Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

Note that this post is part of a series of posts that I am making after attending the first ever Savory Institute International Conference held last week in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado.

Allan Savory inside the Boulder Theater. June 2013.

The first talk to kick off the Savory Institute International Conference held in Boulder, Colorado last week was by the institute’s founder, Allan Savory.

Savory began his talk by explaining that he’s been addressing the subject of desertification for fifty years.

He rattled off soil erosion numbers. . . “our planet is losing 80-100 billion tons of soil per year,” calling that “the most frightening statistic in the world.”

He named some of the factors related to this soil loss, which included the burning of grasslands around the world, the loss of forests, the loss of biodiversity, and the silting of continental shelves.

Then, he explained to us that because healthy soils are an important natural reservoir of water, today we have a big problem of decreased effectiveness of rainfall due to degraded and eroded soil. This is caused by agricultural practices, not by climate change. Because healthy soils sequester Carbon, large soil losses and resting soils have led to a reduced capacity to mitigate climate change. So, agriculture is more destructive than coal mining or anything else going on in the world today. [1]

He questioned why people aren’t more aware of these facts, and then, proceeded to answer how we got ourselves into this situation.

He explained that the change began in the grasslands of the world when early humans developed plants and animals for food which altered or eliminated the grasslands. And, he explained that humans shelve their problems for future generations.

He went on by listing three problems that are causing an acceleration of these wrong agricultural practices: population growth; exploding technological advances; and a modern educational system which divides knowledge into parts so that we no longer see the whole.

Savory was on a roll here already, when next, he said he doesn’t understand why something that makes no sense, like turning 40% of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol is a policy, and there are so few people who protest it.

He questioned a system where not one dollar is spent saving soil but we spend billions looking for new oil reserves. “The world is leaderless,” he said.

He warned that, “Worse wars will be fought over water than oil.”

So, those are the problems, what is the Savory Institute doing to make solutions?

The Savory Institute is combining science, social, and environmental principles to reverse desertification at Savory Hubs which are popping up around the world. The goal is to remove the barriers to the human creativity and knowledge that we have, and then, teach and share this knowledge.

“The barriers to sensibility are 100 percent human caused,” he said. Working in Zimbabwe, Savory finds, is a good fit since “if any change occurs, it’ll happen in a small nation, not a large nation” further stating that such work would be impossible in the U.S.

Working with Zimbabwe leaders, he has seen the anger which arises from confusion of mixed messages from multiple sources that suggest different agricultural solutions. Who are these small nations to believe?

He likes the openness of agricultural policy in Zimbabwe, and then describes what it is like to pass agricultural legislation in the London Parliament, which he visited. There are so many complex pages to read, that the voters in Parliament give up trying to understand it, and just turn it back to those who wrote it to let them decide.

More quotes . . .

“We do not have a larger problem than our rising population and our deteriorating environment.”

Since the world is so very complex, “we need a holistic context.

“The role of the government in agriculture is to get out of the way for human creativity, and to remove the policy barriers.”

Bringing up another important world problem, he said that we have got to find benign sources of energy and develop them.

And yet another, “Because of desertification and other problems, many people are already migrating.”

“Nobody is talking about agriculture. Because of our agriculture, climate change will continue.”

“Although agriculture is the problem, it can also be the solution.”

He said that the world is crying out for leadership that will shift public opinion and that will come from ordinary people in communities. He added that most people are inherently good.

Then, he closed his talk with this question, “What can ordinary people do?”

Savory’s answer was a challenge to the audience with a call to action, “If you care about your children, put it on a war footing. Look in the mirror and ask yourself what did you do when you were in the prime of your life to help solve these problems?”

[1] This is to say that healthy soils would be capable of mitigating the CO2 that has been released from the burning of fossil fuels. This will be covered more fully in an upcoming post.



(Click to enlarge)

Photo Credit: Allan Savory by Kay McDonald.

Desertification Map Credit: Soil map and soil climate map, USDA-NRCS, Soil Survey Division, World Soil Resources, Washington D.C.

Previous related post here: The Savory Institute Conference.

4 thoughts on “Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

  1. David Nuttle

    There are solutions to the desertification and water conservation problems as first demonstrated by a successful counterdesertification project in the Thar Desert of NW India. My charity, NPI, has developed advanced counterdesertification technologies we seek to demonstrate in a Kenyan desert. All evidence indicates that “big oil” is blocking the funding for this effort because counterdesertification produces massive green energy crops (like jojoba) along with food, feed, fiber and niche crops. This is only one example of special interests protecting and promoting their interests at the expense of all else. As part of this corruption the special interests use part of their wealth to pay “political payola” (bribes) to members of Congress so they get the legislation needed to support their “greed-driven” objectives.

  2. Chris Laingen

    Part of the issue (and I’m VERY biased) is that children are not being exposed to Geography (a very “holistic” discipline) in the classroom (elementary, high school, etc.). As our world continues to become at the same time connected and complex, we need to step back and figure out why these complex connections exist, what they mean, and what we can do about them. Many people think that Geography is simply an exercise in map identification, or knowing that Mt. Everest is the highest point on the planet, which is likely why many states have done away with it.

    But it’s so much more. It helps one to better understand the connections between people, places, the environment, and events – which is the only way anyone will ever be able to solve our continually complex and connected problems that we face.

  3. Jeff Hoffman

    Savory is quite correct about overpopulation. That and overconsumption are the physical roots of all environmental and ecological problems. If we don’t greatly reduce human population and consumption by the richest 2/3, we will never solve any of the problems described here. On an individual level, that means limiting one’s family to one child at most and simplifying one’s lifestyle (i.e., no car or cell phone, etc.) But these changes also need to be on societal levels with government mandates and prohibitions, because if people think that they need, for example, a car or cell phone in order to have a job, they will have those things.

    1. Lewis Brown

      Governments are bought and paid for by organizations that directly or indirectly profit from the problems Alan lists. Looking to governments for mandates and prohibitions will only further feed that beast.


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