“Desertification is a fancy word for land turning into desert.”
This is how Allan Savory begins his popular TED Talk on the subject of desertification, a phenomenon that he has dedicated his life to stopping through his research and the founding of the Savory Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the regeneration of grasslands across the world.
While desertification can happen in a number of ways, it’s most often caused by drought, deforestation, and the general mismanagement of land and livestock by farmers, ranchers, and other stewards. According to the Savory Institute, “[Desertification] is estimated to be happening to two-thirds of the world’s grasslands, accelerating climate change and causing traditional grazing societies to descend into social chaos.”
For centuries, livestock were blamed for creating deserts as a result of overgrazing, and this belief led to the slaughtering of many animal populations.
But in the late 1960s, Savory, a Rhodesian scientist tasked by the Zimbabwean government with researching desertification and killing off the thousands of elephants who were thought to be causing it, began to find fault with the theory. It was not the livestock, he said, but the way they were managed, or unmanaged, that was the problem.
Savory found that when predators of ruminant animals were killed off by hunters, the natural grazing patterns of these animals became disturbed. Without predators to pressure and move the herds, the animals became sedentary and overgrazed the land, causing desertification. To address this, Savory came up with what is now known as the Holistic Management Decision-Making Framework, which includes Holistic Planned Grazing, a framework and system pastoralists can use for land management where animals graze in a pattern that allows for plant recovery time.
“It comes down to moving animals in a way that mimics the way that wild herds used to move, and not moving animals onto land until that land is ready for them,” said Sarah Gleason, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Savory Institute. “
Today, the Savory Institute works with land managers all over the world to teach its system of Holistic Management. Through its 35 hubs worldwide, this global network has affected more than 8 million hectares of grassland across the globe and trained more than 5,200 land managers.
The Savory Institute firmly believes that correcting the way grasslands are managed is one of the best ways to affect climate change, particularly as grasslands have been found to be as reliable a carbon sink, if not more so, than forests. By building out its network of Hubs, Savory is able to bring and adapt its model to different geographies and contexts and help prevent desertification globally. By restoring and preserving grasslands, the Institute is also able to affect social issues, like the mass urban migration seen in parts of Africa, where people are leaving their homes for work in the cities because their lands have dried up.
“When the Savory Institute was founded, we saw a real need to scale this solution as quickly as possible to address the global issues of climate change, food security, and drought.” Gleason said, adding that the Institute is quickly pushing toward 100 Hubs. “Each of our Hubs is a grassroots organization that can provide contextually-relevant solutions. For example, in the U.S. there’s an environmental debate around eating meat, but the reality is that you can’t tell someone living in the rural Masai Mara not to eat meat. There’s no vegetarian or vegan grocery options available to people there, so each solution has to be contextually and culturally relevant and scalable.”
While he started on a quest to revolutionize the way people approach the land, Savory’s theory of Holistic Management has taken off in its own right, with many people using the framework as an approach to other situations that are complex socially, economically, and environmentally. Those interested in learning about Holistic Management can take one of many courses available on the Institute’s website.
Gleason said Savory has also launched its Land to Market program – the world’s first verified regenerative sourcing solution for meat, wool, leather, and dairy. “The science inside the Land to Market is a methodology called Ecological Outcome Verification which is different than any other certification or seal on the market in that is is data-backed and outcome-based. This program will allow brands, retailers, and consumers to support producers who are having verified regenerative results on their land.”