What Could the Massacre of 40,000 Elephants Possibly Teach Us?

Story at-a-glance

  • The conversion of large amounts of fertile land to desert has long been thought to be caused by livestock, such as sheep and cattle overgrazing and giving off methane. This has now been shown to be incorrect, as removing animals to protect land speeds up desertification
  • Rising population, land turning into desert at a steady clip, and climate change, converge to create a “perfect storm” that threatens life on earth. According to an African ecologist, dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock is the only thing that can reverse both desertification and climate change
  • Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), play a key role in this impending disaster, as large-scale factory farms also directly contribute to environmental pollution
  • According to estimates, grazing large herds of livestock on half of the world’s barren or semi-barren grasslands could take enough carbon from the atmosphere to bring us back to preindustrial levels
  • A holistic management and planned grazing system has already been implemented in select areas on five continents, with dramatically positive results


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

In the TED Talk above, ecologist Allan Savory explains how we’re currently encouraging desertification, and how to not only stop it, but reverse it, by dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock.

According to Savory, rising population, land turning into desert at a steady clip (known as desertification), converge to create a “perfect storm” that threatens life on earth. Most people think technology is required to solve the problem.

Not so, he says. While we do need novel technology to replace fossil fuels, desertification cannot be reversed with technology. For that, we need to revert backward, and start mimicking nature and the way things were in the past.

How Grazing Livestock Impacts Our Land and Water

According to Savory, we not only can, but indeed MUST, use grazing livestock to address desertification. In his talk, he explains how we can work with nature, at very low cost, to reverse both of these problems.

By some estimates, grazing large herds of livestock on half of the world’s barren or semi-barren grasslands could take enough carbon from the atmosphere to bring us back to preindustrial levels.

“Nothing offers more hope,” he says.

Desertification happens when we create too much bare ground. In areas where a high level of humidity is guaranteed, desertification cannot occur. Ground cover allows for trapping of water, preventing the water from evaporating. At present, a staggering two-thirds of the landmass on earth is desertifying. As explained by Savory, water and carbon are tied to organic matter.

When you damage the soil, allowing it to turn into desert, it gives off carbon. We’ve been repeatedly told that desertification occurs only in arid or semi-arid areas, and that tall grasslands in areas of high rain fall are of no consequence. But this is not true, Savory says, because if you inspect the ground in tall grasslands, it is bare and encrusted with algae, which leads to runoff and evaporation.

“That is the cancer of desertification that we do not recognize ‘til its terminal form,” he says.

Desertification has long been thought to be caused by livestock, such as sheep and cattle overgrazing and giving off methane. However, to quote Savory on the veracity of these claims:

“We were once just as certain world was flat. We were wrong then, and we’re wrong again.”

Lessons Learned from the Unnecessary Massacre of 40,000 Elephants

As a young biologist, Savory was involved in setting aside large swaths of African land as future national parks. This involved removing native tribes from the land to protect animals. Interestingly, as soon as the natives were removed, the land began to deteriorate.

At that point, he became convinced that there were too many elephants, and a team of experts agreed with his theory, which required the removal of elephants to a number they thought the land could sustain. As a result, 40,000 elephants were slaughtered in an effort to stop the damage to the national parks.

Yet the land destruction got worse rather than better... Savory calls the decision “the greatest blunder” of his life. Fortunately, the utter failure cemented his determination to dedicate his life to finding solutions. And that, he has.

Areas of US national parks are now desertifying as badly as areas in Africa, and studies have shown that whenever cattle are removed from an area to protect it from desertification, the opposite results — it gets worse. According to Savory, we have completely misunderstood the causes of desertification. We’ve also failed to understand how it affects our global climate. He explains that barren earth is much cooler at dawn and much hotter at midday. When land is left barren, it changes the microclimate on that swath of land.

“Once you’ve done that to more than half of land mass on planet, you’re changing macroclimate,” he says.

We’ve failed to realize that in seasonal humidity environments, the soil and vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals meandering through. Along with these herds came ferocious pack hunting predators. The primary defense against these predators was the herd size. The larger the herd, the safer the individual animal within the herd. These large herds deposited dung and urine all over the grasses (their food), and so they would keep moving from one area to the next.

This constant movement of large herds naturally prevented overgrazing of plants, while periodic trampling ensured protective covering of the soil. As explained by Savory, grasses must degrade biologically before the next growing season. This easily occurs if the grass is trampled into the ground. If it does not decay biologically, it shifts into oxidation — a very slow process that results in bare soil, which then ends up releasing carbon. To prevent this scenario, we’ve traditionally used fire. But burning the ground also leaves soil bare to release carbon. I

What Can Be Done to Keep Grasslands Healthy?

At present, we’re doing everything wrong: Reducing animal numbers to rest the land actually causes desertification — the very things we’re trying to combat. Ditto for using fire. According to Savory, there is ONLY ONE OPTION. We must use livestock, bunched in very large moving herds, mimicking the way they used to roam when wild, or as they were herded in our agricultural past.

He offers several before and after scenes in his lecture, showing how allowing large herds to trample the area, covering the soil with left-over vegetation, manure and urine, makes it absorb and hold the seasonal rains. As a result, the soil stores carbon and breaks down methane.

So, what we need is MORE moving, grazing animals, not less!

Savory has developed a holistic management and planned grazing system which is now being implemented in select areas on five continents. In one area, increasing grazing cattle numbers by 400 percent, planning the grazing to mimic nature, and integrating the cattle with local elephants, buffalo and giraffes, has achieved remarkable results. I encourage you to view the video, because seeing is believing. This technique is literally turning desert into lush, highly productive environments. In Patagonia, 25,000 sheep were put into a desert area, and with planned grazing they increased production of the land by 50 percent in one year.


Stream in Wyoming, USA

How Federal Policy Contributes to the Problem

In the US, federal policy is presently worsening the environmental concerns addressed by Savory in his talk. Corn and soy — much of which are genetically engineered — are rapidly overtaking native grasslands in a number of US states. A consequence of this is that we also lose our ability to secure our food supply long-term... As discussed in a recent Mother Jones article,1 this conversion of grasslands to crop fields is the exact opposite of what might be in our best interest.

“...to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows,” the featured article states. “The idea came from a paper2 by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil — enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent. In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality, grass-fed beef...Turns out the Midwest are doing just the opposite.”

According to another recently published paper3 by South Dakota State University researchers, grasslands in the Western corn belt, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, are being lost at a rate "comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia." Between 2006 and 2011, nearly 2 million acres of friendly native grasses have been lost to corn and soy — two of the staples in processed foods that are driving chronic disease rates in an ever steepening upward incline. The same thing is happening in South America, where native forests are leveled in order to plant soy.

The researchers claim the land being converted into corn and soy fields is actually much better suited for grazing than crop agriculture, as it is “characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought." So why would farmers opt to use such risky land for their crops? According to the featured article:

“Simple: Federal policy has made it a high-reward, tiny-risk proposition. Prices for corn and soy doubled in real terms between 2006 and 2011, the authors note, driven up by federal corn-ethanol mandates and relentless Wall Street speculation.

Then there's federally subsidized crop insurance... When farmers manage to tease a decent crop out of their marginal land, they're rewarded with high prices for their crop. But if the crop fails, subsidized insurance guarantees a decent return. Essentially, federal farm policy, through the ethanol mandate and the insurance program, is underwriting the expansion of corn and soy agriculture at precisely the time it should be shrinking.”

Current Agricultural System is Unsustainable, According to the USDA

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also recently released a report titled: "Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States." According to the report, our current agricultural system, which is dominated by corn and soy, is unsustainable in the long term. Should temperatures rise as predicted, the US could expect to see significant declines in yields by the middle of this century.

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) also play a key role in this impending disaster. Gone are the days of large grazing cattle herds.

Today, food animals are typically reared in cages and tightly cramped quarters, and their feed consists of grains, primarily genetically engineered corn and soy instead of grasses. These animals are literally imprisoned and often tortured by unhealthy, unsanitary and unconscionably cruel conditions. To prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, animals are fed antibiotics and other veterinary drugs. Those antibiotics pose a direct threat to the environment when they run off into our lakes, rivers, aquifers and drinking water, and drive the rise in antibiotic-resistant disease in humans and animals.

According to Ronnie Cummins:

“CAFOs contribute directly to global warming4 by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - more than the entire global transportation industry. The air at some factory farm test sites in the US is dirtier than in America’s most polluted cities, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2.

Indirectly, factory farms contribute to climate disruption by their impact on deforestation and draining of wetlands, and because of the nitrous oxide emissions from huge amounts of pesticides used to grow the genetically engineered corn and soy fed to animals raised in CAFOs. Nitrous oxide pollution is even worse than methane – 200 times more damaging per ton than CO2. And just as animal waste leaches antibiotics and hormones into ground and water, pesticides and fertilizers also eventually find their way into our waterways, further damaging the environment.

What’s the alternative? Just as Savory discusses above, the alternative to CAFO’s is a smaller-scale system created by independent producers and processors focused on local and regional markets. Following Savory’s strategy, large herds could be moved across areas in planned grazing patterns, which would be beneficial for the environment, the health of the animals, and subsequently the health of humans consuming those animals.

Should We Label Factory-Farmed Food?

Some organic proponents are now proposing yet another label, aside from labeling genetically engineered foods, and that is to label foods produced by CAFO’s. A new alliance of organic and natural health consumers, animal welfare advocates, anti-GMO and climate-change activists has been created for this purpose. This Truth-in-Labeling campaign5 will begin with a program to educate consumers about the negative impacts of factory farming, and then move forward to organize and mobilize millions of consumers to demand labels on CAFO-produced animal products.

“Opponents and skeptics will ask, ‘What about feeding the world?’ Contrary to popular arguments, factory farming is not a cheap, efficient solution to world hunger,” Cummins says. “Feeding huge numbers of confined animals actually uses more food, in the form of grains that could feed humans, than it produces. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That’s a 70-percent loss. With the earth’s population predicted to reach nine billion by mid-century, the planet can no longer afford this reckless, unhealthy and environmentally disastrous farming system.

We believe that once people know the whole truth about CAFOs they will want to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. And to do that, we’ll have to fight for the consumer’s right to know not only what is in our food, but where our food comes from.”

There’s no denying that rising population, rapid conversion of fertile land to deserts is a serious threat to us all. And technology in the form of ever larger-scale, industrial farming methods simply isn’t the answer. It’s making it WORSE... I believe Savory is correct when he says we have only ONE option, and that is to revert back to what worked before. For now, you can help move our agricultural system in the right direction by purchasing your food from local farmers who are already doing this on a small scale.


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