Allan Redin Savory (born 15 September 1935) is a Rhodesian ecologist, farmer, soldier, exile, environmentalist, international consultant, and president and co-founder of The Savory Institute. He originated holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources. Once a staunch opponent of livestock, Savory would come to favor using properly managed livestock, bunched and moving to mimic nature, as a means to heal the environment, stating “only livestock can reverse desertification. There is no other known tool available to humans with which to address desertification that is contributing not only to climate change but also to much of the poverty, emigration, violence, etc. in the seriously affected regions of the world.” “Only livestock can save us.” He believes grasslands hold the potential to sequester enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to reverse climate change. Praised by supporters as genius, prophet and visionary, his controversial ideas have sparked fierce opposition from academics, environmentalists, and vegans. Yet his radical approach is gaining ground, with new converts and investors, and total grassland under holistic management topping 40 million acres worldwide. Savory received the 2003 Banksia International Award and won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. Prince Charles called him “a remarkable man” and Joel Salatin, dubbed by the New York Times as “Virginia’s most multifaceted agrarian since Thomas Jefferson,” wrote, “History will vindicate Allan Savory as one of the greatest ecologists of all time.”
Savory was educated in South Africa at the University of Natal, gaining a B.Sc. in Biology and Botany in 1955.
EARLY WORK IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
Savory began working on the problem of land degradation (desertification) in 1955 in Northern Rhodesia, where he served in the Colonial Service as Provincial Game Officer, Northern and Luapula Provinces. He later continued this work in Southern Rhodesia first as a research officer in the Game Department, later as an independent scientist and international consultant.
As late as 1969, he was advocating culling large populations of wild animals such as elephants, when they appeared to be destroying their habitat. His research, validated by a committee of scientists, led to the government culling of 40,000 elephants in following years but he later concluded the culling did not reverse the degradation of the land, calling that decision “the saddest and greatest blunder of my life.” This blunder, brought about by interpreting research data to fit the prevailing world-view that too many animals causes overgrazing and overbrowsing, led to Savory becoming determined to solve the problem. This was eventually to lead to the development of the holistic framework for decision-making and to holistic planned grazing, and to his book, Holistic Management: A New Decision Making Framework, written with his wife Jody Butterfield.
Savory was influenced by earlier work of French agronomist André Voisin who established that overgrazing resulted from the amount of time plants were exposed to animals, not from too many animals in any given area. Savory saw this as a solution to overgrazing, and believed that overgrazing was caused by leaving cattle too long and returning them too soon, rather than the size of the herd.
At the time of Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, Savory was a Captain in the Rhodesian armed forces. He served extensively, commanding the Tracker Combat Unit that later became the Selous Scouts.
Savory was elected to the Rhodesian Parliament representing Matobo constituency in the 1970 election. After resigning from the Rhodesian Front in protest over its racist policies and handling of the war, in 1973 Savory reformed the defunct Rhodesia Party formerly led by Sir Roy Welensky. In June 1973, Savory publicly stated, “If you want to win this ‘war’ you need to understand your opponents and to understand why someone like me would say, “If I had been born a black Rhodesian, instead of a white Rhodesian, I would be your greatest terrorist.” Although he urged white Rhodesians to understand why he would feel this, the reaction to this statement led to Savory’s ousting from the Rhodesia Party. In 1977, non-racist moderate white parties united in opposition to Ian Smith in what was known as the National Unifying Force (NUF) led by Savory. The NUF party won no seats in the 1977 election, and Savory relinquished leadership to Tim Gibbs, son of Rhodesia’s last governor. Savory continued to fight Ian Smith and his policies, in particular opposing the Internal Settlement under Bishop Abel Muzorewa. In 1979, due to conflicts with the Smith government, Savory left Rhodesia and went into self-imposed exile to continue his scientific work.
MOVE TO AMERICA
After leaving Zimbabwe, Savory worked from the Cayman Islands into the Americas, introducing holistic planned grazing as a process of management to reverse desertification of ‘brittle’ grasslands by carefully planning movements of dense herds of livestock to mimic those found in nature, allowing sufficient time for the plants to fully recover before re-grazing. Savory immigrated to the US, and with his wife Jody Butterfield founded the Center for Holistic Management in 1984. Its name was later changed to the Savory Center and later Holistic Management International. In 2009 Savory left HMI and formed the Savory Institute. Savory, Butterfield and philanthropist Sam Brown formed the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, based in Zimbabwe in 1992 on 2,520 hectares (6,200 acres) of land Savory donated for the benefit of the people of Africa as a learning/training site for holistic management.
Thousands of farmers, ranchers, pastoralists and various organizations are working globally to restore grasslands through the teaching and practice of holistic management and holistic decision making. This includes conservation projects in the US, Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Canada, and Australia in which various NGOs, government agencies and universities are practicing holistic management and its holistic planned grazing to reverse desertification using livestock as the main agent of change to restore the environment, increase ground cover, soil organic matter and water retention, replenish streams, and combat biodiversity loss.
Although Savory’s approach to the problem of desertification has met resistance from the scientific mainstream (see below), recent peer-reviewed studies document soil improvement as measured by soil carbon, soil biota, water retention, nutrient holding capacity, and ground litter on land grazed according to Savory’s methods compared with continuously grazed and non-grazed land.
In 2003 Australia honored Savory with their Banksia International Award “for the person doing the most for the environment on a global scale” and in 2010, Savory and the Africa Centre for Holistic Management won The Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual international design competition awarding $100,000 “to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”
In a 2012 address to the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, on the urgent need to bring agriculture and conservation back together, Prince Charles lauded Savory’s nature based approach:
“I have been particularly fascinated, for example, by the work of a remarkable man called Allan Savory, in Zimbabwe and other semiarid areas, who has argued for years against the prevailing expert view that it is the simple numbers of cattle that drive overgrazing and cause fertile land to become desert. On the contrary, as he has since shown so graphically, the land needs the presence of feeding animals and their droppings for the cycle to be complete, so that soils and grassland areas stay productive. Such that, if you take grazers off the land and lock them away in vast feedlots, the land dies.”
His 2013 TED Talk, “How to green the desert and reverse climate change,” attracted millions of views and was followed up by the release of his TED Book, The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth. In his TED Talk Savory asks, “What are we going to do?”
“There is only one option, I’ll repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.”
The Savory Institute is one of eleven finalists in the Virgin Earth Challenge, a competition offering a $25 million prize for whoever can demonstrate a commercially viable design that results in the permanent removal of greenhouse gases out of the Earth’s atmosphere to contribute materially in global warming avoidance.
Savory advocates using high technology to develop alternative energy sources and to reduce or eliminate future emissions. He supports grass fed beef and vehemently opposes industrial livestock production.
“The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound.”
He condemns the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation of forests and grasslands, saying that it “leaves the soil bare, releasing carbon, and worse than that, burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than 6,000 cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than one billion hectares of grasslands, and almost nobody is talking about it.”
When not travelling the world spreading his message, Savory and Butterfield split their time between their house in Albuquerque and a thatched-roof mud hut in the African bush. He frequently goes barefoot.
An assessment of multiple research studies, published by the United States Department of Agriculture, concluded that “these results refute prior claims that animal trampling associated with high stocking rates or grazing pressures in rotational grazing systems enhance soil properties and promote hydrological function”. Similarly, a survey article by Briske et al. (the same author) that examined rotational grazing systems found “few, if any, consistent benefits over continuous grazing.” These confirm earlier research that compared short duration grazing (SDG) and Savory Grazing Method (SGM) in southern Africa and found no evidence of range improvement, a slight economic improvement of a seven-unit intensive system with more animals but with individual weight loss. That study found no evidence for soil improvement, but instead that increased trampling had led to soil compaction.
A paper by Richard Teague, a coauthor of the USDA paper, et al. pointed out that Briske had examined rotational systems in general and not Savory’s holistic planned grazing process, developed in the 1960s when Savory recognized that a hundred years of rotational and other prescribed grazing systems had exacerbated desertification, even in the U.S. as stated in Savory’s TED talk. The paper contrasted the success reported by many ranchers practicing multi-paddock grazing with the general lack of evidence found by formal research. In March 2013, the Savory Institute published a research portfolio with selected abstracts of papers, theses and reports supporting holistic management and responding to some of their critics.
Savory’s TED Talk stirred debate. Ralph Maughan, editor of The Wildlife News, defended the western deserts of North America from livestock, writing, “The idea that we can almost like magic, green the desert and the degraded lands, by running even more livestock, albeit in a different fashion, sucking up greenhouse gases all the while, is a compelling and dangerous fantasy.” An article in Rangelands by Briske et al. disputes the assertions made in the TED Talk. In addition to claims about reversing desertification, Savory stated at the same time, “…people who understand far more about carbon than I do calculate that for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels while feeding people.” Jason West and David Briske, writing on the climate science website RealClimate, set out figures for carbon storage and uptake by the world’s vegetation, and concluded that, “It is simply unreasonable to expect that any management strategy, even if implemented on all of the planet’s grasslands, would yield such a tremendous increase in carbon sequestration.”
In a 2014 article in The Guardian writer George Monbiot, citing the criticisms of Briske and others, looked into the claims made by Savory and concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support them. Monbiot’s conclusions were in turn criticized in a subsequent Guardian article by sustainability advocate Hunter Lovins. Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust, and others also came to Savory’s defense.
A 2014 review in the International Journal of Biodiversity criticized Savory’s methods and assertions, finding little peer-review support for many of his more contentious assertions. The authors concluded that: “Ecologically, the application of HM principles of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils, water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing systems. Contrary to claims made that HM will reverse climate change, the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year.”