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