Western Colorado Food and Farm Forum – Allan Savory Keynote Speech


The following is a transcript of a keynote address delivered by Allan Savory in January 2021 for the Western Colorado Food and Farm Forum.

A condensed radio broadcast of the talk can be found here: https://www.kvnf.org/post/local-motion-allan-savory

Without agriculture, we cannot have an orchestra, church, university, government, army, city, or ANY business. And the only economy that can sustain any city ultimately has to be based on food — the photosynthetic process of green plants growing on regenerating soil. No business or economy is sustainable until agriculture is and neither is any city.

Despite this self-evident fact, when Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Reserve Bank, wrote his biography, he mentioned agriculture once in passing. Economists weigh heavily in the expertise advising politicians developing policy. So deep is their ecological illiteracy that they report US agricultural production is less than 1% of GDP. And when related industries along the marketing and service chain are included it rises to about 5%. The countries in which agriculture features highest in their GDP are considered by World Bank economists to be countries too poor to sustain their economies.

American agriculture, producing far more dead eroding soil than food, is the most destructive industry ever in history. More so than any mining or fossil fuels as we face global desertification, mega-fires and climate change now feeding on one another. It is no exaggeration to say that climate change–– in which agriculture is playing a major role––is not the beginning of our problems, but the beginning of the end.

More than twenty civilizations have failed in all regions of the world because of agriculture in the past, and now the threat is global. What is your role as farmers? And what can you constructively do? This is what I intend to talk about today.

The youth of today, rightly are demanding that political leaders take action against climate change.

What action?

Using our commonsense we all know that if we have a problem, we cannot solve it without addressing the root cause of the problem. So, what is the cause politicians have to address?

Is the desertification and the accelerating change in climate caused by some act of God or Nature?

No evidence of this. In that case the only other possibility would be something on Earth is causing it. For thousands of years we have denied our role while blaming livestock overgrazing for causing desertification, and during my life we have denied our role while adding fossil fuels as well as livestock to the things we blame.

In the last year almost all scientists have finally acknowledged that humans are causing climate change. To this there is only one possible conclusion – if we are causing it then management is the cause. How we make the decisions governing our actions and not our resources be they livestock, coal or oil. Those are resources.

Now, what qualifies an old man like me to even be talking to you today about the management that is the cause of climate change? With no time to explain let me just say this. What the world’s scientists have now acknowledged, I stress through no wisdom and for various reasons, I came to realize about sixty five years ago.

As a young scientist responsible for managing large areas of Africa that we were setting aside as future national parks, I was observing biodiversity loss and massive environmental degradation under my watch. At the time I was working with some of Britain and America’s top ecologists as mentors and colleagues and none of us knew what to do.

Clearly as professionally trained scientists we did not know how to manage even future national parks to avoid environmental destruction in wildest Africa with no coal, oil, livestock or corporations to blame. At that point I switched as an ecologist from studying animals, plants and soils to studying the role of us scientists in the management of resources.

Over many years I first struggled to understand what we scientists were doing to cause such unintended consequences, and then how we could do better. What we are doing wrong is really two small things––easy to correct––but they both conflict with thousands of years of human beliefs. Beliefs I myself held because they were self-evident and because I was taught to believe them at university.

The beliefs are that we make decisions and manage in hundreds of ways and that we have a great many tools and possibilities to manage our environment.

At this point I face a dilemma. In the time available I have either to spend it explaining why these beliefs are wrong – that humans make all decisions the same way (dictator or democrat, illiterate amateur or scientific team) and we only have two tools – technology or fire to manage our environment or the idea of resting it to recover. Or I can talk to you about how we can address the dangers facing us in the only way possible – by addressing the root cause. To do both in the time allotted is not possible, so I have chosen the latter. My reason for this will become clear as I go.

With management being the root cause of the pending failure of global civilization, and the national parks I was first concerned about now our worst examples of biodiversity loss and environmental destruction, let me simplify to clarify.

First, let us recognize the difference between the things that we produce and make and those that we manage.

You know as farmers that we produce corn, beans, meat, milk, wool, leather, cotton, timber, etc. while the rest of society produces music, art, literature and makes billions of artifacts from toothpicks and pencils to chemicals, vehicles, planes, computers, bridges, roads, bombs, cathedrals to space capsules. And we do all of this using energy that we produce – from nature – coal, oil, gas, nuclear, biofuels, geothermal, solar, wind, etc.

Everything that we produce or make including food and energy has something in common – whether simple or extremely complicated, they end if we stop producing or making. They stop if battery or fuel runs out, part breaks or is missing. They do what they are designed to do and don’t have unpredictable emergent properties. A watch tells the time, a computer computes, corn, rice, meat or vegetables feed people, leather or wool clothe people and electricity lights our homes.

Nothing that we produce or make is self-organizing and thus, no matter how complicated they might be, they are not complex by definition in Systems Science. And problems that occur with all we make or produce are fairly easy to solve and so are in Systems Science called “kind” problems.

So, billions of the things in our lives we produce or make rather than manage – are complicated, not complex, do what they are designed to do and problems are kind and easy to solve. So, with that cleared out of the way, what do we manage while we are making and producing so much including our food? This we, and political leaders developing policies, have to know if we are to address the management scientists now acknowledge is the cause of climate change, as is being demanded by the youth of today.

We manage only three things – humans, nature and economies. These we manage and do not make or produce.

And when we look at the these we recognize different levels of management in society. We manage our lives, families, farms and communities but beyond that everything including our religions and the making of almost all products we do through creating organizations or institutions to manage at scale. And through our institutions – government, church, tribal, corporation or whatever we manage nature and economies, while producing so much today.

None of these things we manage stops when people die, a part breaks, battery or fuel runs out or thousands of species die, or an economy collapses. No matter how badly they are damaged by deaths, biodiversity loss, or collapse of an economy all continue in changed form. This is because everything we manage is self-organizing with emergent properties. These features – self-organizing with emergent (unpredictable) properties in systems science define complexity.

Another feature of – institutions, nature and economies – is that problems are extremely difficult to solve – bordering on impossible. In systems science the problems of complex systems are called “wicked” problems three of which we have not solved in over 10,000 years as I will explain.

Another distinguishing feature is that while the things we make or produce can be produced independent of one another, the three things we manage – human institutions, nature and economy – can never be separated. Organizations (including businesses from family farm to large corporation) cannot be managed without simultaneously managing nature and economy. Something we failed to recognize until about 1984 when the USDA commissioned me over two years to put 2,000 scientists and economists through a week of training on the then developing Holistic Management framework.

Now that we know that management of institutions, nature and economies is the root cause of agriculture playing so great a role in climate change (and there is no other cause), let’s look at the two scales of management more closely.

First, the human level of you: the farmers. You like all humans can choose to ride a bike to work or to change light bulbs. That means you can choose what to produce and how to manage your business, cash flow and farm (nature’s soil and biodiversity). However, while this is theoretically true, in practice it is not because government policy controls the economic, legal and regulatory environment in which you farm or ranch.

So, let’s look at the second level of American mainstream agriculture. We manage nationally through institutions – government, corporation, university, American Farmers Union, American Cattle Association, etc. And agriculture at this scale is overall managed by politicians in Washington, developing American agricultural policy — resulting in laws, regulations, taxes, subsidies and research influence that largely dictate to you farmers both what you produce and how you manage nature and your farm’s economy.

As we look at American agricultural policy let’s use commonsense.

Your commonsense tells you certain things:

  • Cattle that evolved to eat grass have the teeth, gut microbiome and digestive system to do so – yet most farmers feed grain to cattle – harming cattle health, human health, the environment and economy.
  • No sane person would produce oil to grow corn to produce fuel – but roughly 40% of US corn is being grown by farmers to make fuel.
  • Agriculture that was based on the evolving biological/ecological sciences should not be based on chemistry and marketing of technology, but the vast majority of farmers are doing so destroying the very foundation of the nation, its economy and cities.

With such things being self-evident commonsense, “why,” we must ask, “are such practices supported by thousands of farmers, by the National Farmers Union, the American Cattlemen’s Association, academics, celebrities, billionaires, banks, funding foundations, taxation, subsidies, laws and regulations?”

The answer took me half a century to understand. It is because we manage nature and economies at this scale through institutions that are themselves complex with three wicked problems.

Institutions do what we design them to do (like all the things we make) but, being complex with emergent properties and wicked problems they take on a life of their own as soon as they are formed.

Institutions––no matter how caring and wonderful or intelligent the people managing them––do not behave as a human behaves.

Where you are capable of using commonsense, institutions full of highly intelligent people, are almost incapable of doing so — as in the above cases.

Where you are capable of admitting error, an institution is almost incapable of doing so and will go against its very purpose to defend the institution — as the Catholic church with millions of wonderful people showed over centuries of protection of pedophile priests.

And when new discoveries emerge that go against human beliefs, individuals are capable of understanding and accepting at varying rates from a day to weeks or months – and institutions oppose or resist such discoveries for one or more centuries till the bulk of society has shifted.

Let me now sum up.

You as farmers, like myself and thousands of people in the regenerative agriculture movement are operating at human scale:

We are calling for changes in agriculture – mainly poorly defined regenerative agriculture, but sensibly based on the biological sciences.

We represent a very low percentage of the agricultural industry and a minute – less than a tenth of the 1 % of agricultural production in the US GDP according to economists advising political leaders.

Throughout our regenerative movement –– writers, artists, documentary film makers, bloggers, podcasters, food and health experts, farmers and ranchers –– we are managing at the human level and doing all that we can to shift public opinion to the level where we are at the policy table advising political leaders developing American farm policy.

We represent a tiny little David putting all our faith in changing agricultural policy through shifting public opinion.

I––and the Savory Institute and the many people collaborating in our Ecological Outcome Verification and Land to Market programs that will ensure consumers that your products are truly regenerative––support you in this magnificent endeavor so vital to the future.

Opposing our view in Washington is Goliath––over 90% of the agricultural industry. A 90% that is investing about $350 million a year on lobbyists, already greenwashing regenerative agriculture, prostituting academics and researchers and indoctrinating the public. All this and more, funded by again – ecologically illiterate – Billionaires, corporate Boards and CEOs who, while vilifying livestock, are now investing millions in manufacturing meat.

And almost all of this policy influence is bought with money in an economy built on debt and on a foundation of quicksand. An economy on a foundation, not of agriculture and food, but on hedge fund management, selling short, futures trading, derivatives, stocks, real estate bubbles, high tech startups, or currency exchanges – unable to sustain any city, business or culture.

We, little David, face Goliath, and we need to remind ourselves that our entire movement––writers, documentary producers, podcasters, artists, chefs, health and food proponents, farmers and ranchers––are calling for agricultural practices to be changed. None of us in our regenerative movement are calling for government to address the root cause of agriculture playing a major role in climate change.

How can I express this so simply that everyone gets it?

The cause of the problem is how politicians develop policy – There is no other cause at scale.

Some of us are calling for our practices, based on biological sciences, to be noticed by the politicians enough to go to scale. Others (90% let’s say) are insisting on their practices and they are so well funded by institutions that they bypass the public and dominate the Washington political lobby.

Neither group, David nor Goliath, is calling for the new Biden Administration or any government to address the cause of the problem: how political leaders develop policy with the institution of government managing economy and nature.

How long will it take – 20, 50, 100 years – to get to the policy table in Washington as equals with Goliath, when even the National Farmers Union or the US Cattlemen’s Beef Association don’t support us?

And when we get to the policy table how will we do any better when we have only expertise in production based on the biological sciences and no expertise in how to develop policy managing institutions, nature and economy?

We need to have the humility to acknowledge that twenty odd civilizations have already failed because of their agriculture damaging the environment. Many had simpler economies based on trade and barter, smaller institutions and everything they produced was organic and grass fed.

They failed, as Rebecca Costa wrote in the Watchman’s Rattle, because their societies could not address the complexity of rising population and deteriorating environment due to agriculture. They failed for the same reason we now face global failure of civilization because our political leaders (democratic or dictators) do not know how to manage the complexity of the three things we manage.

This is not a doomsday talk. So let me talk about what we can do that would result in sound agricultural policy truly regenerating economy, society and nature.

I know that you and every American like all humans, wants a better life, better education and health, cleaner water and air, more prosperity with a bright future for your grandchildren. If agricultural policy is not developed in such a context but continues to be developed by politicians advised and influenced by special interest lobbies then you and I know that the future for our grandchildren is one of violence and suffering unimaginable today and never before seen in the world.

So my suggestion to you is that you continue doing everything you are doing today whether you are farmer, rancher, writer, film maker chef or podcaster or have a Face Book page. I urge everyone in the regenerative movement from farmers to film makers, writers and bloggers to continue as you are doing trying to change public opinion.

However, while doing so I would urge all of you to do one simple thing and that is look for what Buckminster Fuller called the “trimtab,” the place where little effort produces great result.

All politicians in the world – dictator or democratic president – develop policy in exactly the same reductionist way, as we discovered forty years ago. For the political leaders in America’s large democracy to change the way that institutions develop policy is best compared with changing the course of an aircraft carrier with a canoe paddle in your hands. But the rudders of aircraft and aircraft carriers have trim tabs that produce great effect with little energy.

The trimtab I believe in the American democracy is Congressional Testimony. The provision for political leaders to stage an inquiry and hear testimony under oath and directly without any institution blocking or filtering knowledge on any matter of national concern.

Now that us scientists have acknowledged that management is the cause of climate change, I urge you to simply call for congressional inquiry and testimony, for Congress to look into the management that is the root cause of desertification, mega-fires, climate change.

A chance for political leaders to learn what institutions have been blocking for decades. Why do our leaders not know that some of the worst land in the nation demonstrating biodiversity loss and desertification contributing to climate change is land managed by the Federal National Parks Service?

Why do even research plots established over fifty years ago to prove overgrazing causes desertification before government shot 50,000 sheep prove the opposite and yet not a single peer-reviewed paper is published by any government, university or environmental organization?

Why is even the Aldo Leopold Memorial Forest on the Rio Grande river an example of severe loss of biodiversity and desertification – and not a single publication again by any institution?

Why when the US Soil Conservation Service concluded in 1980s that their own Soil Conservation Policy would increase soil erosion was further training in such policy analysis banned by the very agency that had commissioned it? I could go on but the point is made.

All of this political leaders, expected to develop policy, are unaware of because of three wicked problems long known to social scientists but not political leaders. Something congressional testimony will make known and public, with all institutions able to give evidence alongside independent scientists, farmers, ranchers and individuals within those institutions.

I stress that none of such testimony would criticize any person because no person is causing the wicked problems of institutions – it is purely how large institutions behave and have for thousands of years. And it is through such institutions that we humans have to manage nature and economies to address the root cause of agricultural policy leading endangering the nation.

Frankly global desertification, mega-fires and climate change should have been put on a war footing decades ago. This issue is even more serious than the Covid pandemic being put on such footing by the President.

We all need to help political leaders, not criticize them as we unite to face climate change. While all we are doing to shift public opinion is wonderful I believe we can do better faster by regenerative farmers, ranchers and supporting writers, film makers, social networkers simply concentrating on achieving congressional enquiry as the trim tab in America’s democratic system.

The decision is yours.

Keep doing what you are doing and expect success with luck in a century.

Or keep doing what you are doing but also bring about congressional enquiry into the cause of American agricultural policy leading desertification, mega-fires and climate change. A significant side benefit will be that this will also alert political leaders to how to develop not only agricultural policy managing nature, but also energy policy that is also managing nature unsuccessfully.

For the sake of future generations, I hope you will heed the wisdom of the revered American scientist Buckminster Fuller and put serious and urgent effort into moving the trimtab in the US political system so that future generations can have hope more sensible than praying for a high tech solution, billionaires offering multi-million dollar prizes for sequestering carbon, geoengineering the climate or colonizing space.

Allan Savory

Allan Savory

Allan is a lifelong ecologist and the creator and co-founder of Savory Institute. He originated Holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources. His Holistic Management textbook, and Holistic Management Handbook have influenced thousands of ranchers and land stewards across the globe.
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