Animals Can Stop Desertification. Really?

desert area
Unsplash - Jaunita Swart

Desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes desert, is a massive problem that must be stopped if we are to survive.

Here is a TED TALK from a man who once helped shoot 40,000 elephants to stop desertification. He is now on a life long journey to undo his deed. The Talk got millions of views essentially because it is a "feel good" story with some merit. The 2013 presentation illustrates a classic case of how we tinker with nature to serve our needs, destroy it and then have to re-tinker in an attempt to save the environment. It is still worth watching today and if you are willing to spend 22 minutes to do so, I will tell you what has happened since Allan Savory launched his mission to save the earth. It is fascinating.

Since 2000 Savory and his Holistic Institute have received national and international awards. He won The Buckminster Fuller Challenge and praise from Prince Charles for his work and theories. "In addition, The Savory Institute was a finalist in the Virgin Earth Challenge, a 2007-2019 competition which offered a $25 million prize for whoever could demonstrate a commercially viable design that resulted in the permanent removal of greenhouse gases out of the earth's atmosphere to contribute materially in global-warming avoidance." Wikipedia Then there was the PBS documentary series A New Wild during which the series' host—M. Sanjayan, paints an extremely positive view of Savory and the Holistic method.

The home page of Allan's website references 13 million hectares of land that have been regenerated using holistic management. This, oddly, is roughly 2 million hectares less than he spoke about in his TED talk 2013. None the less, there is clear evidence that applying holistic principles is producing desirable results. The holistic movement and the regenerative agriculture movement seem in lock step and gaining momentum.

However, as usual, there is push back. The campaign to use grazing animals to stop desertification is paralleled by a different global campaign to reduce the numbers of grazing animals that destroy potential crop lands and release tons of methane to the atmosphere. Millions of ruminant animals are seriously impacting greenhouse gas emissions and global food security.

To be clear, factory farming is altogether something different than the herds proposed by Savory. His solution seems more akin to the "grass-fed" movement, which he supports, while being vehemently opposed to industrial livestock production. However, it appears to me that when it comes to scale, the Holistic methodology is smaller player than it appears at first glance. It may have greater impact in areas of the globe where small herds can actually be managed in the manner prescribed by holistic principles.

cows grazing
Unsplash - Jakob Cotton

However, the skepticism runs deeper. According to Skeptical Science, "it is not possible to increase productivity, increase numbers of cattle and store carbon using any grazing strategy, never-mind Holistic Management." "Because of the complex nature of carbon storage in soils, increasing global temperature, risk of desertification and methane emissions from livestock, it is unlikely that Holistic Management, or any management technique, can reverse climate change[41]."

In an extensive 2017 article based on an interview with Savory, Sierra Magazine takes him to task. The author, Christopher Ketcham, pushes hard for clear and understandable science related to Holistic grazing. He brings his evidence showing that more often cattle destroy the environment than nurture it. Savory agrees but counters that the key is in the management of the herd. The discussion turns to what is actually required by such "management". Stocking rates, grazing time and density are factors and the land must be closely monitored in order to move the herd at the appropriate time.

When asked, Savory declined to provide statistical evidence of actual soil regeneration, suggesting it would cause more argument and disagreement. The whole question of carbon sequestration is left unanswered. The article references an experiment in Utah showing that land free of cattle for six years regenerated on its own. Savory is undeterred and stands by his theory and the evidence of its success. In the end, Ketcham is not satisfied with Savory's answers nor with his science and comes away unconvinced.

So, here we are again trying to decide if a solution to a problem isn't in itself adding to the problem. Destroying nature is obviously easier than saving it. If the Holistic approach to desertification works in certain areas of the planet then maybe it has a real place in the universe of solutions to the existential threat of climate change that we have caused. To suggest, as Savory does, that it is the only solution to desertification seems a reach at best.