Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Livestock: The Cause of and Solution to Desertification

  Biologist, environmentalist, former Zimbabwean parliament member, and winner of both the Banksia Award and Buckminster Fuller Challenge for his environmental work, Allan Savory is certainly deserving of a good a deal of respect.  In his March 2013 TED talk, Savory describes the work for which he was honored by the Banksia Environmental Foundation and the Buckminster Fuller Institute, work that centers around the development and study of what he calls Holistic Management, which is an approach to battling the forces of desertification by carefully managing livestock through grassland in a way that "mimics nature".

Savory's system revolves around the idea of reintroducing large groups of herding herbivores back into areas in which they have been lost. The animals are constantly moved in a way that simulates natural behavior of wild grazers which continually move in order to evade predators and seek ideal feeding and watering grounds. This movement causes trampling of grasses and gentle turning of topsoil, which allows the earth to hold water more efficiently. In addition to natural tilling, the animals supply nutrients and seed dispersal through bodily functions.

  Savory claims that this system of careful planned grazing is the only way to fight rapid desertification taking place around the globe. He encourages the human inhabitants of dried and drying out areas to raise more livestock and manage them according to his Holistic Management system to keep the land viable for generations to come.

Ahh, much nicer than desert!
While Savory's plan sounds great, and in his talk he supplies many appealing before-and-after photographs showing apparent success, he draws some serious criticism.

  James McWilliams provides some compelling arguments in this article from He claims that Savory's ideas are great in theory but are simply unrealistic and not as effective as Savory makes them out to be in his talk.

  McWilliams cites this compelling review which examines Savory's methods and concludes that no managed grazing system has been shown to fully reverse the effects of overgrazing and drought on a landscape, and that often large scale grazing efforts actually reduced land quality and led to unhealthy livestock. The review does however state that well managed, small scale grazing is the only system known to potentially stop desertification.

  Another compelling argument that McWilliams makes is that Savory makes little distinction between newly formed deserts and desert which have been around for eons. Deserts are often thriving ecosystems in their own right! Savory refers to desert algal crust as a "cancer," while many experts consider it to be quite normal  and a sign of a healthy arid ecosystem.

  Savory certainly knows what he's talking about, he has spent much of his life working on his Holistic Management program and has received major accolades for it, but his ideas may not be the be-all end-all of anti-desertification methods. 


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