How to Stop Two Thirds of the Earth From Turning Into a Desert

NASA photo of two thirds of the Earth turning to desert.
About a third of the land on earth is humid and moist year round. On this kind of land, you could burn ten thousand acres to the ground, wait until grass grows on it and then overgraze it until the land is spent and dead, and if you then simply left it alone, the jungle would grow right back. On this kind of land, you can't create bare ground for any length of time without constant weeding. Whole cities in the jungles of Mexico, complete with giant stone pyramid structures, have been swallowed up so completely by the jungle that new cities are still being discovered.

The other two thirds of the land on earth is dry for part of the year. On this land, if you burn it and/or overgraze it, many environmentalists and ecologists once believed (and many still do) that you could also just leave it alone and it would grow back. But for more than 60 years, that method has been tried in many places all over the world, and what happens? The land slowly turns into desert. It does not recover. The question is why?

This is a very important question. Two thirds of the earth is now in the process of turning into desert. In the satellite photo above, the green areas are moist year round. The tan areas are turning to desert, and this process is a larger source of climate change than fossil fuels. So this is a problem that must be solved, and soon.

A basic evolutionary fact has been staring scientists in the face all along. These tan-colored places are (or were) mostly grasslands. And what do you always find on grasslands? Large, hoofed animals grazing on the grass — buffalo, zebra, gazelles, wildebeest, etc. The grass and the animals evolved together, much like bees and flowering plants. They evolved to rely on each other. They developed characteristics that are adapted to each other.

So if you take away the grass, the hoofed animals die off. And if you take away the hoofed animals, the grassland turns into a desert.

The reason this was not apparent is that once the naturally-occurring hoofed animals were gone from a particular area, they were immediately replaced by domesticated hoofed animals, and these were clearly overgrazing and killing the land. So the obvious solution was to ban domesticated animals from damaged or endangered land areas so the land could recover. So huge plots of land have been made off limits to grazing animals for long stretches of time. But as I said, the land does not recover. It begins to die. And the desertification continues until nothing is left but bare ground.

Domesticated animals made the land turn into desert. But leaving the land alone also made it turn into desert. The biologist Allan Savory has done more to solve this puzzle than any other scientist. The answer was surprising to everyone involved. It didn't really matter which animals were grazing. The key was HOW the animals were grazing. If the hoofed animals graze in a particular way, the grass grows and the deserts turn back into rich grassland. If they graze in any other way, or don't graze at all, the land turns into a desert.

Savory's discovery is this: For grasslands to be healthy they require herds of hoofed animals to graze on it. But they must graze in a natural way, which means: 1) all bunched up as grazing animals do (for safety in numbers — safety from predators), 2) never staying in the same spot for very long, and 3) not coming back to that spot for a while (which allows the grass to grow). If you graze the animals that way, it doesn't matter which hoofed animals are doing the grazing — wild or domestic, or both — the grass begins to thrive.

Thriving grass has many impressive and meaningful consequences. First of all, grass captures moisture. On bare earth, rain runs off (washing away topsoil) and evaporates. When the ground is covered with grass, the plant roots soak up the water and hold it. The grass does the same with CO2, removing it from the air and sequestering it in the earth. Grass also cools the atmosphere and prevents soil erosion. It prevents contamination of groundwater and surface water (because it needs no artificial fertilizer). It turns the falling sunlight into abundant food. And grasses are the foundation of entire ecosystems, so diverse plants and wild animals also get what they need to thrive. Thriving grassland increases biodiversity.

Experts have estimated that using grazing animals in this way on only half of our barren or semi-barren grasslands would remove so much carbon from the air that our atmosphere would be like it was before the industrial age began.

In a natural setting, two forces working together cause hoofed animals to graze the right way: predators and disgust. The presence of predators causes scattered grazing animals to bunch together in a big herd. They eat the grass and, of course, urinate and defecate. After a couple of days of this, they are compelled by their noses to move to greener pastures. So the ground gets thoroughly and regularly "tilled" and "fertilized" and then left alone for a while. And grasses flourish. When the grass has grown tall, it lures the animals back into the area to do it all again. If the animals don't come back, the tall grass rots and smothers any new grass trying to sprout.

Huge parcels of the earth have been turning to desert because we haven't understood how this works. All over the world — from Australia's outback to the Northern Rockies to Zimbabwe — Allan Savory and his teams have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that when these principles are applied, the deserts disappear. The land turns green. Wildlife returns. Plant diversity proliferates. Birds start singing. It's a beautiful thing. Watch this TED talk to see some photographs of the kind of transformation these principles bring into being. Forty million acres of land are now being grazed this way (called Holistic Management).

Think about the consequences. More food can be generated with less water. Instead of draining the Colorado river to grow lettuce in the Arizona desert, for example, livestock could be raised instead. The grass would capture the little bit of rain that falls, and hold it and grow into food for livestock. The meat from this livestock would be healthier to eat than grain-finished beef.

Using grazing animals correctly, the grasses grow deeper roots over time, sequestering more carbon and holding more water, preventing runoff, preventing the loss of topsoil from wind and rain, and protecting the plants and animals from dying off during droughts.

But, you might be thinking, don't all those hoofed animals create methane? And isn't methane a powerful greenhouse gas? Yes to both. However, the alternatives are either bare ground that produces no oxygen or food but produces excess heat...or the grass goes uneaten, so it rots, producing methane. The bacteria can either break down the grass inside a grazing animal or outside it. Either way, you get methane.

But for the reduction of greenhouse gasses, shouldn't we focus on getting alternatives to petroleum fuels? Yes, but not exclusively. The desertification of the land causes even greater climate change than burning petroleum. So even if we got rid of all fossil fuels, these lands would continue to turn into deserts until grazing herds return. We should, however, also find alternatives to petroleum. Click here for one possible way to accomplish it quickly.

In some places, people working with Allan Savory are using domesticated animals mixed in with the wild animals to make the herds bigger (bigger herds work better for grass than smaller herds), and both the domestic and the wild animal herds grow healthy and multiply because the process makes each acre produce more grass. Considerably more. Another good reason to manage the wild animals along with the domesticated ones is because in many places humans have wiped out the predators, and without the predators, grazers stop bunching together and the grass starts dying.

So there it is. Would you like to prevent a big portion of the world from turning into deserts? Would you like to end poverty for millions of people (who are currently relying on this desertifying land for their sustenance)? Would you like to help feed a hungry world with healthy food? Would you like a cooler, more hospitable world? Would you like to solve our growing water shortage problem? Would you like to stop the burning of tropical rainforests to create grasslands for cattle? Would you like to stop the erosion of topsoil? Would you like to reverse the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? There is something you can do to help.

Here's where to start: Sign up for updates at the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. Like them on Facebook (Savory Institute here, HMI here) and share their posts. On both of those web sites, you'll see plenty of opportunities to get involved. At the very least you can help make this information more widely known, and that will make a difference. You can do the same for our web site updates (here) and our Facebook page (here).

One simple and practical thing you can begin immediately is to buy only grassfed beef and lamb. Support that industry. Put your money where your mouth is. The meat is more expensive, but doctors are expensive too, and grassfed meat is better for your health and better for the health of the earth.

This is extraordinarily good news. Desertification of the earth can be reversed, and it can happen very quickly. The land starts to noticeably recover in the first year. To achieve it, we need more animals, not less. Sometimes for the process to work, Savory has discovered he needs to increase the herd size by 400% or more. Grasslands need herds. Humans can make it happen. People are already doing it. The end result is a healthier planet, healthier animals, more food, and healthier humans.

Author: Adam Khan, the co-founder of OpenFuelStandard.org and author of the books, Fill Your Tank With Freedom and Self-Reliance Translated.

Evidence Supporting Holistic Management

This is a very informative page:

Evidence Supporting Holistic Management

A Great Collection of Before and After Pictures

Check out this collection of before and after Holistic Management pictures. Look at the difference it can make in the fertility of land:

Holistic Management Comparison Pictures

Plant Cover Makes All The Difference


Fix the Soil, Feed the Planet, Save the World: The Power of Regeneration

The following is originally posted on Common Dreams. Written by Deirdre Fulton.

Seeking to elevate sustainable forms of agriculture such as agroecology, holistic grazing, cover cropping, permaculture, and agroforestry over industrial practices that degrade soil, introduce toxins to the food supply — and exacerbate climate change — a group of farmers, scientists, and activists are convening for the Regenerative International Conference in Costa Rica this week.

The conference, the first of a planned series of similar gatherings around the world, will focus on uniting movements, developing campaigns, and creating a global media plan to communicate specifically how restoring soil health can reverse damage to ecosystems around the world.

"This is new science that’s connecting the food issues with the climate issue, making it more and more clear that by fixing the soil, and fixing the way we produce food, we can fix the climate as well," said Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association, in a press release on Monday.

Reports have shown how regenerative farming and ranching techniques — such as "holistic grazing," which makes use of the movement and behavior of the grazing animals to break up and fertilize dry soil — can restore farmland and produce yields similar to industrial techniques, leading to far greater food security. In addition, the groups behind the conference point out that healthy soil can reduce the amount of water necessary to grow crops by as much as 60 percent.

"Bringing soil to the center of our consciousness and our planning is vital not only for the life of the soil, but also for the future of our society," said Vandana Shiva, global activist and author of Soil Not Oil.

Shiva, a co-founder of the Regeneration International Working Group, added: "Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy."

Holistic Grazing Has a Huge Impact on Water

When grassland has either been overgrazed or grazed unnaturally, bare ground starts to show. The bare ground is hard and dry, and when it rains, the water doesn't soak in, but washes away. When the grassland has been grazed in a way that mimics nature — large herds bunched up and moving frequently — the hardpan is broken up, the grass is fertilized and the dead grass is tramped down rather than smothering the sprouting grass below it, and grasses thrive, filling in the bare ground and restoring life to the soil.

Healthy grassland is full of diverse plants and other organisms: Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, tiny insects, etc. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains more living organisms than there are people on the planet. All these living things and all the decomposing (formerly living) things allow the soil to hold many times its weight in water when it rains. All of this material is made of carbon. The restoration ecologist Steven Apfelbaum says that for every 1 percent increase in soil carbon, the soil holds and extra 60,000 gallons of water per acre. With less of the water washing away, there is less erosion, of course, but it also means that there is more water for everything else — the plants, the many living things in the soil, and the aquifers.

Healthy grassland resists erosion and is resilient during droughts.

In her book, Cows Save the Planet, Judith Schwartz writes, "I spoke to Zachary Jones of the Twodot Land and Livestock Company near Harlowton, Montana, where in spring 2011 the Musselshell River, a tributary to the Missouri River, saw thirteen times its usual spring runoff. 'The most water we've ever seen in that creek in the five generations my family has ranched here.' While the flood closed highways, washed away barns and corrals, and drowned livestock, Twodot's land remained unscathed, with very little runoff. Jones attributes this to its having been under Holistic Management for twenty-five years. Compared to its neighbors, Twodot's twenty-four thousand acres had a greater variety of grasses and other plants with deep roots (for efficient nutrient and water cycling) and rich, aerated, highly absorbent soil. Rather than streaming off and causing erosion, the water stayed on the land."

Healthy grasslands absorb and hold more water. It doesn't erode when it rains. And when it is dry, it doesn't blow away as dust either. And, of course, more plants means the soil is more shaded, which means it helps prevent evaporation and cools the soil.

One thing that is absolutely necessary for healthy grassland to form is large grazing animals (as long as they are grazing in a way that mimics nature, or in a way that is natural — that is, with large wild herds being relentlessly pursued by pack hunters like lions, hyenas or wolves).

That's what grasslands need to flourish. It is already happening in many places, but you can help it spread. Use your six degrees of separation and let more people know about this work. Join us on Facebook and share our posts with your friends and family. Or subscribe to our updates and share those updates with your friends and family. And do the same with the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. Like them on Facebook (Savory Institute here, HMI here) and subscribe to their updates and share their posts. On both of those web sites, you'll see plenty of opportunities to get involved. At the very least you can help make this information more widely known, and that will make a difference.

One simple and practical thing you can begin immediately is to buy only grassfed beef and lamb. Support that industry. Put your money where your mouth is. The meat is more expensive, but doctors are expensive too, and grassfed meat is better for your health and better for the health of the earth.

Let's get the word out.

What is Holistic Management?

Holistic Management is a way to graze cattle, sheep and goats — grazing them in a way that mimics nature.

The natural way for herds of grass-eating mammals to graze is for them to bunch together out of fear of predators. This causes intensive grazing of the grasses, lots of stomping down of dead grass stems and leaves, breaking up the hard crust that forms over bare ground, which allows new seeds a place to sprout, stamping those seeds into the ground, and fertilizing the area with manure and urine.

After a little while there isn't much grass left and there is lots of manure on the ground, so the herd moves on.

That's the way herds naturally graze. Then they move to a new area and do it all over again. They don't go back to grazed areas until the grass has grown back.

The same thing can be accomplished with domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. If a rancher has 2000 acres, he or she divides it up into smaller sections and then lets the animals into one section at a time, allowing them to graze intensively, fertilize, etc., and then the rancher moves the animals to another section.

When animals are grazed this way, the grasses thrive, the land fills in with life, the soil becomes rich, erosion becomes almost non-existent even during heavy rains, the land becomes very resilient in the face of drought because it holds so much water and there is no bare ground, and even wildlife have more to eat. The land is converting far more sunlight into food per square foot.

Why? Because grass needs large, hoofed animals grazing it to thrive. The animals and the grasses evolved together, like bees and flowering plants. They require each other. When the animals are grazed in a way that mimics nature, the grasslands regenerate. That is Holistic Management.

If you'd like to see some spectacular before and after photos of land regenerated through the use of Holistic Management (besides the one shown above), watch Allan Savory's TED talk, How to Green the World's Deserts and Reverse Climate Change.

The usual way animals are grazed on land causes more and more bare ground over time. In other words, it causes desertification. It's called "overgrazing" but it should be called "unnatural grazing," because when Holistic Management is used, the grazing is much more intensive.

But when land management experts saw the land desertifying from the grazing, they did what seemed obvious: They made large tracts of land off limits to grazing animals so the land would recover. But in semi-arid ecosystems like grasslands, the land does not recover. It continues to desertify. For grasslands to regenerate, they need grazing animals.

One of the most important outcomes of reversing desertification is that it reverses climate change. When the land regenerates it has far more life in it — more grass, more animals eating the grass, more animals eating the animals that eat the grass, and more earthworms and fungi and bacteria and protozoa and nematodes and arthropods and insects down in the soil. All of that life is made of carbon. Where does the carbon come from? From the air. 

Regenerating grasslands can sequester an immense amount of carbon. It can do more to reverse climate change than any other thing on earth. It can remove more carbon from the air than even the complete elimination of all fossil fuels. Holistic Management can literally save the planet.

Read more about Holistic Management here: How to Stop Two Thirds of the Earth From Turning Into a Desert.

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