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How Cows Could Repair the World: Allan Savory at TED

For decades people have pointed to overgrazing by cattle as the main cause of once-fertile grasslands turning to rapidly eroding, nearly lifeless deserts. These desertified landscapes are then incapable of supporting the livestock themselves, agriculture, or large wild animals who once lived in great numbers on the same land. This is leads to famine and conflict in different areas around the world.

Growing up in Kenya, Allan Savory was terribly moved by this. “I grew up loving wildlife and hating livestock,” he said at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California last week (watch his full TED talk in the video above). Two-thirds of the ear

The Pachyderm Paradox

As a young man he thought the blame also lay with an overpopulation of elephants, and so, despite a deep love for these animals, he recommended and supported the culling of large herds. Over the years this practice has resulted in the intentional killing of more than 40,000 elephants, but no real improvement in the health of grasslands.

Realizing what an error he and others had made, Savory confessed, “this was the saddest and gravest mistake of my life.”

“Clearly we have never understood desertification,” he added, “which now threatens us globally.”

A New Vision

Speaking with Allan Savory after his presentation I got some insight into the shift in thinking that occurred next. Our society in general has tended to try to solve problems by breaking them into pieces, isolating elements, and attempting to control complex situations through simple, forced measures. This is all wrong, the way Savory sees it. True, sustainable solutions are found by looking at whole systems, holistically, unconcerned with time, and focused on the restoration of natural balances.

For example, when I asked him (in insistent, fast-paced reporter speech) what I could do if I lived in the southern U.S. and had a field overtaken by invasive kudzu, he said very slowly and calmly, “Well… first… I would say ‘Andrew, what do you want out of this land? For yourself… for your children… for your children’s children…’ ” It was at this point I felt my own high energy settle down, and I understood how much of a shift in attitude Allan’s approach to problem solving in conservation really is.

People tell him he should put rhinos on the land he has restored. But with poor quality land all around, and a lack of value on conservation, people would just come and poach the rhinos for their horns, he said. When the land is restored, and people’s basic needs are met, and an appreciation of wildlife is the norm, then he’s willing to bring rhinos in. Not before. Allan Savory may be in his seventies, but he’s in no rush to force changes.

A holistic view of the problem. A natural source for the solution. Patience. These are the tools Allan Savory works with now.

Cows to the Rescue

So the failure of earlier attempts combined with his estimation that two-thirds of Earth is now desertifying inspired Savory to search for a new approach to protecting and restoring grasslands. And he found it by thinking naturally and looking backward, not forward.

It makes no sense that land that once supported untold millions of grazing animals on massive migrations should be destroyed by the overgrazing of fewer or comparable numbers of livestock in more recent years. And there were areas of the U.S. where cattle had been removed for decades, but the grasslands were still desertifying.

The key to restoring grasslands is to manage livestock to mimic the role once played by vast migrating herds. (Photo by James Duncan Davidson)
Allan Savory says the key to restoring grasslands is to manage livestock to mimic the role once played by vast migrating herds. (Photo by James Duncan Davidson)

 

“Clearly we have never understood desertification,” he said. “What we had failed to understand was that these areas developed with huge numbers of grazing animals [pursued by lots of huge carnivores]. Movement kept them from overgrazing.” This way of the past could also hold the key to the future.

“The only option left,” according to Savory, is “to use livestock on the move to mimic the ancient herds.” Keeping cattle more densely packed on smaller plots of land and moving them frequently keeps them from exhausting the supply of living plants, turns scattered droppings into a full blanket of high-quality fertilizer, and keeps the repeated trod of untold tons from packing down the dirt. He’s done it for decades, and the results (seen in the video above) are impressive.

“Holistic grazing” keeps more plants alive, adds nutrients to the soil, and creates soil conditions that hold and use water instead of letting it evaporate or run off. It is now practiced by thousands on five continents, and is the focus of the work of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, as well as the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The Bigger Picture

In closing his TED talk, Allan Savory pointed out a critical part of this story beyond preserving complex grassland ecosystems to sustain livestock, agriculture, and wildlife. The amount of plant life lost through desertification over decades has severely compromised Earth’s ability to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Just as we have increased the amount we’re putting into the atmosphere, we’re reducing the amount we take out.

There is a remarkable upside to this however. With all of the difficulties of maintaining a productive economy while reducing our carbon output, and mitigating the effects of a warming climate, if we can implement holistic grazing on half of the Earth’s grasslands, according to Allan, “we can take us back to pre-industrial [CO2] levels… and feed people.”

It would be wrong to think of changing the way we herd cattle as a silver buller that will solve all of Earth and humanity’s challenges, but as a key step in promoting the kind of long-term, holistic view that Allan Savory has taken, it could go a long way towards repairing the land and our relationship to it.

NEXT: Read More Nat Geo Posts From TED 2013

 

Learn More

Savory Institute

Africa Centre for Holistic Management

Comments

  1. Jason West
    Texas A&M University
    November 5, 2013, 10:15 am

    Just a quick post here to direct NatGeo readers to our post at #RealClimate. The takehome is that there is no way any grassland management regime can singlehandedly reverse climate change. Grasslands are important, but the claim is just not supportable based on our scientific understanding: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/cows-carbon-and-the-anthropocene-commentary-on-savory-ted-video/

  2. jc
    usa
    July 24, 2013, 9:18 am

    “Although Savory proclaims worldwide success of his methods, it is the consensus of many researchers that intensive rotation grazing (such as the Savory technique) as a means to increase vegetation and animal production “has been subjected to as rigorous a testing regime as any hypothesis in the rangeland profession, and it has been found to convey few, if any, consistent benefits over continuous grazing.”

    http://comfortablyunaware.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/saving-the-world-with-livestock-the-savory-approach-examined-2/
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/17/adam-merberg-on-grazing-and-allan-savory-and-ted/

  3. robert.
    Japan
    May 21, 2013, 12:21 pm

    He didn’t study it. He did it. You can refute something when it is still theory. The difference in this case is that it has been done and is being done now… the fact there are no peer reviewed studies means nothing. ‘The proof is in the pudding.’ Further more, the methane argument is misleading. Yes, cows release methane when they consume grass. BUT, if the cow is missing from the equation and the grass breaks down through natural microbial action what is released? Methane! By god… we must remove microbes! They are destroying the planet (sarc).

  4. Asa Feinstein
    April 30, 2013, 9:09 pm

    Where’s the science?: http://mdp.berkeley.edu/?p=568

  5. Shawn
    Midwest
    March 30, 2013, 8:21 pm

    Cedric Katesby
    South Korea
    March 10, 8:42 pm

    Great video.Presses all the right buttons. Very slick. Very entertaining. Very convincing.
    Is it backed up by peer reviewed scientific evidence and lots of it?
    (No ,slow down for a second. I’m deadly serious about this.)
    Is it?

    Cedric, et al,

    Probably not. But Savory’s early research which led to the slaughter of 40,000 elephants WAS peer reviewed and deemed to be good science.

    It was exactly the opposite. A resulting disaster for the soil and grasses, not to mention the poor pachyderms.

    “Mob grazing” has been proven to be successful among cattle ranchers, and they wouldn’t go to all that trouble of the extra labor and expense of the extra fence if it wasn’t worth it to them.

    Even if we could convince everyone to stop driving and stop using coal, we’d likely still end up with desertification. Any better ideas than saving the grasslands? Or a better way to do it?

    It’d be great if we could introduce native species herds back how it used to be instead of cattle. But it’ll never happen. There isn’t the economic incentive. But everybody likes beef right?

    I never would’ve thought that omnivores could save the planet by eating bovines.

  6. Vaalea
    Canada
    March 23, 2013, 4:09 pm

    rather than domestic livestock we need to actively manage “properly”, we must allow native species back onto their land.

    If you need more sustainable permanent solutions then look at permaculture guru’s greening the desert… creating self-sustaining systems and food forests. http://vimeo.com/7658282

  7. Louisa
    Oregon
    March 13, 2013, 3:55 pm

    Savoy’s holistic grazing method, as he explains it, works well in grassland systems with summer rain and rhizomatous grasses. It does not work well in systems with winter rain and bunchgrasses, such as in the US Great Basin. There’s no evidence for large herds of grazing ungulates during the Holocene in the Great Basin, just small ones, although they did move around much more than cattle typically do. The different responses of rhizomatous grasses and bunchgrasses is reported even in Africa. Where the large herds tend to migrate and congregate – rhizomatous grasses dominate. Where they don’t – bunchgrasses dominate.

  8. seth Itzkan
    Somerville, MA
    March 11, 2013, 2:23 am

    You might also be interested in this TEDx talk that I gave in 2012, based on my six-week visit to the Holistic Management center in Zimbabwe.
    Reversing global warming with livestock?

  9. Cedric Katesby
    South Korea
    March 10, 2013, 8:42 pm

    Great video.Presses all the right buttons. Very slick. Very entertaining. Very convincing.
    Is it backed up by peer reviewed scientific evidence and lots of it?
    (No ,slow down for a second. I’m deadly serious about this.)
    Is it?

  10. Rick Lombardo
    March 10, 2013, 4:59 pm

    Scientists, careful when you try to fix “problems” that may not exist at all. Remember when you thought eugenics was a good idea? And the whole wolf/buffalo debacle?

  11. Bee
    March 8, 2013, 9:02 pm

    While this sounds like an excellent idea, rather than use livestock, I think we should take it one step further and avoid the same mistake Allen made with the elephants. We should start by looking at at animals for what they are and not as “livestock” but as individual sentient beings. That term really disconnects our much needed compassion and empathy when we call them by names used in mere profit driven commodities. This is possibly a great opportunity to cleanse our factory farming system of all it’s hidden cruelty and begin anew. We can set these animals free, and people can begin to live off the plants rather than the unnecessary and cruelty and slaughter of so many animals. They still will be subject to the occasional predator and humans can gently euthanize them when needed but the increased plant life will add greatly to people’s health through the use of edible wildlife and medicines.

  12. John Irving
    Ottawa, Canada
    March 8, 2013, 6:15 pm

    I saw this presentation recently but wondered about the impacts methane emissions on global warming. Yes, vast herds of buffalo once roamed the NA plains, for example, but that was prior to industrial civilization as we know it. I would like to know how Savory would respond to such concerns.

    John

  13. Julia Winter
    Wisconsin
    March 7, 2013, 10:18 am

    Another inspiring story of wholistic grazing success is that of Greg Judy, who has a grassfed beef operation in Missouri. Mr. Judy came to using Allan Savory’s techniques out of necessity: he was dead broke, running cattle on rented land and he had no money for the usual inputs. He tried Savory’s techniques, and they worked brilliantly. Watch:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6HGKSvjk5Q

    This is a long video, of a talk he gave 2 years ago to a farming conference. If you are just a little curious, grab the dot and scroll through to see the before and after pictures. It’s as amazing as Allan Savory’s results. He shows the increasing diversity of both plant and wildlife species, appearing on the land spontaneously. Degraded creeks are now running clear, songbirds are returning, prairie plants are reappearing without being planted (by humans, anyway).

    If you are interested in raising more beef, of higher quality and for a pricier market, with fewer inputs and all the while continually improving your land, I recommend watching the whole thing.

  14. Darwin
    Darwin on a remote Location on Earth
    March 7, 2013, 8:18 am

    They could have also used their technology for better purposes for the collective benefit of all NOONE LEFT BEHIND.

  15. Darwin
    Remote Location on Earth
    March 7, 2013, 8:05 am

    It really matters what you beam down to earth from Space. It is what is destroying the grasslands and heating up the earth and retarding its self healing capacity to make it another venus and slowly and surely will send it into a reduced spiraling orbit into the sun. Really does not matter how many satellites who puts into orbit, what you use it for is what matters.