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The Leading Voices in Food

E55: Allan Savory on Regenerative Agriculture

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
October 15, 2019

Regenerative agriculture is a highly visible, interesting and promising approach to raising animals. The person credited for conceiving this approach, testing it and helping it spread around the world is our guest today, Allan Savory.

Allan Savory is from Zimbabwe and is a livestock farmer, author and ecologist, and is president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He is credited with creating the holistic approach to agriculture management that is now being used so widely around the world.


Regenerative agriculture is a highly visible, interesting and promising approach to raising animals. The person credited for conceiving this approach, testing it and helping it spread around the world is our guest today, Allan Savory.

I’m Kelly Brownell, Director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University and professor of public policy at Duke. Welcome to the Leading Voices in Food.

Allan Savory is from Zimbabwe and is a livestock farmer, author and ecologist, and is president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He is credited with creating the holistic approach to agriculture management that is now being used so widely around the world.

And as an example of the reach of his ideas, Allan has a Ted Talk that has been viewed more than 6 million times. Allan, I’d like to begin by thanking you and by asking if you could explain the concept of regenerative agriculture.

We need an entirely new agriculture and regenerative is what it is being called. I always credit Robert Rodale with this. A regenerative agriculture would truly regenerate economies, small towns, rural communities, whole communities. So now, let me explain why it’s so important and the ways in which it will be different, and it has to be. We have to do this.

First, let me define agriculture. Agriculture is not crop production. It is the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters. So almost the entire planet now is involved in agriculture, and only 6% of the planets area is actually crop production, 20% on the land. So it’s a vast area that is involved. Now, without agriculture, we couldn’t have this podcast. You couldn’t have your university. We couldn’t have an orchestra. We can’t have an army, we can’t have a government, a political party or any business.

Agriculture is what civilization and all business is built on. Having said that, the problem that Robert and I were seeing in those days was that mainstream agriculture has become based on chemistry and marketing of technology. Now, even a child knows that agriculture needs to be based on the biological sciences. And mainstream agriculture today is the most destructive industry ever in the history of mankind. More destructive than coal or oil or anything we’ve ever had. And you only need to look at one figure to understand that.

If you just take the published figures on dead eroding soil from agriculture, which are very conservative figures. Every year, that equals more than 20 times the weight of amount of food we need for every human alive today. So nothing else is causing that much destruction. It’s leading to desertification, to climate change, et cetera. All right? So clearly, we have to change modern agriculture if we’re serious about climate change, or any business in the world. If they are serious.

Now, when Robert and I were talking about this, the problem was we couldn’t just swing to organic, sustainable, permaculture, biodynamic; any of the agricultural forms that people think are regenerative. Because if you look at history, the reason farmers and pastoralists have had to abandon civilizations throughout history, was because none of those could sustain a civilization. We knew that prior to the development of chemicals, machinery, and oil, that the forms of agriculture we had were not adequate to sustain a civilization. There was the dilemma of why I produced a [Ted talk] video saying the problem is sustainable civilization, and Robert Rodale came up with this idea, what we need is a regenerative agriculture.

Okay, so now let me answer how regenerative agriculture can be brought about. I’m terribly excited about this because now it is actually possible to do it, but it’s going to involve no particular practice. What it’s going to involve is, first, an agriculture in which all of us at the management level—that’s whether we’re fisherman or foresters or wild lifers, or growing crops, or ranchers, whatever we are—are managing in a way that addresses the cause of global desertification and climate change, and of past failures. Unless you address the cause of a problem, you’re not going to solve it.

So we have to address that cause. Now, that cause we know was not what climatologists and scientists are blaming. They’re blaming livestock, coal, and oil. But if we just use common sense again, we know that livestock, coal and oil are resources. And we’ll need them for centuries to come. And there’s no way in the world that a resource can cause a problem.

The only thing that can cause a problem is the management. The management of that livestock that caused deserts to spread around the world at the level they did and continue to do. Or, it was management that caused coal and oil that are our fossil resources; called them fossil fuels to be burned at a rapid, rapid rate. We have to change management. And that means at the policy level. And at that ground level where people are actually on the land doing it now.

When we change management, that management has to change to holistic management where we do take into account the web of complexity. Why our present management is reductionist is because we always take out the web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is inherent in all agriculture. We take that and we reduce it for our management actions to meeting a need for more food or a desire for a different type of crop, or whatever it is. Or in the case of agriculture policy, we reduce it to a problem that has to be addressed, whether it’s noxious weeds or whatever it is.

Allan, I know from hearing you speak and meeting with you that some profound experiences in your native country of Zimbabwe many years ago, led you to develop the concept of holistic management. Would you mind explaining?

Yes. I was just a biologist, ecologist, and I joined the game department. And we were setting aside areas to be future national parks and they were wonderful, the incredible amount of biodiversity, et cetera. We were picking them because of their sheer beauty and magnificence. But I noticed that very, very quickly, they began to deteriorate and desertify. And that defied logic. Now, I realized that almost everything I had learned as an ecologist in university was not matching what I was seeing on the ground. So I really began my education all over again, just desperate to try to find a solution to that.

And that led me to developing the idea and coining the words “game ranching,” where we would utilize wild populations in situ. Like harvesting fish in the sea, and we could get rid of livestock, and we would save the ground. But again, we were wrong. All that land continued to deteriorate as our national parks today in the seasonal rainfall environments. And desperate for solutions, almost by accident, I discovered that livestock could do what I had seen almost intact wildlife populations do.

In other words, the healthiest land I’d ever seen was where the wildlife populations were most intact. Lots of predators, very big herds, thousands of buffalo, et cetera. And suddenly I saw on the ground that livestock could do that same thing and I discovered that where livestock had crowded into a corner on a ranch. And then I began looking seriously at livestock and realized how terribly wrong I’d been in developing the idea of game ranching. And also believing that the destruction in the national parks was due to too many elephants.

I learned from that terrible mistake, and as I say, looked seriously at livestock. Then I followed the work of a French pastoralist who had discovered that overgrazing is not as scientists believed—a function of animal numbers. It’s a function of time on the land, exposure of the plants to the animals, and time of re-exposure. Following that up, I developed a planning process from military planning that could cater for the complexity of livestock, wildlife, crops, no matter how complicated any farm was or ranch, that planning process could handle it very well, and that worked immediately.

And we began for the first time ever to see desertification reversing. So we were all terribly excited. It began to spread. It spread to five countries around Zimbabwe where I was working, and I was flying into ranchers, and helping them. Then I was obliged to go into exile. We had a long civil war, and it was four years until I could get back. Now during that time, all of the projects I had got going, the ranchers I had got going who were doing so well they all without exception slid back. And two advanced projects that were extremely successful—where we were pushing the envelope and trying to cause failure, and we could not cause them to fail—those had failed in a four year period when I was away.

So we then looked into that and what we found was, again, I’d been wrong. I had not accounted for the social, cultural components, and the economic components. So literally, we were back to the drawing board again realizing that we’ve got a big step forward, but we hadn’t solved the problem yet. And in that four years when I was over here in America, the US government engaged me to put 2000 people through training. They came from all the main government agencies, land management agencies, the land ground to agricultural universities, faculty members, and from World Bank, USAID, et cetera.

Now we had learned a tremendous lot during that to a period of training those people. And were able to break through and develop the holistic framework, and the concept of avoiding, reducing the complexity to need or desire or problem. Avoid that by always developing policy or management in what we call a holistic context where you tie how people want their lives to be based on their culture, their beliefs, their spiritual, whatever they are. And you tie that to their life supporting environment and what that environmental would have to be, say 500 years into the future, to sustain people with lives like that, and now that becomes the context or reason for the management. And that worked and we haven’t had that fail.

Well, with the very public discussion going on about the environmental impact of animal agriculture, is there research showing the overall impact of regenerative practices and can this help us set either partially or totally the environmental impact of the animals?

There’s lots of research of components of it and I was very pleased to see publication out of Davis, California acknowledging that trees don’t sequester too much carbon. So that sort of research is coming out that grasslands are where we will sequester the most water and carbon. So that sort of research is what the Savory Institute is gathering and an awful lot of whatever research is available that supports different components of practices that are being verified on the outcomes. No matter what the person is doing, we’re not worried so much about what they’re doing but what is the outcome? Does the environment improve? And so data is being gathered, a lot of it.

That’s the sort of data that is needed so that public opinion will shift and then our institutions can change to developing policies holistically. So we don’t need research to prove that holistic management works. It works by definition. What we need is masses more research, establishing the … documenting the results so that public opinion shifts so that institutions can change. The big problems in the world, like let’s say desertification or climate change, we do not tackle them as individuals. We can do the best we can as individuals, whether we’re farmers or pastoralist or whatever.

But on a big scale, we always do things through organizations and institutions. And I spoke in the UK how only individuals can get institutions to accept new scientific insights, but only institutions can develop the policies. So right at the moment we have institutions virtually dictating that global climate change continues. People can farm without the subsidies. So the policies are literally causing climate change.

I was going to ask, are there places around the world that countries where you think they’re making some positive strides with policies?



No, policies are universally unsound. When I mentioned training 2000 people in this country for the USDA? I had them bring hundreds of their own policies to the training and had them analyze their policies with the holistic framework and it was their decision, not mine. They could not find a single policy that would not lead to unintended consequences. They finally wrote down this statement.

They said, “We now recognize that unsound resource management is universal in the United States.” Now, frankly, that’s everywhere. When I repeated that in India, in Bhubaneswar and Tamil Nadu, we came up with the same results. When I repeated it in the Soto with all of the agricultural officials, they concluded their policies were unsound. It’s universal because all governments develop policies in a reductionist way.

Well, that’s a very discouraging piece of information, but it does sound like this is a movement that’s likely to go from the ground up, literally. That there are people who will do this on the ground, on their farms around the world, data will be collected that will help change public opinion, and finally policies might change. Is that the process that you hope will occur?

Well, that is the only process that can occur. If you look at the research, the only way I can come into society is through the ordinary people. And it doesn’t matter how many trillions of dollars are lost. It doesn’t matter how dangerous it is, how many millions of lives are lost, nothing changes institutions to public opinion shifts.

Well, let me end by asking you a final question. What role do you see animal agriculture playing in the overall world food system as time goes forward?

The animals will play an increasing role simply because—and this will happen if we’re to survive—because the issue of global desertification, climate change is so great. And it is absolutely impossible—I repeat that, absolutely impossible—to reverse desertification, rebuild the agricultural cropping soils of the world, et cetera, using the tools that scientists have.


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