Monday, May 20, 2013

Desertification and Cows

Allen Savory, co-founder of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, recently presented a TED Talk about the increasing problem of desertification consuming the planet. Currently happening to approximately two thirds of the worlds grasslands, desertification is a process of land turning into hard packed desert, causing both a lack of vegetation to retain rain and flood water, but also a lack of vegetation to lock carbon dioxide in the soil, allowing massive amounts of greenhouse gasses that would otherwise have been trapped in the earth surface to escape into the atmosphere, greatly contributing to the current global warming issues.

             Historically, desertification was not a problem because of natural cattle grazing patterns that allowed grasslands to properly decompose while creating a nutrient rich soil that allowed further growth while also trapping massive amount of carbon dioxide in the soil. However, due to over-hunting and current livestock farming methods, these herds of grazing animals were removed from grasslands long ago, causing the beginning of the desertification issue, one that, according to Savory, has been in the works for over 10,000 years. With 10,000 years worth of environmental damage already done and modern farming methods having decimated the naturally occurring grazing populations in the grasslands, how are we supposed to combat this huge problem?
            Savory supposes a rather unorthodox and, admittedly, very counter-intuitive method to fixing this problem. On these desertified grasslands, almost entirely devoid of plant life and holding dearly onto what they have left, Savory actually proposes that we try to reintroduce grazing species into these suffering grasslands to try to mimic the original populations that flourished long ago.

            While this method, to me, seems entirely wrong, it is hard to deny that there has been improvement in the grasslands Savory showed in his talk, and the amount of vegetation that was regrowing in the 15 million hectares of land he was regrazing, essentially, was actually a bit startling to me. I find this progress very promising and while I want to fully be able to support what Savory is doing, there are a few key issues I must consider.

            The biggest issue I can see with this proposed method of damage reversal is the use of grazing animals with an emphasis on, at least from what Savory shows in to his talk, cows. Cows have been studied and it’s been calculated that cows are one of the leading producers of methane, globally, a greenhouse gas that is much more toxic to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. With the amount of cows needed to reverse the amount of desertification already taking over the planet, would we then have also negated the effect of the sequestering of carbon dioxide with a much more harmful greenhouse gas? There has been some research done into cow diets associated with amount of methane produced, though, and it has shown that grass-fed cows do tend to produce less methane than those fed on the typical agriculture diet of corn and soy. Still, it is an important factor to take into consideration when trying to argue the greenhouse gas minimization with this method of grassland restoration.

            While I do see some issues with the strategy Allen Savory is proposing, it is hard to condemn. The fact remains that desertification of the grasslands of our planet is a huge problem, environmentally and culturally and anything that can possibly help this issue be resolved is worth exploring. If there can be a large-scale restoration of grasslands that seems with the exchange of carbon dioxide for methane, supposing that there is not a huge increase in greenhouse gasses. If there is no further harm done to the atmosphere, I would fully support this project, but as of yet, I don’t think there is any great research that has been done on this portion of the strategy, so I can’t say I have a strong position on it, one way or the other.

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