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.

3 comments:

KariB 7:40 AM  

How many acres do you need to do rotational grazing and holistic land management?

Adam Khan 1:36 AM  

KariB, rotational grazing and Holistic Management are totally different and the specifics depend on the local circumstances. But we see people doing rotational grazing on just a few acres, with just a few animals, in non-brittle environments that have plenty of moisture and quick plant recovery times.

Adam Sacks 6:04 AM  

Hi Adam - Thanks for an excellent article. A couple of points of clarification: From Allan Savory's perspective, "Holistic Management" (HM) is a planning process, "Holistic Planned Grazing" (HPG) is the HM process applied to grazing. See Allan's excellent foundational text, Holistic Management.

As for the terminology, unfortunately it's a mess. People call various degrees of HPG (or no HPG at all) by a variety of names, including rotational grazing, mob grazing, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, etc. Ranchers try out Allan's discoveries, adapt it to their own circumstances, and sometimes call it whatever they please. Whatever it's called, the cow's out of the barn, so to speak, and the basic principles work because they are nature's way. If you read the land well, it will work; if you don't, it won't. The terminology has caused the most confusion among academic researchers - ranchers are much smarter than that.

Finally, the definition of "brittle," since Adam Khan referred to it in his reply to KariB. A brittle environment is simply an area with dry seasons that don't recover when "rested," as noted in the article. A non-brittle environment is one where there's rain year-round. Part of Allan's genius was recognizing that nature works very differently in those two environments.

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