Revitalizing Grasslands, One Steak at a Time

Photo courtesy of Global Water Partnership

Two-thirds of the world’s land is turning to desert, thanks largely to the steak on your plate. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

For decades people have pointed to overgrazing by cattle as the main cause of desertification. When animals overgraze, they strip the land of native grasses, leading to erosion of the topsoil from wind and storms. These parched landscapes become incapable of supporting the livestock or wild animals that once lived there -- a situation that has led to famine and conflict in developing nations around the globe.

But what if livestock could be used in a way that actually revitalizes landscapes and mitigates the impacts of climate change? It’s a counterintuitive and controversial idea that has the environmental community buzzing.

desertification, Savory Institute, Allan Savory
Photo courtesy of Global Water Partnership

The idea’s unlikely champion is Allan Savory, a 77-year-old biologist, farmer, and former politician. In the 1950s, he was responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of wild African elephants. Like many ecologists of the time, Savory believed elephants were destroying the African savanna, and by thinning the herds the grasslands would rebound. So Savory persuaded the government of Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) to cull more than 40,000 elephants, but the grasslands continued to wither.

Through this tragic experiment Savory unlocked what he believes is the key to saving grasslands and reversing desertification. Savory’s method, known as holistic planned grazing, calls for managing livestock in ways that mimic the prehistoric herds that once roamed the earth, fortifying grasslands with the pounding of their hooves and nutrient-rich manure. The cattle’s natural movement patterns and activities, Savory claims, spur the regrowth of carbon-sequestering grasslands. And if done on a large enough scale, these grasses could not only absorb enough carbon to offset the methane produced by livestock but also help combat climate change.


“There is no alternative to address the massive environmental malfunctioning over so much of the world that is desertifying,” Savory said. “Only livestock properly managed can do what is required.”

Photo courtesy of Tim Lindenbaum

Savory, winner of the 2003 Banksia International Award and the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, runs the Savory Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading the practice. But it wasn’t until Savory’s TED talk in February 2013 that this method attracted mainstream attention.

Planned grazing has its share of critics, with some claiming the practice doesn’t scale well and others questioning the research supporting it. Savory has faced this criticism for decades but remains unfazed.

“To rectify the damaging ways of agriculture we have all the knowledge we need,” he said. “And as more and more people adopt planned grazing practices, the tide is finally beginning to turn.”