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We’re Running Out of Time to Reverse Desertification

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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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 lands speeds up desertification
  • According to Allan Savory, an African ecologist, dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock is the only thing that can reverse both desertification and climate change
  • Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and large-scale monocrop farms directly contribute to climate change and environmental pollution
  • To improve soil quality, we must improve its ability to maintain water. Once land has turned to bone-dry desert, any rain simply evaporates and/or runs off. The solution is twofold: The ground must be covered with vegetation, and animals must roam across the land
  • In the documentary, “Running Out of Time,” Savory details his holistic herd and land management plan, and shows how land that has turned to desert can be brought back to become fertile and productive once again through the use of livestock

The Savory Institute documentary “Running Out of Time,” features ecologist and international consultant Allan Savory, who in a 2013 TED Talk discussed how grazing livestock is the solution to our ever-growing climate change problem. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Savory is a passionate conservationist.

He founded the Africa Centre for Holistic Management1 (ACHM) in 1992, to support the adoption of holistic land management practices in Southern Africa in order to reduce and reverse land degradation2 that threatens the very survival of mankind, as without healthy productive soil, we cannot grow food. Central teachings taught by ACHM include how to:

  • Restore water catchments and river flow
  • Increase forage, livestock and wildlife production
  • Raise crop yields through concentrated animal impact
  • Restore damaged or degraded land
  • Employ low stress animal handling

Grazing Cattle Are a Crucial Part of the Solution

Current agricultural practices encourage the degradation of soil, causing desertification (when fertile land dries up and turns to desert) and climate change.

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. According to Savory, a staggering two-thirds of the landmass on earth is already desertifying.

This situation can only be effectively reversed by dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock, Savory says. In essence, it’s not an excess of livestock that are causing the problem, but that we have far too few, and the livestock we do have, we’re not managing properly. To improve soil quality, we must improve its ability to maintain water. Once land has turned to bone-dry desert, any rain simply evaporates and/or runs off.

The solution is twofold: The ground must be covered with vegetation, and animals must roam across the land. The animals must be bunched and kept moving to avoid overgrazing, thereby mimicking the movement of large wild herds. The animals serve several crucial functions on the land, as they:

  • Graze on plants, exposing the plants’ growth points to sunlight, which stimulates growth
  • Trample the soil, which breaks capped earth allowing for aeration
  • Press seeds into the soil with their hooves, thereby increasing the chances of germination and diversity of plants
  • Press down dying and decaying grasses, allowing microorganisms in the soil to go to work to decompose the plant material
  • Fertilize the soil with their waste

The documentary shows and explains how Savory’s system works in the real world, on his own farm and elsewhere — and how the African wildlife is integrated with the livestock — and how local communities that have adopted the program have massively improved their living conditions.

In one village, where they could only produce enough food for three months out of the year, they now grow ample food year-round. The ACHM trains farmers from all-around the world, not just locals, and is planning about 100 international training hubs. Online training is also in the works.

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Lessons Learned From the Unnecessary Massacre of 40,000 Elephants

In his 2013 TED Talk (embedded above for your convenience), Savory recounts how, as a young biologist, he 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 only 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.

Areas of U.S. national parks are now turning to desert 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, the reason for this is because we’ve completely misunderstood the causes of desertification.

We’ve also failed to understand how desertification 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 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 rather than trapping and storing it.

To prevent this scenario, we’ve traditionally used fire. But burning the ground also leaves soil bare to release carbon. In addition, burning just 1 hectare (just under 2.5 acres) of grasses gives off more pollution than 6,000 cars. According to Savory, more than 1 billion hectares (2.4 billion acres) of grassland are burned in Africa each year.

How Federal Policy Contributes to Climate Change Woes

In the U.S., federal policy is still worsening the environmental concerns addressed by Savory in his TED Talk. Corn and soy — a majority of which are genetically engineered (GE) — have overtaken native grasslands in a number of states, which may have a significant impact on regional and global climate alike.

A consequence of this is that we also lose our ability to secure our food supply long-term. As discussed in a Mother Jones article,3 the conversion of grasslands to crop fields is the exact opposite of what is in our best interest.

“[T]o get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows.

The idea came from a paper4 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 a 2013 paper5 by South Dakota State University researchers, grasslands in the Western Corn Belt, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, is 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 were 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 Mother Jones:6

“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.”

USDA Admits Current Agricultural System Is Unsustainable

According to a report7 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States," our current agricultural system, which is dominated by corn and soy, is unsustainable in the long term. Should temperatures rise as predicted, the U.S. could expect to see significant declines in yields by the middle of this century.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have a central role in this impending disaster. As noted in my interviews with a number of sustainable farming pioneers and ecological experts over the past several years, the separation of various livestock from crop farming is where we went completely off the rails. This was supposedly done to increase efficiency and reduce costs, but the hidden costs of this segregation are enormous.

As explained in Peter Byck’s short film, “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” farm animals form symbiotic relationships where one species helps keep parasites from overwhelming another. It is the separation of crops and animals into two distinctly different farming processes that has led to animal waste becoming a massive source of toxic pollution rather than a valuable part of the ecological cycle.

Today, food animals are reared in cages and tightly cramped quarters, and their feed consists of grains, primarily GE corn and soy, instead of grasses. To prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, animals are routinely 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 “How Factory Farming Contributes to Global Warming,” Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, explains:8

“CAFOs contribute directly to global warming9 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 U.S. 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.”

Holistic Land and Herd Management Is Key for Sustainability

The alternative to CAFOs is precisely what Savory teaches, namely the widespread implementation of smaller-scale systems 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, global climate, the health of the animals, and subsequently the health of humans consuming those animals.

There’s no denying that rising population, rapid conversion of fertile land to deserts and global climate change 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 only contributing to the problem and speeding up our demise.

I believe Savory is correct when he says we have only one option, and that is to revert back to what worked before. Allowing large moving herds to graze on the land will address most if not all of our most pressing issues, from food security to climate change.

As noted in a 2016 article10 by Pure Advantage, “There is no current or envisioned technology that can simultaneously sequester carbon, restore biodiversity and feed people. But livestock can.” Gabe Brown, a regenerative land management pioneer, also discussed the importance of herd management in our 2014 interview, covered in “How to Regenerate Soil Using Cover Crops and Regenerative Land Management.”

Support Sustainable Agriculture With Your Food Budget

For now, you can help move our agricultural system in the right direction by purchasing your foods from local farmers who are already doing this on a small scale.11 If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:

Demeter USA Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.

American Grassfed Association (AGA) The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.

Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; and born and raised on American family farms.

EatWild.com EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

The Cornucopia Institute The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area.

The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund12 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.13 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.