Can Livestock Bring Back Biodiversity?

January 25, 2013

Image of Allan Savory and William Moomaw, January 25, 2013The solution to a major challenge sometimes requires a paradigm-shifting discovery that dares to redefine and reshape conventional approaches. The endeavor to tackle desertification, maintain biodiversity, and improve grass cover is one such case in point where a counter intuitive practice called Holistic Management – using livestock to actually restore depleted grasslands – has been surprisingly effective.

Allan Savory, a rancher and restoration ecologist, the founder of the Savory Institute, and the originator of Holistic Management, shared his remarkable journey during a talk titled Reversing Global Warming while Meeting Human Needs: An Urgently Needed Land-Based Option at The Fletcher School. Through his approach to reversing desertification, Savory has transformed large tracts of degraded land in Africa and four other continents.

The conventional view is that overgrazing by livestock is destructive to plants and soils and that removing them from the land heals desertification. In the early days, Savory himself was also skeptical of the usefulness of livestock and in his own words “condemned and hated” them. “I thought if we could get rid of livestock and learn to manage the wild population, we could solve the problem. I was wrong,” Savory told the audience.

Watch Savory's full presentation below, or continue reading for the complete event summary. Video of the Q&A following his presentation is available here and a 12-minute excerpt showing examples of grassland restoration is available here. 

While it directly conflicted with his training as a scientist and world-wide beliefs, he eventually concluded that overgrazing has little to do with animal numbers; instead it has everything to do with the timing of grazing. Savory observed that livestock can, in fact, play a vital role in restoring grasslands. Resting the land is the main cause of desertification as Savory showed with evidence from both national parks and research plots, the opposite of traditional beliefs. By dramatically increasing the number of animals on the land in combination with a plan that prevents overgrazing, Savory is able to reestablish the proper ruminant balance that grassland ecosystems evolved with and thus successfully reverse desertification.

In this management practice, closely packed livestock are regularly moved under a grazing schedule to cover land or crop fields with dung, urine, and litter. Like many revolutionary ideas, his theory was not instantly acknowledged in academic and policy circles because it challenged the conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, the demonstrable success of his work across many regions underscored the power of his holistic approach and received recognition from many of his original critics.

2004 image of desertification, Allan Savory.2007 image of restoration, Allan Savory

Stating the importance of the grasslands, Savory said the soil is the greatest reservoir of fresh water and can also store a substantial quantity of atmospheric carbon. Desertification makes the available rainfall ineffective because it evaporates out again from the bare hot surfaces and removes the ability of the land to act as a carbon sink. 

Savory believes that desertification, biodiversity loss, and climate change are inter-related and essentially symptoms of the same problem. In his view, without addressing biodiversity loss and desertification, the issue of climate change cannot be adequately addressed.

Lamenting the loss of biodiversity, Savory said, “We are facing the most dangerous period, the gravest time in the history of humanity. We are doing so in a time of great confusion when a lot of the confusion is deliberately being sown in the public minds for profit motives, and also we have a massive disconnect from nature’s reality – our connection with the environment and life support system.“

Savory said, “The prevailing view is that agriculture will have to adapt to climate change; however, we cannot adjust to climate change; we cannot just mitigate climate change. We have to address it. Climate change will continue because of agriculture and desertification even in a post fossil fuel world.”

Stressing the need for effective policies, Savory outlined three essential characteristics of a successful policy: it should be achievable; it must address the causes of climate change; and it must not have negative social, environmental, and economic impacts. Savory said that the three tools – technology, fire, and resting land – are the only tools even considered by range or climate scientists, but that fire and resting land cause desertification, and no technology imaginable can reverse it. Only large herbivores in vast numbers with the micro-organisms in their gut can sustain biological decay every year in the vast grasslands of the world. The solutions must happen through policies that promote the use of livestock and the small organisms that enable them to digest plant material. These organisms are part of the digestive process of herbivores. They break down organic matter to make nutrients available to the soil, which is integral to the process of regenerating soil health, water and carbon storage.

Savory said, “Given the scale of the challenge, technological solutions are not an option, because the risk of unintended consequences is extraordinarily high. We can use fire, but it gets black carbon into the atmosphere. We have got no option but to introduce livestock as a tool. We cannot go on being wrong. We have to understand the world where grass and soil co-developed. The nature works in a wholesome manner.”

In the U.S., vast amounts of money have been spent on soil conservation measures, and yet success is nowhere in sight. Savory reminded the audience that if the loss of biodiversity, desertification, and climate change continue, and if we fail to develop sustainable and successful methods, the threat of social upheaval, political unrest, violence, and genocide will continue to loom large, putting human survival at stake.

Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD Candidate F13