TED Radio Hour
8:20 am
Fri November 15, 2013

How Can Deserts Turn Into Grasslands?

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 2:06 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Misconceptions.

About Allan Savory's TEDTalk

About two-thirds of the world's grasslands have turned into desert. Allan Savory has devoted his life to stopping it. He now believes that a surprising factor can protect grasslands and even reclaim degraded land that was once desert.

About Allan Savory

Allan Savory works to promote holistic management in the grasslands of the world. In the 1960s, while working in Africa on the interrelated problems of increasing poverty and disappearing wildlife, Savory made a significant breakthrough in understanding the degradation and desertification of grassland ecosystems.

In 1992, Savory and his wife, Jody Butterfield, formed the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, a learning site for people all over Africa. In 2010, the Centre won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for its work in reversing desertification. In that same year he and his wife, with others, founded the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colo., to promote large-scale restoration of the world's grasslands.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, so what I am about to tell you - not a misconception. About two-thirds of the world's grasslands are slowly turning into desert.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALLAN SAVORY: Now you are told over and over repeatedly that desertification is caused by livestock, mostly cattle, sheep and goats overgrazing the plants, leaving the soil bare and giving off methane. Almost everybody knows this from Nobel laureates to golf caddies - always taught it, as I was. Well, I have news for you. We were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again.

RAZ: OK, so when Allan Savory, who's an ecologist - when he said this on the TED stage in front of hundreds of scientists, you could hear the collective sound of shock. And then it got more shocking because Allan said this is the solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVORY: There is only one option. I repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists. And that is to do the unthinkable and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.

RAZ: Now here's the important thing to know. The way cows and sheep and goats graze does in fact contribute to desertification, and Allan acknowledges that fact. But those same animals can also be the solution to reversing the problem. And the origins of this idea go back to when Allan was living in Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, back in the 1950s.

SAVORY: And I used to pride myself on never living six months in an area without knowing every bird, every mammal, every grass, every tree, shrub. And most of the degradation I'd seen growing up as a youngster, we all blamed the livestock.

RAZ: You and probably most of your colleagues thought livestock were, like, the enemy, right?

SAVORY: We didn't think it. We knew it.

RAZ: So Allan's job at the time was to identify huge areas of land in southern Africa that could become protected national parks. They kicked out the native hunters and everything seemed great until Allan noticed that the grasslands were becoming deserts. And it was happening really quickly. And he thought that the elephants, by stomping around and grazing everywhere, might be causing the problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVORY: Suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They agreed with me. And over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better. That was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life. And I will carry that to my grave.

So that was a very big jolt. And so it just became the beginning of a long torturous path, striving and looking for an answer. And, like all things, accidentally almost, a breakthrough came when one day, I spotted a corner of one piece of a ranch where I got terribly excited because suddenly I was seeing better land, more litter on the soil, more diversity of species. And what I found was that sheep had bunched together and crowded - apparently during a storm - and the land had suddenly improved. And that clicked in my mind. And I realized, oh, my goodness, we can use livestock perhaps to mimic nature and mimic the wildlife herds. So let me work out how to do that.

RAZ: This was his eureka moment. It was when Allan Savory, who for years thought that herds of livestock were actually killing land - he came to the conclusion that maybe livestock could actually save the land, too, if you could just get them to mimic the way wild animals used to move and graze.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVORY: What we had failed to understand was that the soil and the vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals and that these grazing animals developed with ferocious pack-hunting predators. Now their main defense against pack-hunting predators is to get into herds. And the larger the herd, the safer the individuals. Now large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, and they have to keep moving. And it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of the soil.

RAZ: So basically when these, like, giant wild herds, right, trample over the land and go to the bathroom and leave waste and everything, this is actually vital. This is a process that is crucial.

SAVORY: Yes, and as I said in the talk, any gardener understands what I'm doing. If you've got a square meter or square yard of bare ground and ask a gardener, what should you do to get plants growing and to get the rain retained in the soil? And they'll tell you to chip it up, break the surface, cover it with litter - mulch, litter, dead plant material - and plants will begin to grow and water will be retained in the soil.

RAZ: And Allan came up with a whole system for this. He calls it holistic grazing, and the first step is kind of counter-intuitive. Think about the field where cows graze, but not...

SAVORY: Not from the point of view of the cattle. In other words, where there were poisonous plants, where there was low-lying land that could be flooded, where there were crops that would have to be avoided, where there were wildlife needs - we put all of these just out on a chart, very simply, one step at a time.

RAZ: And then you send your cows only to the best spots to graze, and then you have to figure out how not to over-graze.

SAVORY: So planning backwards from that, we worked out on average how many days we'd be in an area. Then we balanced those out for the quality of the forage. And we literally, with pencil and eraser, plotted the moves of the animals through the next few months.

RAZ: And so basically individualized field-specific diet plans for cows or sheep or goats - all livestock, really. It has been challenged. Your science has been challenged, right? And the researchers have looked at the data.

SAVORY: No, it hasn't. No, they are challenging what I'm not saying.

RAZ: What do you think they're challenging?

SAVORY: I am saying you must have no prescribed grazing rotation or system. You have to use a holistic planning process, OK? And no scientist has challenged that. What they've done is dropped that, converted it to a rotational grazing, short-duration grazing system and proved it doesn't work. Well, I said that 50 years ago.

RAZ: Allan's tested his method out on more than 40 million acres across five continents, including in a place in Africa where, across a stretch of field, he could compare his results to land where the livestock grazed in a more conventional way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SAVORY: This is land close to land that we manage in Zimbabwe. It has just come through four months of very good rains it got that year. All of that rain, almost all of it, has evaporated from the soil surface. Their river is dry, despite the rain just having ended, OK? And we have a 150,000 people on almost permanent food aid. Now let's go to our land nearby on the same day with the same rainfall and look at that. Our river is flowing and healthy and clean. It's fine. The production of grass, shrubs, trees, wildlife, everything is now more productive. And we have virtually no fear of dry years. And we did that by increasing the cattle and goats 400 percent, planning the grazing to mimic nature and integrate them with all the elephants, buffalo, giraffes and other animals that we have.

RAZ: Now this method, again, even though it did work, it made a lot of people very, very angry. When people say, like even people who you respect, they say, this is insane. This is crazy. I mean, a part of you gets that. Like, you understand why they would react that way.

SAVORY: Absolutely, 'cause it's how I reacted. I hated livestock. I was on public record in Rhodesia of saying I was performed to shoot any [bleep] rancher because they were raping the land that I was trying to save. I had to back down. I had to apologize. I had to say I was wrong. And I had to start working with ranchers and find out that the only solution was their livestock. So I understand all the shock.

RAZ: So you are - I mean, you are as sure of this as you are as sure that you were wrong about the elephants. You're that sure that you're right about this?

SAVORY: I would stake my life on it. I would love it if some scientist in the world would tell me and tell the public where I'm wrong or let us get moving.

RAZ: Allan Savory. He heads up the Savory Institute, which promotes holistic grazing. And you can see his full talk at TED.com. More misconceptions coming up. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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