculture you can’t have a church, you can’t have an environmental organization, a university, a government, an army; you can’t have any of these things. Agriculture is fundamental to an economy, to everything.”

Healing the Fractured Whole

Meanwhile Savory is also addressing the desertification problem on the policy stage, where it is an issue that crosses boundaries in isolated areas of expertise, policy and research. “It’s really an enormous problem and we’ve always fractured it,” Savory said. “You have whole environmental organizations, departments in universities, and conferences built around biodiversity loss. Then you have entire conferences and the range profession dealing with grasslands of the world that are desertifying; plus you have separate scientists and conferences dealing with climate change.

“[pullquote]In reality, desertification is only a symptom of biodiversity loss; without it desertification does not occur[/pullquote]. And without reversing desertification we cannot address climate change. They’re all actually one issue, but we haven’t ever been able to get people together to discuss them as one issue in one conference or anything like that.”

Rather than tackling the problem with enormous governments such as the US or the EU, Savory is utilizing a smaller country to demonstrate how it can be cooperatively solved. “To change the United States’ direction is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier with a paddle in your hand,” he said. “But taking a small country in trouble, we might be able to do something. I’m focusing a lot on my own country, where I spend about six months of every year. Recently I got a chance to put 35 members of parliament lawmakers through a workshop using the holistic framework to formulate policies.

“We defined a holistic context for the nation. When we did that, the whole atmosphere changed. Everything soared above politics. Nobody raised any political issue or dogma. By the end of the workshop we had the foundation for a policy for the country that, if it was implemented, would have us producing for the first time in the world more food than eroding soil—our rivers would be healing; we wouldn’t be fighting water wars. And we didn’t use any knowledge that isn’t available today; the secret is just in how to form policies to address complexity. You see, no government at the moment knows how to do that.”

Into the Future

Savory has a dedicated, competent team in place to help him carry on his work, in the form of the Savory Institute of Boulder, Colorado. “It is this vibrant organization of deeply committed people and its global strategy of learning hubs that will carry the baton,” he said.

It could well be that Savory and his institute are now but a few short years from seeing his extraordinary vision become reality. He summed up that vision—and its enormous potentially positive impact—at the conclusion of his TED presentation: “People who understand far more about carbon than I do calculate that, for illustrative purposes, if we do what I am showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in grassland soils for thousands of years. And if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands, we can take us back to preindustrial levels—while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children and their children and all of humanity.” n


More information, as well as updates on the work of the Savory Institute, can be found at www.savoryinstitute.com