Monday, May 20, 2013

Desertification and Cattle: Why Alan Savory is the man with the plan.

I recently watched a TED talk about how to combat desertification and climate change by mimicking natural wildlife herds using cattle, across all of the world’s “grasslands” as by definition by the TED talk author. The talk was done by Alan Savory, who is a biologist from Zimbabwe that, from the talk, has a deep passion for farming, wildlife, and issues related to climate change and desertification. It seems his passion for these issues have deepened since he created a conservation plan to help grasslands and reverse desertification, in parts of Africa that entailed the slaughter of thousands of elephants, which, didn't seem to help the cause of reversing desertification at all and saw the decimation of a elephant population.  That being said, Savory seemed like someone who is going to do whatever it takes, in the most logical and scientific sense, to find a solution to the awful effects of desertification.

Have to find comic relief in everything.

As Savory discussed, soil, no matter where in the world it is, needs protection from the sun (including its growing harmful rays and heat due to climate change), wind, rain, and other abiotic factors. Microorganisms, soil functions, and animals living in soil rely on the protection from these abiotic factors by trees, shrubs, large animals, and in places like Africa, grasses (Savory, 2013).  Just as humans and other animals need protection from the earth’s natural elements, so does soil. When these protective variables are removed quickly and unnaturally (usually due to human activity including development, overgrazing, fires, etc) and create an area where the soil is completely exposed to the elements powerful abiotic factors such as the extreme African sun exposure, desertification occurs (Savory, 2013). Thinking about this, we can conclude that the key component to reversing desertification would be to promote and restore soil coverage, right?  Savory’s idea of bringing cattle to those areas to do so is, not only scientifically sound in that it promotes soil coverage, but also, this idea is culturally and socially significant.  In this I have to agree with this process, and, even though it may not work in some areas, is the best and most successful solution we currently have to combat desertification.

According to an editorial opinion by Vasilios P. Papanastasis, the alternative to using cattle to reverse desertification includes “large scale projects” that require “extensive vegetation improvements (e.g. reseeding, weed control, shrub plantation, reforestation, etc.)” (Papanastasis, 2009) and that are “very expensive and often create environmental problems”, something that seems completely ironic.  Using Savory’s “holistic management” program not only benefits the environment in that it restores lost habitat, it also promotes the reduction of methane produce (a greenhouse gas) by the cattle, which some people say does the exact opposite (more cattle creates more methane) yet if done correctly all of the methane can be taken up by the fertile soil thus reducing greenhouse emissions, creates non-grazed land that promotes the storage of other greenhouses such as CO2, creates habitat for thousands of species year round, provides food for areas such as Africa that rely heavily on cattle for their source of food, PREVENTS overgrazing through simple management, and provides cultural and economic benefit through the growth of more efficient farming and land use.

Concluding on this, it seems that most people are stuck on the idea that promoting more cattle equals more destruction of nature. In some areas that may be the case, but, Savory isn’t talking about the entire world. He’s talking places in which, as Papanastasis stated, “grazed lands with long history of gazing by large herbivores, including livestock” (Papanastasis, 2009), which, one could argue is a majority of the planets. Savory is using the ecological history of lands that are undergoing desertification to simply restore them to original state, by reintroducing large herbivores such as cattle. By using quantitative population management and controlled grazing techniques, Savory’s idea is one that any conservation company dealing with desertification should seriously look into.  We’re at a point where desertification is getting so bad that it doesn’t matter how we get to the solution of reversing this process, as long as we get there and fast.

Here is the Vasilios P. Papanastasis article giving more information of why reintroduced of cattle grazing can help desertification and overgrazed lands. 

Papanastasis P., Vasilios. (2009). Restoration of Degraded Grazing Lands Through Grazing Management: Can it Work?

Papanastasis, Vasilios P. "Restoration of Degraded Grazing Lands through Grazing
Management: Can It Work?" Restoration Ecology 17.4 (2009): 441-45. 

Check out Alan's TED talk here:

Savory, Alan. (2013). How to fight desertification and climate change.

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