Can cows shrink deserts?
Allan Savoury is a farmer from Zimbabwe who used to believe that livestock were destroying the land. He still believes the CO2 scary narrative, but even despite all that, he’s an ecologist who now argues we need large herds moving nomadically to stop desertification.
Years ago he was one of the scientists advising the Zimbabwe government to get rid of lifestock to save the land. In a great moment of ecology they even shot 14,000 elephants for land restoration which didn’t work. That was the saddest blunder of my life, he says. And when he went to the US he found national parks were desertifying too even though they had not had livestock on them. “Clearly we didn’t understand what was driving desertification”. He now claims that the soil of grasslands ends up encrusted with algae, which leads to water runoff and evaporation “and that is the cancer that leads to desertification”.
I’m sure cows don’t change the climate either way, but this sure flies in the face of the idea that livestock create deserts and eating meat destroys the land.
h/t to Notalotofpeopleknowthat
Cows are the missing link?
He points out that the soil and vegetation in Africa evolved with massive groups of herding animals being chased by lions and what not. The large masses of herbivores play a vital role in ecology — they return the grass to the land as fertilizer. In turn the booming plant-life boosts carbon and microbes in the soil, and changes the microclimate, keeping temperatures and humidity more constant than bare sand does. Without plants, the rain that falls on the sand evaporates and blows away instead. Grass alone is all very well, except that each year the remnant dry grass needs to decay. If it doesn’t, it smothers the soils and there’s a shift to woody scrubland with bare earth instead. Mere oxidation of grasses is too slow to keep up. The other alternative is fire, but it doesn’t fertilize crops and soil the way cows do, and may not be the best for the microflora either. Savory calls his technique Holistic Management, though there are obviously many details he doesn’t describe.
It turns out this TED Talk was from 2013. Apparently it has attracted millions of views. It has mostly disappeared like a stone. In farming circles there are ardent fans and critics, but possibly very few detailed scientific reviews. George Monbiot dismissed it in 2014, but The Guardian also published a reply from fans. Probably the truth is that it works in some environments and not in others, and because it has no billionaire friends, it hasn’t had the investigation it really needs. I post it here for discussion because it pokes the sacred cow that all livestock “are bad”. Readers may know more…
By Hunter Lovins: Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world
Soil scientist, Dr Elaine Ingham, a microbiologist and until recently chief scientist at Rodale Institute, described how healthy soil, the underpinning of civilization throughout history, is created in interaction between grazing animals and soil microbiology. Peer-reviewed research from Rodale has shown how regenerative agriculture can sequester more carbon than humans are now emitting.
…Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms… was made famous in UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores his success using Savory’s approach. Salatin explains how Savory’s approach enabled him to turn an uneconomic farm into an operation that now supports 35 prosperous agricultural ventures. From selling grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs to health-conscious connoisseurs and teaching interns how to replicate its successes, Polyface Farms is leading an agricultural revival.
I can attest from personal experience that Savory’s approach works. …. In our case, we restored cattle to the ground, managed as Savory advised, and within two years watched the water table rise, wetland plants returned and the economic value of the property increase.
In Australia, for profit company Sustainable Land Management says it has more than doubled stocking rates of cattle over historic rates on seriously desertified Australian range, achieved superior weight gain, doubled plant diversity, restored the grasslands, while buying no feed, even despite severely deficient rain.
Six years later John Cook’s website attempted to rebut the idea. The author Seb V doesn’t discuss desertification much, except to say the obvious that we can’t just put cows in the Sahara and fix it in 40 years. He mostly talks about uncertainties in carbon accounting instead. Seb V claims a couple of studies on “grazing” show no result. But Bellamy 2005 studied English soils where I suspect no one tried to gather livestock into massive wandering holistic herds. And the other study by Schrumpf et al was titled “How accurately can soil organic carbon stocks and stock changes be quantified by soil inventories?”. In other words, it was mostly about carbon accounting, not about restoring deserts. Commenters there were mostly unimpressed. Post Vegan points out that “grazing” is not the same as Holistic Management, Short Duration Grazing or Rotational Grazing either.
From the rebuttal it appears that there have not been any serious scientific studies specifically reviewing the Savoury techniques.
From Wikipedia, a long while ago, Savory’s idea were even fashionable in environmental circles:
In 2003 Australia honored Savory with the Banksia International Award “for the person doing the most for the environment on a global scale” and in 2010, Savory and the Africa Centre for Holistic Management won The Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual international design competition awarding $100,000 “to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”.
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