Monday, April 8, 2013

Greening the Desert

As promised, here is a link to the TED talk that blew me away. Its run time is 22:20. Greening the World's Deserts
We've all been told that desertification is the result of overgrazing. For the past hundred years, governments in Africa, the United States, and elsewhere, have set aside land to keep it from being grazed at all except by tightly controlled herds of zebra or bison. And yet, desertification has only accelerated.

Zimbabwean scientist Allan Savory has been working to understand this for decades, and started testing his theories in Africa in the 1990s. He's now head of the Savory Institute, which is implementing these strategies all over the world.

What's the solution? If you haven't watched the video yet, the spoilers start now: Mimic nature in grazing practices.

Written like that, it sounds obvious... but it runs so counter to the conventional wisdom of the past hundred years that he has to take some time to prove it in the video.

My husband's grandfather owned a cattle ranch on the Texas-Oklahoma border. After watching this video, my husband said, "Grandpa was wrong--he always said, You can only run one head per acre here, it's too dry." Allan Savory would quadruple that at least. My husband did point out that this method would be labor-intensive, which must be why people didn't do it from the outset.

You have to let the cattle completely trample an area before you move them on. This solves the problem of grasses decomposing by oxidation instead of biologically, which is why they currently burn grasslands. Unfortunately:
Burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than 6,000 cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than one billion hectares. --Allan Savory
In Savory's method, whatever grass the cattle didn't eat is chopped up and mixed with dung and urine by their hooves. It then proceeds to compost biologically, and fertilize the next generation of grass.

The farmers we get our grass-fed beef from does something like this. We got a mini-tour once, and she let us watch her move the herd from one plot to another. They grow alfalfa, put the cattle on a small area of alfalfa, and let them eat it up. When we drove up, they were mooing in a thoroughly grazed and trampled area, gazing longingly over an electric fenceline at tall, lush alfalfa. She turned off the electricity and let the line down, and the herd galloped joyfully into the fresh area. Happy cows!
It makes me think of what I've read of the vast herds of American bison moving across the prairie before they were nearly killed off. No wonder that land was so fertile.

And it's sad to see that some areas of the United States are turning to desert when they were once the feeding grounds of those herds.

It's ironic that Savory has to sell the TED crowd on the idea of more cattle rather than less... environmental conventional wisdom has been telling us for some years that cows are bad because they generate methane, which is a greenhouse gas. He points out that the land rejuvenated this way will take care of the methane.

And this is the compassionate solution too. So many of these areas are no good for farming in their present state--people can only survive if they have meat to eat (or if they get food aid, of course). This is the sustainable way to get people to where they can feed themselves.

Something Savory didn't mention is the conventional wisdom that it takes a lot more land to raise cattle for food than to raise plants for food. I wonder how that math works out if you're running four times as many animals?

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I hope this idea takes hold. I think it will help many people... whether he's right about the global warming impact or not.