Sooooo guess who I had the honor to hear speak yesterday? Allan Savory!
He is the founder of the Savory Institute and a man on a mission to convince the world that livestock could be the solution to, not the cause of, land degradation and desertification. His TED-talk here is a perfect representation of his idea and also his quietly convincing presentation style – which I got to know in depth today at an event at SLU called “Holy Cow!” on his idea of Holistic Management of soils, in particular holistic grazing practices, and their practical application.
This video gives even more infos about the Holistic Management concept, but I’m not going to just sit here and let you watch videos, now am I? My friend and I had so many questions – many of which were answered mid-session – that I thought a Q&A style post would work really well here. So here goes:
Well. You just spent 5 hours hearing about how cows can save the planet. What exactly is the problem, and how are cows involved in solving it?
Savory’s main point of departure is the issue of land degradation and desertification, which is occurring continuously and at a rapidly increasing pace around the world. This is of specific concern because these areas are often already those that are the poorest – in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Latin America – and the most prone to conflict over resources such as water and food, issues that could be exacerbated by further conflicts over fertile land.
For a long time, land degradation was sort of a mystery – first, it was assumed that stress from overpopulation depleted the land, and so animals would be culled or removed to let the land recover. What Savory found, however, is that even in national parks that had “controlled” the population of grazing animals, the rate of desertification increased rather than decreased. He came to the conclusion that these grassland ecosystems had developed in synergy with herds of grazing animals and the predators to keep their population numbers in check, and that the solution to restore depleted land is to reintroduce herbivores in the mix. This conclusion is based in part on the findings of Andre Voisin, a French researcher that championed the understanding that ‘overgrazing’ is not simply due to too many animals on a plot, but on the time period a single plant is exposed to the grazing. Thus, if you have a lot of animals that graze shortly on a particular plant, only nibbling off the young tips and are then removed to let the plant recover, you can actually stock a much larger number of herbivores than originally thought, and take advantage of the positive consequences the herd has.
So Holistic Management and its holistic planned grazing is based on minimizing overgrazing through maintaining a high graze/trample:recovery ratio (generally no more than 3 days grazing always followed by 3 to 9 months of recovery) on the land at all times.
These herbivores – he used cows as an example, but sheep or any kind of grazing animal works – have three functions: one, they eat the grass that dries out and dies during the dry season, giving the soil better access to sun and preventing the oxidization of dead grass on the surface that seals soil; and two, they fertilize the areas they are grazing on with their dung and urine before moving on to the next patch. Furthermore, through stepping onto their dung they break up the soil crust and work the fertilizer into the soil without putting too much pressure on it as you would with large machinery. If managed properly, this cycle of growth, consumption and regrowth can thus contribute to healthy grasslands that are better at absorbing the existing rainfall, absorbing carbon and providing food for people.
Huh? But people can’t eat grass now can they?
That is true. But this is where pastoralism comes into play – 95% of the land currently threatened by desertification has historically only been able to feed people from livestock, not crop production. Thus, preserving and restoring these lands means increasing the fodder for the pastoral animals and thus increasing the livelihoods of the people depending on the land for their income.
However, the practice can also be applied in integrated no-till rotational crop production, where you could use grazing to remove parts of your cover crops, thereby saving labor in cutting it down and helping the remainder of nitrogen-enhancing crops to be incorporated in the soil.
But basically, would this be advocating for an increase, rather than decrease, in meat consumption?
This goes into a huge discussion on the contribution of livestock in climate change, their methane emissions, and the fact that advocating for holistic management would disregard these effects. In a White Paper, this is what the Savory Institute has to say: “healthy, well-aerated soils – a characteristic quality of grasslands under Holistic Planned Grazing – harbor bacteria called methanotrophs, which break down methane. Soil-based decomposition of methane may be equal or greater than ruminant methane production, depending on animal density, soil type and soil health. […] While there are indeed excessive sources of methane from conventional livestock management, such as manure lagoons and land use changes (for example, conversion of forests and grasslands to cropland for animal feed), other than market-related transportation costs, Holistic Management requires none of these practices. Thus, the benefits of eco-restoration through Holistic Management far outweigh the net positive methane balance (if there is any) resulting from Holistic Planned Grazing.” Furthermore, this is somewhat of a non-argument since meat demand is projected to sharply increase in the next years; and in my mind, one could definitely have a two-pronged approach where you can get at least some of this demand met through sustainable production methods while also trying to curb the excessive demand.
Also, what do the animals eat when they are first led onto the depleted soil? I thought the point was that there was no grass because the area is nearing desertification?
According to Allan Savory, the only time in his experience that they had to add additional feed was when they do mine field restoration work because the de-mining removes basically any organic compounds from the soil. Otherwise, there are always at least some shrubs, twigs or leaves for the ruminants to eat. Also, consider that this practice is fundamentally different from conventional rotational grazing because you monitor the state of the land closely, and have very short time periods – a maximum of a couple of days – before you move your cattle to the next parcel of land. So even if there is very little fodder to be found, they only have to fill their bellies for a day or two before they are presented with new grazing opportunities.
Cool. I see why it’s important for semi-arid areas. But why are Swedish farmers interested in it? They don’t really have issues with desertification, do they?
No, but Holistic Grazing Management provides a lot of other advantages too. First, many marginal agricultural areas in Northern Europe are starting to be abandoned and grow over with forest cover, which is not always beneficial from a social perspective (because it might hurt accessibility and thereby tourism, as well as limiting the agricultural production surface and thus the amount of farmers that can be supported). Grazing – especially of heritage species that are adapted to the climate – can utilize these areas without overusing the land for inappropriate purposes (such as cash crops) that depletes it. Furthermore, managed grazing can lessen farmers’ dependency on fossil fuels and expensive feed inputs, improve their climate balance (by not importing soy beans from South America for example), contribute to animal health and welfare (since ruminants are not adapted to eating corn or soy and get sick more easily if fed that), and make the resulting meat healthier (check out my post on grassfed beef for more infos).
Wow! This sounds so fascinating! So is there conclusive scientific proof that it works?
Ok. Major hornet’s nest. There is a lot of skepticism in the conventional scientific realms on Savory’s findings, including the fact that there are not a lot of rigorous control trials proving Savory’s theories without doubt. This blog post is a well-written summary of the counterarguments. The Savory Institute does have resources such as this response to criticism, this list of abstracts of supporting studies and this list of case studies, but they have a major disadvantage in that their method is not truly a ‘management system’ per se, but rather a decision-making process. Savory stressed this fact in his talk several times – ‘Holistic Management’ would have been better called ‘managing holistically’ because the fundamental idea doesn’t even necessarily include grazing, but only focuses on making decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of your goals, the context within which you want to reach them, and the proactive use of all management tools at your disposal. Applied to grazing, you get holistic grazing management which draws farmers’ attention to the ecosystem within which they work and encourages them to work with the land instead of against it – in that, the approach actually shares many characteristics of agroecology and permaculture thinking.
On the flipside, this makes the approach obviously very difficult to test scientifically – e.g. set up a hypothesis and try to prove or disprove it – because the context will differ according to each farm, climatic context, stocking rate of animals, etc. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual farmer and her knowledge of her land and the animals on it to see whether holistic grazing management makes sense or not. Thus, exact replication of results are obviously impossible.
On a personal note, I think Savory does make certain claims – on the interlinkage between grassland ecosystems and the animals upon them for example – that should be able to be proven, and to a certain extent I think that the counterhypothesis has been disproven historically – if he is wrong, why did national parks not recover dramatically after they were left alone, for example? There are also many case studies that show significantly beneficial before-and-after effects, though these are often dismissed as anecdotal evidence.
In the end, I think the idea is extremely intuitive and has a lot of potential fields of application, even if it is not the silver bullet for every single situation and every problem with land management out there. I feel very grateful to have heard Allan Savory talk in person and to hear the experience of Norwegian, Danish and Swedish farmers in the application of it (which was so insightful as well!)
Let me know if you have any other questions that could be added to this list! Also, this seems like a great in-depth documentary on the approach, though I haven’t watched it in full myself. Edited to add: I also just found out that there is a recording of the conference, so if you are motivated and have 5 hours on your hands, you can be a virtual participant as well! Click here to get to the recording!