Interview with Desertification Expert Allan Savory
Allan Savory suggests in his TED talk that the desertification of the world’s grasslands has been an immediate cause of poverty, social inequity, violence, losses in biodiversity, and ultimately a significant cause of climate change. While working in Africa to discover the cause of land degradation, Savory made a discovery that led him to a greater understanding of the processes underlying the desertification of grasslands, and through decades of research and development, thousands of livestock managers now follow his Holistic Management Program that promotes restoration of the world’s grassland ecosystems.
In our interview with Allan Savory, he discusses his early interest in eco-restoration, the benefits of his Holistic Management Program, the folly of focusing solely on emissions reductions, the hidden dangers to losses in biodiversity, and the current challenges faced by the Savory Institute.
1. How did your interest in eco-restoration begin?
When I left university and became an ecologist/biologist in the field in Africa in the 1950’s I saw and became deeply concerned with the environmental (habitat) degradation I was seeing – there were none of today’s buzzwords – biodiversity loss, eco-restoration etc.
2. What was the biggest ‘Aha’ moment of your life?
There were several but perhaps finally understanding what really was leading to massive environmental degradation in all regions of the world and not only those desertifying. The realization of why it was that so many millions of people involved in agriculture globally, with great knowledge and good intent, resulted in global desertification and climate change. The fact that it was not a lack of knowledge as much as a systemic problem leading constantly to unintended consequences, that was causing such widespread failure. A cause that if addressed would make everyone’s efforts more successful. I concentrated on trying to solve this larger ancient problem because I cared so much about wildlife and then realized the same environmental degradation endangering wildlife was also endangering humans – and causing man-made floods, droughts, poverty, social breakdown, violence and more and had been a major reason for many past civilizations failing.
I realized that all resource management, development projects, agriculture in it’s broadest sense and policies of governments, large NGO’s and international agencies is causing ever mounting catastrophes. Management needs to be holistic, embracing all science, traditional and other sources of knowledge.
3. What is the Holistic Grazing Method, and how well has it been received by other eco-restorationists, conservationists, and ranchers?
Holistically planning grazing involves decision-making that ensures that livestock are needed and should be used for any reason and that this is socially/culturally, economically and environmentally sound. And then if livestock are needed, using a simple planning process that replaces all rotational and other grazing systems that are unable to address the complexity involved.
4. Are emissions regulations, and current methods of emissions reduction enough to reverse climate change?
No not at all. Ending, not reducing, current carbon emissions is urgent if civilization as we know it is to survive and we are to prevent catastrophes beyond imagination. These emissions are partly from fossil fuel use but probably equally from soil destruction and biomass burning. And if the latter are not addressed climate change will continue even in a post-fossil-fuel world. Reducing or even stopping carbon emissions will not remove the legacy load of excess atmospheric carbon. We have to actually reduce atmospheric carbon to the ambient levels essential to all life because life functions through cycling carbon. To remove and safely sequester excess carbon cannot be done with any technological solution or geo-engineering without very high (99%) chance of unintended consequences. For this reason we would be wise to address the problem through management of agriculture (including policies, laws and regulations) that is holistic. I specify agriculture that is not simply crop production, but is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters, because it is our most destructive industry today – more so than any mining or extractive industry.
5. What is the mission of The Savory Institute, and how successful have you been at executing this mission thus far?
We focus mainly on the larger areas of the world’s land that are of seasonal humidity where desertification is at it’s worst – these are primarily grasslands of various forms even though some are dry deciduous forest in name. We also empower people at a local level through our training programs. And we work to remove barriers in the realm of policy and markets that impede sound agriculture in all regions of the world.
6. What do you believe are the greatest dangers to losses in biodiversity?
Agriculture that is producing more than 10 tons of eroding soil per human alive today and is the most destructive industry of mankind. After this the greatest danger to biodiversity is simply our siloed education and organizations. To illustrate, there are entirely separate institutions addressing biodiversity loss and separate international conferences. It is the same for desertification, agriculture and climate change – separate departments in universities, separate NGOs, government ministries and international organizations and conferences. In reality however almost all biodiversity loss is due to agriculture.
Desertification does not occur without biodiversity loss – it is only a symptom the bigger problem. And without addressing and reversing man-made desertification we cannot address climate change. They are all one issue of massive environmental degradation arising from management including policy development that is not holistic. However to achieve one international conference with them treated as they are as one issue would today be impossible. And even if we take one aspect – loss of biodiversity – it is too is divided and mainly organizations are involved in saving charismatic species. So looking at saving rhino for instance – many good people pushing many potential solutions vying for recognition and funding. All these promoted ideas and means are well-meaning and mostly good. However they involve re-arranging the deck chairs while the ship sinks because none address our inability to deal with the social/cultural, economic and environmental complexity involved.
7. How do government agencies interfere with progress? How do powerful corporations impede progress?
Impediments to progress (what we at SI call barriers) are not coming from nature of from people as individuals in their personal capacity on any significant scale. The barriers to seriously develop an agriculture producing more food than eroding soil, addressing global desertification, over-exploiting oceans, and climate change are almost 100% institutional – all organizational barriers – no organization being immune. Both research, and centuries of experience, indicate that institutionally our organizations simply cannot adopt new scientific insights outside the prevailing beliefs of society until there is a significant shift in societal thinking. For example, for thousands of years we did not know how to fly. Then the Wright brothers discovered how to do so. Because all of society believed in technology this was not a major paradigm shift but an advance in the use of technology everyone believed in. Consequently the Wright brothers discovery was not blocked, ridiculed or opposed by any institutions and within 70 years we were on the moon. And when we look at the discovery of how to actually reverse desertification through managing holistically we note this involved humans accepting that livestock, properly managed, could actually be a solution. This is counter-intuitive as is the shift from our mechanistic world-view to a holistic world-view.
8. What are the largest obstacles that The Savory Institute is facing currently?
Right now things are growing faster than ever before; it’s really an exciting time. Public awareness is expanding so rapidly – the obstacle of many years is being overcome. However the people running SI can all see a need for a core of competent skilled trainers and coaches to greatly expand the ability of people and organizations to manage holistically around the world in the learning hub strategy SI is pursuing. And the obstacle here is simply funding to be well prepared ahead of foreseeable demand, so that people, governments, major environmental organizations and international agencies can kick into meaningful action rapidly.
In Africa the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID) did see the results of managing holistically and invested significant funds that have enabled us to develop community mobilizing and training materials. These are now ready to be translated into any languages and used. And they are being so used as increasingly pastoral communities and NGO’s assisting them become aware of the need for holistic planned grazing to reverse the desertification and save their cultures, while addressing the rising droughts and violence. And now we need to expand our core team of highly competent trainers ahead of what will be a huge demand as land managers shift to developing policies and development projects holistically. However this is a bit like what comes first, the chicken or the egg and it requires far-sightedness on the part of funding organizations, or we will need funding in small amounts by thousands of ordinary people ahead of organizational change. Not an easy situation that does constitute a serious barrier currently. This is a large capital expenditure and funding organizations tend not to see the importance of large capital investment in non-profits while everyone sees it’s need in for profit corporations.
9. How is US farm policy destroying small farmers and destroying the planet?
US farm policy is formed by law-makers subjected to enormous pressure group interests. This makes the formation of any socially, environmentally, and economically sound policy impossible, although it is essential so any sustained economy or society. As a consequence current policy is doing the US and the world great harm through unintended consequences. It is such policies, not only in the US but universal in all nations, that is a major reason why agriculture globally is producing more than ten tons of eroding soil for every human alive today – when we only need about half a ton of food per human every year. It is US farm and agricultural policies and teachings of the land grant universities that is resulting in the widespread desertification of the western states and the consequent increasingly severe floods and droughts. It is US government policies that are the reason why I have read that there are more people in jail now than on farms.
10. What upcoming events can our community attend to be a part of your movement?
We have two fantastic upcoming events in CA. The first on December 3rd at the famous TomKat Ranch, with amazing authors from all over the country. The second is a 2-day conference in Chico, CA with the brilliant paleo author Robb Wolf, Jenny McGruther the blogger behind one of the most amazing food blogs in the world, Nourished Kitchen, and Dr. Cindy Daley who will share about her research on the beneficial fat profiles in grass-fed meat and milk.
11. Is there something that I didn’t ask you about that you believe is worth people hearing?
I’d like to say a bit about the water situation of increasing global danger. Ware are going to be fought over water far worse than those fought over oil and already many pastoralists herd their animals with AK rifles. The fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter and soil cover. While we cannot measure the carbon easily and people argue over different methods, we can measure water. For example the state of New Mexico typical of western states is suffering severe land degradation. We have only to make 1 inch (25mm) of the present rainfall effective in that it remains in the soil and neither runs off as flooding nor evaporates from the largely bare soil, to equal every year more than 3 dams full of water the size of the largest dam in the state – Elephant Butte. When built this was the largest dam in the US. And because of how nature functions that additional water stored in the soil (and carbon) would be cumulative with each year adding further water retained.
Interview with Allan Savory by Karen Pendergrass