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June 13, 2010

How livestock might revitalize degraded agricultural lands

by Darious Dixon

Allan Savory's project, titled "Operation Hope," is an ongoing effort to reverse the desertification that is spreading across the world's savannas and grasslands like a disease. It is rapidly changing farmland into deserts.

What makes the effort unusual for Savory, a biologist, is his use of what he called "the most universally condemned tool in the world" -- livestock. Farming is perhaps the oldest means by which humans have affected the world's climate.

The destruction of healthy soil by compaction, overgrazing and toxic levels of manure that poison the earth and emit climate-warming methane are some of the reasons raising livestock has traditionally been discouraged as an environmentally conscious farming technique.

But Savory was not impressed by environmentalists' arguments, nor by the efforts of commercial seed companies to engineer genetically modified crops to be drought-resistant. "Any scientist can grow green plants with technology," he said. What was unsustainable was "to be growing more green plants on soil that is failing us."

The technique Savory devised does not simply rotate the herds from one nearby plot of land to another but couples their migration with military precision.

Key to the procedure, he said, was to protect the animals from predators at night while continuing to move the herd during the day, as if they were being followed by lions and other stalkers. By doing so, his herding teams can recreate some of the environmental patterns that existed before human communities domesticated the animals and concentrated their distribution.

The technique calls for controlling the herd's movements with great timing. Savory adapted his techniques of command and control from the British Army. All of this, he said, was to ensure that the animals be "in the right place at the right time, for the right reasons and the right behavior," so that they do not overwhelm the vegetation.

In the beginning, the damage was small

It may sound like a nutty idea to some, but Savory's before-and-after results presented graphic proof that it can work. Last week, Savory and a sister organization based in his native Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, were awarded the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Challenge prize for their creative techniques in sustainable agriculture. The prize was announced by the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

At the beginning of human experiments with agriculture, the effects of changing the patterns of nomadic traditions and thus altering the landscape to suit the farmer's specific purpose were negligible for small communities.

But as the world prepares to welcome its 9 billionth person by 2050, new methods of cultivating crops without ecological hazard are increasingly difficult and problematic. Choosing the wrong agricultural technique can have major consequences on global climate and human society.

"Twenty civilizations have failed due to environmental degradation," explained Savory, who is president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He said the degradation in almost all of the cases was due to poor agricultural management, calling it "a 10,000-year-old problem."

It is no longer small. Thirty-eight percent of the world's land area is in danger of becoming desert, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment this February and announced on NASA's Earth Observatory website. Much of the loss to desertification has been due to overuse or poor farming techniques, which eventually lead to Dust Bowl-like conditions causing droughts, erosion, conflict and human migration.

The loss of soil to desert sands not only renders most of the land unusable for agriculture, it also takes away a critical tool for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Soil is classified by the U.S. Geological Survey as "the most stable long-term surface reservoir for carbon." The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that soil, as a sink for carbon dioxide, provides a larger reservoir than either vegetation or the atmosphere, calling its sequestration capabilities "unparalleled."

The Fuller prize, now in its third year, is intended to encourage "anticipatory" solutions to "humanity's most pressing problems." Submissions for the competition tackled most of the big-ticket issues, including energy and water consumption, poverty and climate change.

The six finalists each had an overview of their work presented in a short video, which is available on the BFI website. Projects ranged from an infrastructure model for diverting Chicago's rainwater into Lake Michigan to a solar panel installation training program for rural women in Africa. Along with verification, each project is graded on feasibility, ecological responsibility and ease of replication at different scales.

Allegra Fuller Snyder, daughter of the famous inventor and architect Richard Buckminster Fuller and co-founder of BFI, attended the ceremony to greet the finalists. She said that the challenge was an extension of her father's legacy, as his ideas were often considered unconventional for his time, as well.

Fuller is best known for his design of geodesic domes, familiar to any visitor of Disney's Epcot Center and every student of chemistry, who will know his name for the buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball, a spherical arrangement of 60 carbon atoms that resemble Fuller's domes. The challenge competition began on a five-year funding.

After the ceremony completed, Savory and his wife, Jody Butterfield, said similar desertification reversal efforts were taking place in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the northeastern United States.

Savory said their effort in Zimbabwe already receives some funding from the government, so the prize money will go toward improving the living conditions of the herders and laborers whose round-the-clock efforts make his system work.

Scientific American

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