Global Issues TED Conferences

Fighting the growing deserts, with livestock: Allan Savory at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

The growing desert

Allan Savory has dedicated his life to studying management of grasslands. And if that doesn’t sound exciting, just wait, because it touches on the deepest roots of climate change and the future of the planet.

“The most massive, tsunami, perfect storm is bearing down on us,” is the grim beginning to Savory’s talk. This storm is the result of rising population, of land that is turning to desert, and, of course, climate change. Savory is also unsure of the belief that new technology will solve all of the problems. He agrees that only tech will create alternatives to fossil fuels, but that’s not the only thing causing climate change.

“Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert,” he says. It’s a process that happens if we leave ground bare, allowing water to evaporate. Even heavy rainfalls will quickly vanish. Terrifyingly, about two-thirds of the world’s land is desertifying. This is huge, because “the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil and organic matter. When we damage soils, we give off carbon.”

Even worse, we might think that only arid and semi-arid land is becoming desert, but tall grasslands are in danger as well. They can have a cancer “that we don’t recognize until it’s terminal form.”

This is mostly caused by livestock. Everyone knows this, says Savory. Scientists have known it for decades. Livestock damage the land, leading to dry ground, leading to desert. This makes sense, and turns out to be quite wrong.

TED2013_0052584_D31_3851A terrible mistake

In the 1950s, Savory helped to set aside large areas of Africa for national parks. As soon as they removed the people (to protect the animals), the land deteriorated. His theory, backed up by data, was that it was because there were too many elephants. That was “political dynamite,” he said, but a panel agreed with his assessment.

So they shot 40,000 elephants.

But the deterioration only got worse. The elephants were not the problem after all. Says Savory, “That was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life. I will carry that to my grave.” It did give Savory one thing: “I was absolutely determined to find solutions.”

Later, in California he was shocked to find similar problems in national parks, but there was no livestock nearby. So he looked at research stations where cattle had been removed, to prove that that would stop desertification. It didn’t. “Clearly,” he says, “we have never understood what is causing desertification.”

If it wasn’t livestock, as had been assumed for centuries, what was it? “What we had failed to understand was that … the soil and vegetation developed with large numbers of grazing animals.” They also had predators, and so defended themselves by making herds, which are forced to move. This movement prevented over-grazing, while periodic trampling produced good soil. It wasn’t the livestock, but the way the livestock were kept by farmers.

The problems spiral out from this failure to understand. If grass dies on its own, at the end of a season, it must decay biologically before the next growing season. If it doesn’t, it will stifle the next growth. The typical method used to deal with that is to burn the grassland. That does remove the dead grass, allowing a new crop to grow, but it is very damaging, releasing an amount of carbon equivalent to 6,000 cars/second.

Holistic management

So what can they do? “There is only one option left to climatologists and scientists. That is to do the unthinkable: to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for the herds.” Those herds mulch it down, leaving both the trampled grass and their dung. The grass is then free to grow without having damaged with fire.

Now, how do you actually do that? Herders had 10,000 years of experience moving animals, “but they had created the great man-made deserts of the world.” And then 100 years of modern science that accelerated that process. Clearly more was needed.

He studied other professions — and found new management techniques. With this, he was able to develop what he calls Holistic Management — a way of moving livestock around to mimic the patterns of nature.

The results are stunning. For location after location he shows two comparison photos, one using his technique, one not. The difference is, “a profound change,” and he’s not kidding — in some cases the locations are unrecognizable (in one case the audience gasped). Not only is the land greener, crop yields are increasing. For example, in Patagonia, an expanding desert, they put 25,000 sheep into one flock. They found an extraordinary 50% improvement in production of land in the first year.

“What we are doing globally is causing climate change, as much or more than by fossil fuels,” says Savory. It is also causing poverty, suffering, and war. “If this continues, we are unlikely to be able to stop climate change even after we have eliminated the use of fossil fuels.”

He is currently using this on 15 million hectares on five continents. He estimated that if we do it on half the available land, the growth with take in enough carbon to go back to pre-industrial levles, while feeding people.

“I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for our children, for their children, and for all of humanity.”

Allan Savory’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on»