When it comes to threats facing the Earth’s arable lands, a perfect storm is brewing and technology alone won’t be enough to solve it, Allan Savory says.

Rising global populations, increasing use of fossil fuels and poor grazing management are driving problems associated with climate change and causing the “desertification” of the world’s landscapes — in other words, too much bare soil.

The co-founder of the Savory Institute told attendees at the recent No-till on the Plains Winter Conference says desertification is caused by “reductionist management” that works against the web of complexity that includes social, cultural, environmental, and economic factors.

The biggest problem isn’t with tropical rainforests with guaranteed moisture where it’s nearly impossible to have large areas of bare ground, but in climates with intermittent humidity and dryness which are where desertification in the U.S. and world occurs.

Savory says desertification results when the available rainfall becomes less effective.

“Effective rainfall is that which falls, soaks into the soil and only leaves it through growing plants, or by flowing through the soil to rivers, wetlands and aquifers,” he says. “Non-effective rainfall runs across the soil surface, leading to floods, or soaks in and subsequently leaves by evaporation from bare soil between plants, leading to droughts.

“Worldwide in all environments, only two things lead to millions of acres of largely bare soil between plants as we see over most of the U.S.,” he adds. “Those are too few large grazing animals overgrazing plants while over-resting the land, or fire. There is no other known cause.”

One example of desertification he often shares is the Tihamah Desert in Yemen that was receiving an inch of rain during a storm, which he equates to 1,250 200-liter drums of water falling on every hectare, but the next day the land was dry. Some of the rain during this 1981 event ran off as flooding, but most of it that penetrated the soil then evaporated from the bare soil surface.

“The fate of water and carbon is tied together with soil organic matter, and when we damage soils that emits carbon into atmosphere,” Savory said during his TED Talk in 2013, which has been viewed over 4 million times. “You’re told over and over desertification is only occurring in arid and semi-arid areas of the world, and the tall grasslands in high-rainfall areas are of no consequence.

“But if you look down into the grasslands, the soil is bare and covered with a crust of algae, leading to increased runoff and evaporation. That is the cancer of desertification that we don’t recognize until it’s terminal form.”

“The fate of water and carbon is tied together with soil organic matter, and when we damage soils that emits carbon into atmosphere...”

While many environmental experts believe desertification is caused by overgrazing of grasslands across the globe, Savory says the solution is just the opposite: adding more livestock to reintroduce the natural symbiosis of plants and animals and encourage re-growth of carbon-sequestering grasslands.

Savory and his wife, Jody Butterfield, in 1992 formed the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, a learning site for people all over Africa. In 2010 the Savorys and others founded the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colo., to promote large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands.

Savory advocates holistic management — a process that does address the full social, cultural, economic and environmental web of complexity that is inescapable in any management situation.

This also involves adding the tool of livestock to solve the biological problem of desertification that technology can’t solve. He promotes the Holistic Planned Grazing process (or better when developed) to address desertification playing a major role in violence, social breakdown and climate change.

He says this planning process, based on centuries of military experience, avoids the problems of rotational and other grazing systems and pastoral herding that cause desertification.

“Seasonable humidity environments, and soil and vegetation, developed with very large numbers of grazing animals which developed with ferocious pack-hunting predators. Their main defense was to get into herds. The larger the herd, the safer the individuals,” he says. “They dung and urinate all over their food source so they have to keep moving. That prevented overgrazing, and trampling the ground and vegetation covered up the soil.

“Take one square meter of soil and make it bare and I promise you it will be much colder at dawn and much hotter at midday than ground covered with litter. You are changing the micro- climate. By the time you are doing that over millions of hectares you are changing climate.”

Entrenched Interests

While his views about management and grazing are controversial in the ag and scientific community, Savory says in 50 years not a single person has shown where either the logic or science in holistic management is flawed after earlier criticisms that helped him develop the process.

Why isn’t every rancher using holistic management, then? Savory cites social research that shows that this is normal when any new counter-intuitive knowledge emerges.

“Take one square meter of soil and make it bare and I promise you it will be much colder at dawn and much hotter at midday than ground covered with litter. You are changing the micro-climate…”

“It is up against the greatest vested interest in the world — professional or expert egos,” he says. “And institutions simply don’t change until public opinion shifts, which can, according to Eric Ashby’s research into how new knowledge gets into democratic societies, take anywhere up to 200 years. So remarkable progress has been made in fifty years according to Savory.”

He recalls getting his first taste of this during the 1980s, when far-sighted officials at the USDA engaged him to conduct training for 2,000 officials from all land management agencies, agricultural universities, World Bank and USAID, in the use of the holistic management framework in resource management and policy development.

“They brought hundreds of their own policies. During that week of training, they analyzed them — not me. They concluded every single policy would fail, and would have unintended consequences,” Savory recalls. “One group in training made a statement: ‘We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States.’”

One other objective, if the training made sense and the science couldn’t be faulted, was for Savory to develop a USDA training center on holistic management in the U.S.

“We did the training for 2 years, and I said, ‘Okay, it’s ready for government to take over now as there is such increasing demand. I want to return home,” says Savory, who was in political exile here at the time. “I met with our Interagency Committee and they said they weren’t going to be able to form a government training center. They said there is just way too much powerful, politically influential opposition from the universities in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California, mainly, as well as the International Range Society.

“All future training of government officials was banned in the second Reagan administration. That set us back 30-odd years. Only now have we got the first university-led holistic management hub and training is beginning to happen.”

Savory conducted similar training in Zimbabwe for 35 members of parliament with factions at war with each other, but Savory says the hostility disappeared after he began discussing agriculture from a holistic context instead of a political one.

“By the end of the workshop, if it had been implemented, we had a policy the world would dream of. It would be the first country in the history of the world producing more food than dead, eroding soil. All food would be nutritious, healthy and growing on regenerated soils.

“There would be no need for third-party endorsements. Organic, sustainable ag would be redundant. The tax base of government would increase. Complete change with just developing a policy towards a national holistic context, rather than the problems of agriculture.”

Basics of Holistic Management

Savor says that rather than reducing, as humans do, the web of social, environmental and economic complexity to such simple reasons for management or policy as meeting our desires, needs or solving problems, people managing holistically develop a single over-arching holistic context to guide management or policy.

While that drives the process, they then ensure all actions are in line with the holistic context socially, environmentally and economically and unlikely to lead to unintended consequences by using a set of context-checking questions.

The same process is used whether the management be of a farm, ranch, pastoral lifestyle, household or any business. Briefly, the questions are:

  • Cause and Effect. If dealing with a problem, does the proposed action deal with the cause of the problem or its symptoms?
  • Weak Link. Could this action, due to prevailing attitudes or beliefs, create conflict? If dealing with a problem organism, such as a noxious plant, or a rare and endangered animal, does this action deal with the weakest point in the organism’s life cycle? If an expenditure of money is contemplated, does this address the weakest link in the chain of production in any business?
  • Marginal Reaction. Only used when two possible actions could achieve the same end. Which of these actions provides the greatest return on the next dollar or human-hour invested?
  • Gross Profit Analysis. Only used with product enterprises. Which enterprises contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?
  • Energy/Money Source and Use. Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source (solar, paper or mineral dollar) in terms of the person’s holistic context? Is the pattern of use of the energy or money — once-only investment, addictive investment, etc. — in line with your holistic context?

“Every action will take money,” Savory says. “Where’s that money coming from? Is it solar, paper, or mineral dollar? In agriculture, it should be a solar dollar. In almost all of American agriculture, it’s a mineral dollar because we are mining the soil. All of agriculture should be producing solar dollars — from green, growing plants on regenerating soils.”

  • Sustainability. If you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in your holistic context?
  • Gut Feel. While the above questions are asked and answered quickly, this final question is where the action is accepted or rejected on how you feel, not how you think, Savory says. “Will it lead to the quality of life you desire? Will it adversely affect the lives of others? How do you feel about this decision? If you don’t feel good about it, you don’t do it,” Savory says. “It’s not how you think, it’s how you feel.

“You cannot ever manage without the web of complexity always present. And when the reasoner context for our management is reduced to make a profit, war on drugs, terror or weeds, it can only be called reductionist. And it is that reductionist management and policy development that is the undoubted cause of both global desertification and climate change,” Savory says.

“With holistic management we still need to meet our needs, desires and solve problems, but we don’t reduce the web of complexity when guided by our own holistic context and we consistently see improvement just as soon as we address the cause and no longer symptoms.”

This is a simple generic example of a holistic context that Savory uses when visiting new places where people have not developed one, or reading research or policies.

“We want stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs,” he says. “Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits.

“All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans. Most people in any culture would resonate with such a holistic context guiding their management.”

Staying Profitable

With profit being essential in any business, including agriculture, “it becomes more certain because holistic management brings into financial planning human psychology,” Savory says.

“Most people in agriculture believe that price or income governs their profit. No, it doesn’t. Price or income leads to bankruptcy. The higher the price, the more the bankruptcies happen,” he says. “Profit comes from cutting costs. And one of the first things you do with holistic management is start holistic financial planning.

“So, instead of planning your finances and income from crops, and then your costs, and what is left over is basically profit, we don’t do that any longer. Once you’re managing holistically, you’ll plan your income and then cut it by anywhere up to 50% and plan the profit before any expenses. Because the cost of production rises to the anticipated income.”

Savory’s Thoughts on Burning for Pasture Management

Burning is used frequently in Kansas and other states to rejuvenate pastures, although it’s not popular with everyone. He acknowledges that grass must decay biologically before the next growing season or the grass shifts to oxidation and dies, leaving behind woody vegetation and bare soils that release carbon into the atmosphere.

Noting that Africa is burning 1 billion hectares of grassland a year, this is Savory’s take on the practice.

“When you’re managing holistically, you'll use fire, but only when it’s in holistic context. So if you come to our place in Africa, we use fire to make firebreaks. So by sacrificing 30-meter- wide strips, strategically placed, we save thousands of hectares from burning. And we use animals to keep the cycle of life going, instead of using fire. Because fire doesn’t keep it going.

“No, you do not have to burn grasslands. If you burn grasslands, you destroy them over time, because the soil becomes exposed. In addition, burning 1 hectare of grassland gives off more damaging pollutants than 6,000 cars per second.”

Savory mentioned a study published many years ago by Ohio State University researchers who analyzed early adopters of holistic management across the U.S. and found those farmers averaged a 300% increase in profitability compared to their previous management.

“Over the same time period over 600,000 American farmers left the land, and suicide was the leading causing of death, in the exact same markets. I don’t know what more to say,” he says. “I am not aware of a single case where holistic management has been practiced and not led to improvement.”

Savory says most early adopters of holistic management openly stated they came to him as a last resort because they were going bankrupt.

One couple in deep financial trouble got home and developed their holistic context, with “deep, deep thinking on how you want your life to be, tied to your future life-supporting environment and realized they didn’t want to be farming. They were farming because the family expected it and eventually the farm was sold.

“That saved a family and saved a tragedy. It probably would have ended in bankruptcy, divorce, whatever. That is holistic management. It’s not some grazing system,” Savory says.

Tough Decisions

Savory also shared his own story. He lives on a 6,000-acre ranch in Zimbabwe among 10 million acres carrying some of Africa’s big game in wild, unfenced country. His nearby community of 150,000 people occupy over a million acres under five chiefs.

Over 4,000 farms and ranches have been taken by the government and given largely to politicians, judges, soldiers and other supporters of the government, he says, “and yet I'm still there. I’m still on my land. How? Only through managing holistically.”

Years ago, Allan and his wife, Jody Butterfield, developed their holistic context to guide their management. After looking at the reality of Zimbabwe after years of civil war, he could see what mattered to him was living on the land, working with poor people and enjoying the wildlife he loves.

“Ownership is a management decision. So I checked the idea of ownership through the context- checking questions and realized that if I continued to own the land, I would lose everything.

“I met with the chiefs and I said, ‘I propose to give you this land. You could divide it up, settle people on it and you’ll all be poor. Then I told the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs,” Savory says. “I said, ‘Or you can keep this piece of land intact, laying golden eggs for your children and grandchildren forever.

“We will give you your knowledge, your dignity back. Do not ask for money. And if there’s any corruption, we close it down. So, I will give you this land, we'll keep it intact if you agree. And they did.”

Savory made a trust for the land and it’s owned by the people. The chiefs are permanent trustees, along with Allan and Jody, and they manage the ranch along with other staff.

“It is nearly all wildlife. We’re running cattle and sheep and goats as the tool to stop the land degradation and desertification,” he says. “We have this big management herd of animals that make the rainfall more effective healing the land.”

Due to the number of conflicts between villagers and elephants over the crops — which Savory says weren’t worth protecting — they established crops on forest soil that isn’t tilled and receives no fertilizers or other chemicals.

“We only use the animals. They come in there once or twice a year just dunging, urinating, and we grow crops in there. We’re averaging three to five times the yield of surrounding farmers. And we’re testing various barriers so we can stop an elephant charge and protect the field.”

“We can’t reduce the numbers of animals, or burn, without causing desertification and climate change. We have only one option — do the unthinkable and use livestock, bunched and moving, as proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature.”

Change is Possible

Savory says he was shocked when he came to the U.S. and found there were parts of the country, including land managed by the U.S. National Parks Service, that were eroding and desertifying as badly as any part of his native Africa.

He feels land management will change in the U.S. when it makes sense to enough people in the public that policies should be holistic and no longer reductionist.

“Change requires leadership. But history and science teach us that when change involves new, counterintuitive insights not already believed by society, that leadership simply cannot come from any organization or institution,” he says. “So people who are constantly calling for government, politicians or organizations to change are simply wasting their breath. It can only come from ordinary people until public perception changes, and then our institutions follow.

“What is most important for the 2% of us favoring agriculture based on the biological sciences is that we will be at the policy table. At the moment, we’re not even considered at the policy table,” he says. “We will be there as equals with the most powerful corporations and corporate grant- dependent academics.”

No-tillers are already showing leadership by supporting the practice, Savory says. But he believes they should take their land and livestock management a step further.

“You need to change the way you manage the web of complexity surrounding any agricultural practice,” he says. “Holistic management will immediately make all ecologically sound practices more successful than they ever could be under reductionist management. As leaders, you will need to shift public perception from vilifying livestock to understanding that management is the cause of our problems.”

Savory says the shift in public perception doesn’t have to be large, noting his 20-minute TED Talk “resulted in more change than 50 years of struggle against institutional ridicule, resistance from cattlemen’s organizations, environmental organizations, universities and governments.

“The global network of holistic management hubs has developed on six continents now. Change is finally beginning.”