This spring I was privileged to visit the Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM) in Zimbabwe, and spend several days with Allan Savory, the pioneer and guru of holistic management and managed grazing.
Savory is a research biologist who has faced his share of controversy over the years. And you start to get an idea of why this is so, when you hear him utter the phrase: “Only livestock can save us.” A more radical statement could hardly be uttered in this day and age. The media—from newscasts to environmental activists—all seem to agree on this one point: animals are the cause of global warming and we need fewer animals on the planet, not more, if we are to reverse desertification and restore the earth’s grasslands.
Allan unabashedly holds and expresses his radically different opinion, at every turn. I was able to talk with him and see the results of his ideas applied practically at the ACHM last May. At this learning hub in Victoria Falls, the Savory Institute staff and volunteers manage the land in a way that is sustainable and regenerative. And livestock are the tool that is turning everything around.
Allan personally gave me a tour of the acres belonging to the center and he showed me “fixed point” pictures, taken over ten years. There was no denying the fact that the land had dramatically improved. I saw with my own two eyes what the livestock had done. Properly managed, they had indeed helped the land heal. There were streams of water, where before there had been none. Grass was growing waist-high (and higher), where before there had been only arid, dry land.
Again, naysayers believe that livestock (primarily cattle) are the source of our environmental woes. Here is why Allan believes the opposite:
1. Some say animals overgraze. You can’t overgraze land, Allan argues; you can only overgraze plants. And the solution to overgrazing is to manage the animals properly, overseeing their feeding patterns. The solution is not to reduce their numbers.
2. You can’t repair the land through resting it, using fire, planting trees and the like. Looking at the science, it is clear that these methods are not turning things around. As one example, Allan points to national park land in New Mexico—how it was rested from livestock for eighty years and how it is more degraded than land in some parts of Africa!
3. Land must be disturbed to regenerate. And nothing does that like livestock. It’s a biological problem that must be addressed with living organisms, not other tools. Machinery has been built to mimic animals’ behavior and interaction with the earth, but it is not as effective in the end. Animals disturb the soil just enough to stimulate new growth and then they fertilize it with their own waste. No machine can do that.
4. Some argue that the methane produced by cattle is ruining the environment. Allan points out that methane is easily broken down in healthy soil. But when you rest the land, the soil can’t break down the methane. Even if cattle put out ten times the methane they did, even if every human didn’t eat meat, we’d still have to deal with desertification on a global scale, according to Allan.
5. Reducing the number of animals on land by culling does not work, either. Allan, with the approval of other scientists, culled about forty thousand elephants in the late 1960s. It was a “tragic error,” according to Allan, as the land began to degrade “almost immediately.” Applying this paradigm—that cattle are the solution, not the problem—is bringing results at ACHM where the landscape and livestock are thriving.
As for the rest of Zimbabwe, they seem to be facing the same influences as other African nations I’ve visited. Western food companies have come in with heavy advertising dollars and influence and they are rapidly changing the traditional dietary practices of the people.
For example, while we were in Victoria Falls, we visited the “OK” grocery store. The store was teeming with customers when we dropped in. It was running a promotion and the grand prize was a truck. To enter to win, customers had to buy several products on the posted list—many of which were based on vegetable oils. My Zimbabwean friend said that he was certain that the promotion was the reason for the bustle of the store.
Happily, not all Zimbabweans are lured in by such tactics. The food we enjoyed at ACHM was local and fresh. As you can see by the smile on the face of our cook, Witness, wise traditions are still being embraced in pockets of the nation.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2016🖨️ Print post
I’m curious a out how soil breaks down methane, do you have more information?
Brian Wehlburg InsideOutside Management says
Soil microbes destroy cattle methane
By Keva Gocher
Agricultural science has found the greenhouse gas methane can be absorbed by soil.
Sydney University research on native grasslands near the Snowy Mountains has found healthy soil bacteria absorb more methane per day than a cow produces in an entire year.
As the nation grapples with climate change policies, his research shows livestock are a sustainable farming option on native grasslands near the NSW Snowy Mountains as soil bacteria absorb more methane than livestock produce.
“We have a good news story and the farming community needs good news stories,” says Professor Mark Adams, agricultural sustainability researcher and Dean of Agriculture at Sydney University.
“Typical methane production by beef cattle is round about 60 kilograms of methane per year, and some of the high country soils are taking more than that out of the atmosphere every day, so one hectare is taking out, or oxidising more methane than a cow produces in a year,” says Professor Adams.
He says methane from grazing animals has captured world attention, but policy makers are ignoring the other side of the story that some soils will take more methane than livestock emit
“Government need to look at both sides of the equation, same was as they are spending a lot of money on trying to figure out a how much methane the grazing stock are producing, let’s spend a bit of money working ut how much methane the soils are going to take out of the atmosphere,” he says.
He says low intensity grazing, and sensible fire management, are the keys to success and sustainability for both the environment and farming.
“This is a part of the Australian landscape where we can say that grazing is a methane neutral or even methane positive land use.”
“(The native grassland) are organically rich, well drained, well structured soils and we have a lot of great bacteria living in those soils that are doing the work for us,” he says.
In this report: Professor Mark Adams, dean of agriculture, Sydney University.
Subhash Kumar says
I support this review. What we decide & conclude about vegetation, livestock, global warming, green house and removing/reducing ruminants population from earth , are one side view as we have not completed subtle course of Nature
Karen Spry says
While I can’t say that the soils on our small farm are absorbing more methane than our cattle produce because we don’t have the scientific experiments and data to back that up, I can say that the tools and methods we have been using are working to improve soil health, structure, biodiversity within the soil and also biodiversity above the soil.
We have seen a marked increase in native grasses (our place was cropped for decades, the soil in many parts almost lifeless), native shrubs/trees/ground covers, rare butterflies now proliferating, more bugs, birds, more rare birds, you name it because of how we are managing our livestock on our little patch. It’s remarkable! So I am saying that if the soil is well cared for and healthy (ie: teeming with life), it really works to make everything else in the landscape healthy. For me it’s all about the big picture, with lots of fine detail.