The Weekend Wonk: Alan Savory on Greening Deserts and Reversing Climate Change

March 9, 2013

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about this TED talk, asking me if I had seen it, and what do I think.

Finally got around to watching it last night, and I agree, this is a worthy topic for discussion, for a couple of reasons.

a) We are clearly in carbon overshoot, and need to come up with novel ways to manage forests and soils over coming decades, to soak up as much carbon as possible

b) This speaks to what is for some, a standard ecological prescription, which is that animal husbandry is always in every case destructive, and contributes to climate change and desertification. Savory agrees that there is a right and wrong way, but makes a case that with the right practices, ruminants can become a powerful tool for healing damaged land and sequestering carbon.

One remembers that when European settlers (ok, illegal aliens) came to America, they found black soil 6 feet and more thick in Iowa, Illinois and the plains. That soil has now been reduced to inches by technological agricultural practices, and a major project for the coming century would be to turn that around, if we are to maintain a viable agricultural base. And those original soils, well, the Buffalo had something to do with that…

Indigent to the prairie and a primary food source for Indian tribes, the buffalo was slaughtered to near-extinction by the white man in the 1860s. This photograph, which captures only a fraction of the bones from the estimated millions of buffalo shot for their hides and often left to rot, can be found in Michael Blake's "Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency."

Indigent to the prairie and a primary food source for Indian tribes, the buffalo was slaughtered to near-extinction by the white man in the 1860s. This photograph, which captures only a fraction of the bones from the estimated millions of buffalo shot for their hides and often left to rot, can be found in Michael Blake’s “Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency.”

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53 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Alan Savory on Greening Deserts and Reversing Climate Change”

  1. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    This is so contrary to what I have learn t over the years. One TED talk is not alone going to change my opinion of many many years.

    But it certainly looks promising, bears investigation. It would not be the first time that the understanding of man has been 100% wrong.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I wonder if there are any controlled studies, where they went into an area, did their thing on 50% of the land and left 50% alone (then examined the differences in the two partitions at points in time). I’m not an ecologist, but some of the points of such a study I would investigate would be 1) what’s it look like 5, 10, n,… years after the sheep came in and did their thing, and 2) biodiversity of the restored patch versus biodiversity of a natural, undisturbed patch (untouched by man). There’s probably several more relevant things to examine, with regard to sustainability, but my ignorance of the subject leaves me high and dry.

      Do they have to keep ‘sheeping’ the place after it’s resotred? And how often, if so? How much energy is spent, if so (varies by place, I’m sure)?

      • howelljd Says:

        Andrew,

        Here’s a link to a study which does essentially what you’ve asked–comparing the ecological results of various neighboring ranches under different management approaches.

        https://www.box.com/s/6x36gfbii49zhwnsbv4r

        Here is a link to bunch of further reading on the topic, including scientific journal papers, popular journal articles, books, etc.

        https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r1L5uMGs3AKFRYwOhBxamHkMNcA818qxmkbn3T4o6ig/pub

        Jim Howell


      • You’re absolutely spot on Andrew with assessing the effectiveness of this sort of thing and you are also right on both accounts. There needs to be comparitive studies. This can be done by having paired plots in the manner you suggested. Another legitimate thing to do is to have exclusion plots within the area being studied. That’s a simple case of setting up a number of fenced off areas that will not be subject to the grazing. I quite like this idea as variables like soil type, slope, elevation, vegetation, weather are all the same for the treated and untreated plots due to them being in the same place.

        It would also be normal practice for researchers to monitor these plots over time or at least return every few years to measure impacts and get land use data (stocking rate, times, movements, whatever) and see if the effect is ongoing or whatever. I would be very surprised if the places where this has been employed does not have university PhD students or postdocs undertaking that research.

  2. guylacrosse Says:

    This is a good talk. One way to view is to go with the flow with the way nature evolved to work instead of going against it. We need to do away with the factory farms and go back to grazing herds of livestock. If we that then there may be hope for the future yet. We don’t know for certain that it’s going to be over for the climate until it is.


  3. As an ecologist and half way decent botanist who spends most of his time trying to fix what ranchers have broken, and having read about and seen the results of many Savory-induced rotational grazing regimes I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t conserve native rangelands. Ranchers and environmentalists sleeping together…. Everyone wants to believe in win-win situations and I like talking to folks who live close to the land, but ranching is a business and in the end if a rancher is going to make money and conserve their native rangelands then they either need to have one hell of a big ranch (like 250,000 acres or more) in a place that gets a decent amount of rainfall and go with a real low stocking rate, or have oil wells or hunting leases or a job in town. This is why most ranchers who are in it to make a living (and there are a zillion who do it for enjoyment) convert their native rangelands to exotic grasses which as invasive species can put the energy they capture into growth and reproduction versus defense.

    The ranches I’ve visited that retained the greatest amount of their native flora and fauna were those with the least amount of cross-fences and widely scattered water sources and allow stocking rates to fluctuate wildly with the weather. In a word, those who do exactly the opposite of what Mr. Savory and most range science departments promote, which is to try to capture every blade of grass for feed (which is why as time marches on and most ranches have eaten through their native grasses, range scientists have pushed to change their definition of range condition).

    Grazing is an important part of the ecology of North America’s grasslands. Vital. But emulating the grazing regimes under which our grasslands evolved and making money off cattle has, for the most part, not yet been accomplished. And what Mr. Savory preaches would take ranchers farther from rather than closer to that goal. Remember that our grasslands, like Africa’s, evolved under a wide variety of grazing and browsing animals; most of which are now extinct. It wasn’t all buffalo. Maintaining the diversity of intact grassland communities takes a lot of management and science.

    Keeping rangeland green with some kind of grass on it and conserving native grasslands with their flora and fauna are too completely different things, and yet Mr. Savory conflates the two. Thus, I’m not a big fan of his.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I’m not sure I understand some of the lingo – what do we mean, for instance, by “stocking rates”?

      this passage
      “The ranches I’ve visited that retained the greatest amount of their native flora and fauna were those with the least amount of cross-fences and widely scattered water sources and allow stocking rates to fluctuate wildly with the weather.”

      is an important one, wish you could break that down…

    • rayduray Says:

      Andrew,

      That’s a terrific comment. Very thoughtful.

      Here’s something that might interest you:

      http://www.occupybendor.org/news.php?1729

      • andrewfez Says:

        And I know I keep spamming you guys with this same video, but it’s one of my favorites. Someone over at SkS recommended it to me in the comments section. Plus, as a bonus, there’s a bit between 20:00 and 27:00 that shares a story of a guy who planted something like 20 different varieties of grass in his pasture – experimented with it his entire life – and now the pasture is resistant to cattle mucking it up, so they can keep feeding on it, even through the winter, which saves the farmers from having to dedicate fields to hay growing to keep the cattle fed during that time.

        • MorinMoss Says:

          I did watch this – it’s quite eye-opening, especially for a chap like myself who has no real farming background although the old family home had lots of fruit trees, herb shrubs and some tubers, along with a couple dozen chickens.

          Old Arthur’s pasture was perhaps the most interesting bit in the video and I hope that more British farmers would do the same with the right mix of grasses for their region and soil type.

          • andrewfez Says:

            Thanks Morin,

            Yeah if that multi-variety grass strategy were effective in a significant number of places, that would greatly reduce, not only the fossil energy needed to make all that winter hay for the cows, but would cut down on all the water needed to make that hay, thus making beef a bit more environmentally friendly in places that have to winterize their cows.

    • howelljd Says:

      I’m a colleague of Savory’s and a co-founder of the Savory Institute and its associated land management arm, Grasslands LLC. I’m also a rancher from western Colorado, and have managed and consulted on grazing properties in a broad range of grassland environments across the globe. There is no question regarding the validity of Savory’s work–hundreds of case studies from around the world attest to the solid gains that have been made ecologically, economically, and socially.

      The scientific papers which claim to disprove Savory’s work have not specifically studied what Savory promotes. If one looks closely at the experimental protocol and methodologies, there are glaring flaws. For example, a core tenet of planned grazing is adaptability and flexibility, since nature is unpredictable and environmental conditions never evolve as anticipated. That’s why we insist that “plan” is not a 4-letter word, but a 24-letter word, “planmonitorcontrolreplan”. For example, a key element that we monitor is plant growth rates. We speed animal moves up or slow them down according to growing conditions and the time required for a perennial plant to recover from defoliation. On the contrary, most of the scientific studies use fixed grazing and recovery periods, which Savory has tirelessly cautioned against for decades. This is just one example. Most of the “science” disproving Savory’s claims is totally inadequate, and there is a growing body of range scientists who recognize this.

      Here is a link to a series of letters written by a rancher from west Texas, Chris Gill, who looked closely at the common papers which are cited as “proof” that Savory’s insights don’t work. These are written to a group of range scientists critical of Savory: http://circleranchtx.com/?tag=grazing&page=3. There is a lot of information there, but if you’re interested it is worth delving into.

      Here are some more sources which attest to the power of Savory’s work.

      For scientific publications germane to Holistic Management:

      https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XlQeLBDHnhXt_5_-jY1NIerQfQhls6CzS3Qx5_Um1kQ/pub

      For a more complete list of popular articles, books, interviews, and additional scientific publications:

      https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r1L5uMGs3AKFRYwOhBxamHkMNcA818qxmkbn3T4o6ig/pub

      For case studies and related research:

      http://www.savoryinstitute.com/research-and-case-studies/

      http://www.ecoresults.org/

      http://www.managingwholes.com/

      http://soilcarboncoalition.org/

      Thanks, Peter, for your fantastic blog. I’m a daily reader.

      Jim Howell

      • greenman3610 Says:

        greatest thanks. This comment thread has produced exactly the kind of rich and thoughtful response I was hoping for.
        I’ve been thinking about this topic for some time, and readers have given me a trove of research material.
        thanks again to all.


      • That is fantastic work Jim! (Colleague of Savory). I have questions that you may be able to direct me to. (Looking for peer research) On the amount of land able to reverse desertification or after de- desertification (returned to grassland). His statement in the video more inferred a new and greater carbon sink after the reversed desertification was completed or was he just talking about the change back or a new source 95%?

        In other words revering former grassland is a no-brainer with his approach (figuratively) and maybe with the smart use of evapotranspiration (ET) even extend it. It cannot work in areas that were not deforested or areas with (weather) precipitation patterns that are to low naturally. He circled all of the Sahara some of it is deforested and semi-arid, but the bulk is arid or hyper-arid. Barring a change in the general circulation of the atmosphere to overcome subsidence and change it to uplift, it will not happen. A realistic calculation on the available area for use is the main answer that I am seeking for his technique.

        • howelljd Says:

          Yes, I agree with you regarding areas that are true deserts, including most of the Sahara, the Namib, much of the Gobi and Arabian Peninsula, etc. If you take that area out of the equation, our best estimate is that there are about 5 billion ha (1/3 of the the globe’s surface area, as opposed to the 2/3 mentioned by Savory, which included all of the extreme deserts) where we can make a positive difference. These are mostly various types of grassland environments (temperate prairies and steppes, tropical and subtropical savannas) in various stages of degradation, primarily due to human management. These areas have the capacity to heal relative to their current state–that is, bare ground can be reduced, plant density and diversity can be increased, soil carbon can be increased, and the production of high quality meat protein can be increased. But, the increases are relative to the inherent productive potential of the specific environment, and this is driven by temperature and precipitation, slope, aspect, elevation, soil type, etc. For example, we cannot turn a naturally low production shrub-steppe environment into a productive tall grass prairie, but we can improve the ecological integrity of the shrub steppe (within the range of its inherent potential) by gradually increasing the functionality of the ecosystem processes (water cycle, mineral/nutrient cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics).

          Jim Howell

  4. James Pavitt Says:

    Breathtakingly, Alan Savory’s TED talk is also being promoted positively on WUWT.


  5. [...] 2013/03/09: PSinclair: The Weekend Wonk: Alan Savory on Greening Deserts and Reversing Climate Chang… [...]


  6. [...] Alan Savory On Greening Deserts And Reversing Climate Change [...]


  7. [...] Alan Savory On Greening Deserts And Reversing Climate Change [...]


  8. Have visited many wilderness areas in Africa, which invariably stand in stark contrast to the areas which have been subjected to overgrazing by domestic animals. The advantage to the indigenous vegetation is that the wild animals each have their own favoured grazing.thus a balance is maintained. The open areas and the small wooded zones create different micro environments ,each with their own species .

    In contrast, domestic animals favour certain easily accessible fodder and the environment becomes degraded with less diversity. Trees spread as does thorn scrub. The smaller creatures move away and the land is changed for the worse, in my opinion.

    You only have to travel to the National Parks in Botswana or South Africa to see the difference between natural environments and managed domestic farms.

    I do not deny Allan Savory’s message that reversing desertification can improve the planet, and that ,if farming is necessary, then there is a need for systematic and reasoned rotation , after all that is always been the case,even in humid climates, but that is not preserving the environment but changing it. The risk lies in decreased diversity in the event of shocks to local climate, caused by man OR natural events. The loss of natural vegetation,due to farming, has already caused climate change in many areas more significant than the carbon dioxide effect.

    We need diversity of species of plants and animals to preserve our lands, so faming must be an inclusive conservation and ecological effort, in these desert regions. The climate pendulum swings.

  9. Alteredstory Says:

    If it hasn’t been posted already (I’m a bit tired, so I didn’t read everything) here’s some good commentary on this talk from a desert ecologist.

    Summary – failing to distinguish between actual deserts and degraded grasslands, all in pursuit of a one-size-fits-all solution, means that you’re misleading yourself and others.

    http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/east-ca/learn-how-to-hate-the-desert-with-ted.html

    • rayduray Says:

      Thanks, what Chris Clarke wrote at the KCET website rings true to me. While I’ve been troubled by the neat and tidy Allan Savory story since I first came across his videos.

      There’s something about a white Zimbabwean who isn’t obsessed with the Mugabe mess that makes me wonder if the fellow is on the up-and-up.

      And as someone who lives in the high desert in Central Oregon and has friends who are campaigners for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, I can assure you that zero percent of anyone restoring desert to a semi-natural state in Oregon is using Allan Savory’s methods. The idea around here is to have nature conservancies purchase what private land becomes available and also to retire BLM land that has been overgrazed for the last century and remove all the damned barbed wire possible and keep livestock the hell off the land and let it recuperate naturally with whatever wildlife cares to use it.

      I’m pretty certain that people I know who have been responsible for the restoration or preservation of tens of thousands of acres of desert would all absolutely scoff at Savory’s system.

      • howelljd Says:

        One more point regarding the Mugabe comment. Savory is indeed appalled by the mess that Mugabe has created, and not sure where you gleaned that he isn’t. Mugabe has almost entirely taken over the white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, but he and his thugs have largely left Savory and his Africa Centre for Holistic Management alone (located on a ranch near Victoria Falls that Savory originally owned, but donated to the Africa Centre many years ago). They were threatened, but the local chiefs (leaders of a large communcal lands area near the Africa Centre) rose up and insisted that Savory and his staff/operation not be touched. This was due to the tremendous amount of work that Savory and his Zimbabwean colleagues have done with these neighboring villagers, educating them on how to live on their landscapes in a regenerative way, not dependent on never-ending food aid or outside inputs of inappropriate technology. Savory and his team in Zimbabwe have achieved incredible results, in the face of unbelievable odds, and lead training sessions for Africans from across the continent.

        Jim Howell

        • rayduray Says:

          Hi Jim,

          The Internet is truly an amazing place. I’m grateful for your thoughtful reply to my admittedly provocative comment about the nature of being white in Zimbabwe. I’m sure glad my grandfathers chose Illinois instead. Although I’m a tad envious of Cecil Rhodes riches, while being appalled at how he created his fortune. :)

          Migratorially yours, Ray

    • howelljd Says:

      I am a colleague of Savory’s, a rancher in southwestern Colorado, and am involved with ranch management based on Savory’s insights in a variety of grassland environments around the world. I read Chris Clarke’s piece (I’m the colleague of Savory he quoted) and I agree that he makes some good points, particularly around semantics tied to “deserts” and “desertification”, which lead to unnecessary misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I think we all recognize that there are areas of the world that support no or almost no biodiversity or life–masses stretches of the Sahara, the Arabian peninsula, Gobi, Namib, etc. Some of these areas, or parts of these areas, are likely in their current state due to human influence, and some of this influence likely occured thousands of years ago. In my experience, these environments are what they are, and we aren’t going to “regreen” them, even if we wanted to. These are the deserts. Our point is that we don’t want to convert additional land into deserts due to human mismanagement.

      There are huge stretches of the world that we also call “deserts” or “desert grasslands”, but which in fact support high levels of life of all forms (as Clarke rightly points out), and are not in the category I refer to in the paragraph above. I think this is where the semantic confusion comes in. I have been involved in the direct management of (or have consulted on) hundreds of thousands of acres of such environments, in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, and Argentine Patagonia, in addition to visiting ranchers in such environments in South Africa and Namibia. In the management of such landscapes, a primary driver is always the encouragement of as much biodiversity as possible (but within the range of what is possible in a given environment), while also attempting to manage for increasingly functional ecosystem processes generally–that is, more effective water cycling, nutrient cycling, and energy flow. We realize that we can’t convert a Chihuahua Desert grassland into the tall grass prairie, and we don’t try to (or want to), but we do emphatically know that we can manage that desert grassland to make it more productive, more biodiverse, and ecologically resilient with properly managed livestock. Most of these environments indeed are significantly degraded (yes, by the same livestock that we propose as a key to the solution). The point is that it is not the cow or sheep that is the problem, but how the grazing animal is managed that is key.

      And, our approach is definitely not one size fits all. Yes, we use the tools of grazing and animal impact to work toward such improvement, but the details of their application change significantly as we transition from one type of grassland landscape into another. For example, we typically allow for extended recovery periods between grazing events in naturally low production, semi-arid and arid landscapes–frequently multiple years. But, the periodic infusion of that grazing disturbance is positive, but it has to be combined with the recovery period. This contrasts with higher productivity grasslands (like the tropical savannas, many of which are shown in Savory’s TED talk), which may be grazed multiple times throughout both the growing and dormant seasons, with much shorter recovery periods. The key to making any of this work is the grazing planning process itself, which enables the land manager to handle a high level of complexity and many dynamic variables simultaneously. Successful execution takes a tremendous amount of skill and years of experience to master, just like anything else. It is hard to do, but if practiced consistently, the benefits are tremendous. Go to the following links for more information: http://www.savoryinstitute.com/2013/03/resources/evidence-supporting-holistic-management/

      http://www.savoryinstitute.com/research-and-case-studies/

      Jim Howell


  10. Good morning,

    I’m Filippo De Matteis, the founder of the first italian magazine on environmental communication (www.greeno.it).

    We’ve just had a very interesting exclusive interview with Allan Savory about his revolutionary theories on climate change. As you will see in the link below, we’ve had a long talk about his theories, the informative frauds, the digital and environmental communication.

    Here’s the link to the english version of the interview:

    http://www.greeno.it/home/2013/04/exclusive-allan-savory-we-can-afford-no-further-fence-sitting/

    You can find the interview on Savory Institute official site, too:

    http://www.savoryinstitute.com/2013/02/resources/in-the-news/

    I hope you’ll appreciate.


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