Greener Pastures

Innovation / by John Thackara /

Dominant theory says that desertification is caused by overgrazing. Operation Hope, winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, has upended this idea—restoring degraded African grasslands into lush, green pasture.

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Hooves, not tractors
Savory has not been wholly alone in his understanding of the importance of compacting on the health of vegetation. In the early 1970s, land grant universities in Texas and Arizona designed machines to simulate the physical effects of once prevalent vast herbivore herds — such as the millions of bison that roamed North America.

These machines, such as the Dixon Imprinter, were put into operation over thousands of acres of the western US to break soil crusts and cause indentations and irregularities while laying down plant material as soil-covering litter vital to soil health. Imprinting, as the technique is called, is still practiced.

But having observed large wildlife herds close-up over more than 50 years, Savory is convinced that animal hooves, mouths, and digestive systems do this same task more effectively, with annual repeating, and at no cost. And they consume no fossil fuels.

Large herbivores do three important things:

1. Break soil crusts: Trackers have observed this for thousands of years. The effect is more pronounced when animals concentrate in large herds as they do when under threat of predation from pack hunters. The broken crust allows soil to absorb water and to breathe; it also enables more plants to germinate and establish.

2. Compact the soil under their hooves: “Anyone who has had a horse stand on their boot understands this,” jests Savory. Compaction is required for good seed to soil contact to increase germination. This is why gardeners tamp down the soil around seedlings or seeds, and some farmers put a heavy roller over certain crops after planting.

3. Return standing grass plant material (dead or alive) to the soil surface earlier than if the animals not been there. One has only to watch a cow or buffalo trample or dung to know this.

In short, the conversion of plant material to litter or dung is essential to maintaining biological decay. Machines designed to imitate animals cannot do this.

Time, not numbers
Seasonal rainfall grasslands require periodic disturbance for overall health. Savory also discovered that overgrazing was a function of time, not of animal numbers. For example, trampling for too long makes the soil powder-like, increasing erosion by wind and water. Trampling for too long also causes compaction in deeper layers, which is adverse to plant growth. And dung and urine, like most things in excess, become pollutants as feedlot animal producers soon learn.

“Whether there is one cow or a thousand does not alter the fact of overgrazing,” says Savory. “It merely changes the number of plants overgrazed if the animal(s) remain too long in the same place or returns to it too soon following grazing.”

The holistic planned grazing in Operation Hope is therefore based on the application of high physical impact — trampling, dunging and urinating — in short periods, interspersed with much longer periods for plant and soil life recovery. The aim is to minimize overgrazing through maintaining a high graze/trample:recovery ratio on the land at all times — generally no more than three days grazing always followed by three to nine months of recovery.

Operation Hope also manages livestock in a ‘predator-friendly manner.’ The livestock are held every night in portable lion-proof corrals (known as kraals in southern Africa). The kraals are portable to prevent excess dung and urine becoming pollutants. “We do not kill the lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs or cheetah” says Savory. “They are present because they are crucial to keeping wildlife moving and, thus, the land healthy.”

From Green Revolution, to brown
Savory’s work has far wider implications than desertification alone. His approach contains the elements of a new approach to agriculture.
The Green Revolution was based on high input, industrial agriculture. It involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. It increased global food production tremendously, but it has also tended severely to degrade its ecological and socio-cultural capital base in the process.

“The Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity—quite the contrary,” charges Savory. “Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss, and oxidation of soil organic matter have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution.”

The good news, according to Savory, is that this can all be reversed - indeed, this is what Holistic Management practitioners have been engaged for the past 40 years. “We posit the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.”

Viewed holistically, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change, are not three issues, they are one, he explains. “Without reversing desertification, climate change cannot be adequately addressed.”

“The more humid and biologically productive regions of the world will have to develop agricultural models based on small, biodiverse farms, imitating the natural, multi-tiered vegetation structures of these environments. This is where most of the grain, fruits, nuts, and vegetables will be produced, as well as most of the dairy products, and some of the meat.”

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