The Savory Institute conference on grassland management (Part 2): report by Martin Peck

Aug 16, 2014 1 Comment by

Gratitude must be expressed straight away to Feasta for supporting Nicholas Bardsley and myself being at this quite brilliant conference. It was a privilege. People from all over the world talking and listening to each other essentially about survival and how we can reverse our destructive behaviour on our earth through regenerative agriculture in its many forms. It is possible. The conference reaffirmed that there are no real reasons or justification to not only stop our destruction but to move to restore the earth or allow it and help it to recover, in John Liu’s words which he asked us all to repeat “Ecosystem Function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.”

Given that many had travelled across the globe my arriving a bit late into the middle of Allan Savory’s opening address suitably began two days of chastising myself but mostly over the way I attempt to change the ‘climate of the mind’ as put by Daren Doherty as he talked of his Regrarian approach to farming predominantly in Australia, He said that convincing the consumer was the big challenge. He appealed in his charismatic way for all the many environmental bodies to pull together with less ego and more focus on the task. I liked his comment that “To make better food we need more people on farms”.

I later watched all of Allan Savory’s opening address and the introduction to the conference by co founder of the Savory Institute, Daniela Ibarra-Howell’s on returning home at http://paywall.glocast.com/checkout/?rid=plEy8u . It is available for a little longer until edited highlights will then be available more permanently on the Savoury Institute website.

Listening to the speakers directly is the only real way of getting the full benefit of their insights.

All of the speakers were good and all the topics contributed to a well explained whole. Allan Savory’s Holistic Management was the core theme of the two days. This was interwoven with, and supported by other disciplines, approaches and experiences. There were individual presentations as well as discussion panels, one for instance where producers stories were testimony to the success of the holistic management approach achieving more production and more soil carbon. Dr Pablo Borrelli now working with 60 farmers ranching around two and a half million acres with holistic management gives some idea of the extent of what is happening. This was supported in other discussion panels by scientists; Richard Teague heads up teams who were studying, observing and collecting data. Resulting for instance in seeing 30 tons of extra carbon sequestered per hectare annually with holistic management compared to neighbouring conventional approaches.

Scepticism of such findings is abundant in scientific communities as well as the wider world. Listening to Dr Elaine Ingham is both inspiring and entertaining. She talked about the interrelationships of the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and the good guy / bad guy nematodes that are essential to healthy plants and healthy soils. She talked about photosynthesis taking carbon from the air turning into sugars and carbohydrates then as exudates from the plant roots for the soil organisms to feed on who in return provide the plant with the minerals from the sands and clays. Forty two essential minerals providing balance as distinct from the imbalances resulting from adding just NPK.

Seeing photographs of root systems of various grass species going down into the soils to depths of 15 feet and much more when growing in healthy soils was pleasing especially when you consider that this is all organic matter. It is important to get the biology back into the soil. She asked what happens if animals come back to graze before sugars are replaced and stored in the root system, then “how many times can you do this before the plant sloughs it root system or eventually dies?” Scepticism can only arise out of a limited view. Taking a systems approach to science, a whole approach, makes it easy to see the potential of soil to hold abundant carbon and particularly with grasslands.

Savory Hubs are strategic partnerships in the words of Tre Cates. He held one of the discussion panels involving representatives from four of the existing hubs. The first of these was described by Ivan Aguirre in Sonora Mexico who changed his own management around 1980; he talked of getting to know landscapes and people finding a practical path for the future and his family. Now he is involving about 100 people in holistic management and influencing many other ranchers. Huggins Matanga is part of the Africa centre for Holistic Management In Zimbabwe. He is working with about 16 communities, 1500 people and 72,000 Ha of land, seeing changes in forage improvement and reductions in bare ground, with now political influence in their region or state because of the associated increased economic productivity of livestock. Jose Manuel Gartazar working in Chile says he has found a way to stop the conflict between ecology and production, doubling the capacity in 5 years and the value per head. He said it is frustrating when people don’t want to be convinced, but he then refocuses on what is going well and reconnects with nature. Jorgen Anderson is involved with the Nordic hub. He recounts that a neighbour who had summered his heifers on Jorgen’s improved land could not believe them to be the same animals because normally the growing takes place after their return. He says that it is always hard to accept that he is (we are) the problem and responsibility is scary and we try to escape but holistic management helps to provide a structure to take responsibility.

The conversation in the outbreak session on System Science the Untapped Potential of Soil was excellent. John D Liu, Elaine Ingham, Judith Schwartz (Author of Cows Save the Planet), Seth Itzcan and Courtney White (Author of Grass Soil Hope) talked in turn about what they did, about soil and nutrients and the relationships to food and to water. The realisations of the part animals play in the whole. Harm caused by adding chemicals to soils and soil organisms. The importance of compost for restoring the soil organisms in depleted soils and the resistance to this understanding from the establishment. The need for research funding to go into holistic management approaches.

That agriculture is becoming more recognised as being part of the solution. John D Liu mentions the example of Tony Lovell in Australia in rethinking the role of graziers. He also commented on work in China showing the increased productivity from farmed lands where other land was released to natural ecology. There was a lot more.
There were many other breakout sessions; for instance Patrick Holden held one on True Cost Accounting. http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/true-cost/. To see the other breakout sessions go to http://london.savoryinstitute.org/.

The Conversation about the Role of Science in Informing Management with Richard Teague, Jason Rowntree, Chad Kruger and Hannah Gosnell was moderated By Peter Byck and covered a lot of ground. They discussed soil carbon and talked of the carbon that is much deeper in soils where it can often be more stable and more abundant but which is often not even taken into consideration in many studies, also soil degradation through over grazing, soil erosion amounting to many times the amount of crop produced. The issue of methane from cattle becomes pretty much a red herring when looked at in the bigger picture, soil is a sink for methane but this is affected by so many differing conditions. Methanotrophs are for instance killed by nitrogen fertilizer. They recognised the place for reductionist science and the need to bring about more systems science. And more.

The closing speaker for the day was Joel Salatin. A conversation about inspiring a new generation of farmers was introduced by Lisa Heenan who first showed the trailer for their new film about Polyface Farm. I look forward to seeing it all. Joel’s opening slide carried the words “What if we can save the planet by feeding the people better?” He is an entertaining speaker and passionate about his farm and the many independent enterprises that have evolved: “every farm has more opportunities than you can imagine” It is best to watch him speak .

That was all in the first day apart from John Liu’s “Ecosystem Function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.” This was not all and is only extracts and highlights. The second day filled out the issues even more.

Featured image: Grass. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1442506. Author: Grażyna Suchecka.

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