A controversial plan to use grazing animals to reverse the process by which grassland turns into desert has won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual competition focused on solving sweeping global problems.

Allan Savory took home first prize for Operation Hope, a program in Zimbabwe.
Photo courtesy BFI
Allan Savory took home first prize for Operation Hope, a program in Zimbabwe.

This afternoon, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., biologist Allan Savory took home first prize for Operation Hope, a program that proposes using cattle and other animals to revitalize fragile grasslands.

The $100,000 prize was presented by the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI), a 27-year-old Brooklyn-based organization that promotes innovative design-science projects. “It’s great to get acknowledgement from such a respected group,” Savory told RECORD, noting that over the years, he has endured “ridicule, condemnation, and abuse” from critics.  

While many environmentalists argue that livestock grazing is harmful to the environment, Savory argues that it can have positive effects. The animals eat dead plants, which can block light required to reach seeds. Leaving those plants to decay on their own doesn’t happen fast enough to offset desertification, he says.

The trick is to let grazing animals roam large areas, as they did thousands of years ago, rather than confine them to small parcels, as many industrial farms do. Spreading them out prevents damage to the landscape, he says. Savory even advocates introducing predators like wolves to farms, to insure the herd keeps moving.

His approach is not just theoretical. At a 6,500-acre preserve in Savory’s native Zimbabwe, run by the 18-year-old Africa Centre for Holistic Management, grass grows thickly on land that was once brown and barren, according to photos submitted with his entry, and it’s because the number of cows and goats was quadrupled there over a three-decade period.

In the Challenge, Savory beat out 214 other entrants, whose applications required short answers to nine questions, plus six images and two references. An 11-member jury whittled down a list of 30 semi-finalists.

Open to non-architects and architects alike, the competition, which is in its third year, encourages problem-solving in the multi-disciplinary fashion espoused by the late architect Buckminster Fuller, a noted polymath.

Savory’s plan is “a really breathtaking example of a comprehensive solution,” says Jaime Snyder, Buckminster Fuller’s grandson and BFI co-founder. Plus, the plan embodies Fuller’s belief that one person can change the world.