Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Add cows, cut cars

Posted by Charles II on July 22, 2011

It’s more complicated than that. But Judith Schwartz of The Guardian did a nice, easy-to-follow explanation of how proper livestock and range management can help actually reverse global warming.

When we consider our CO2 predicament, we tend to fault our love affair with the car and the fruits of industry. But the greater culprit has been agriculture…

So, how do we get that carbon out of the air and back into the soil? Some suggest placing calcium carbonate or charcoal (aka “biochar”) directly into agricultural soil (see “Black Is the New Green,” Conservation, Summer 2010). But a growing number of soil and agricultural scientists are also discussing a low-tech, counterintuitive approach to the problem that depends on a group of unlikely heroes: cows.

Perhaps the most steadfast advocate of this future is Allan Savory. A 76-year-old native of Zimbabwe, Savory has the relaxed, weathered look of a lifelong outdoorsman … Cattle, he began to realize, could play—if properly managed—the crucial role in grassland ecology that used to be occupied by herds of wild herbivores. They could help prevent and even reverse land degradation and the desertification of grasslands

Savory’s singular insight is that grasslands and herbivores evolved in lockstep with one another. This means that to be healthy, grasses need to be grazed.

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Savory continued to refine his framework and expand his training programs, and today his successes have become hard to ignore. Farmers, ranchers, and other land stewards who have attended his training programs have brought land back from the brink across Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. In 2010, his Zimbabwe nonprofit, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, received a $4.8 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to expand its work in Africa. More recently, Savory won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge prize, a prestigious award that supports a proposal with “significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.”

The centerpiece of Savory’s work is the 2,630-hectare Dimbangombe Ranch in northwestern Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls, home to his Africa Centre for Holistic Management. In the hot, dry, depleted landscape of this region, “the rains are not what they used to be” is a frequent refrain. But Dimbangombe looks as though it’s been uniquely favored by the rain gods. It has lush, varied grasses, flowing rivers and streams, and thriving livestock—some four times the number of neighboring ranches. Thanks to the renewed flow of the Dimbangombe River, elephant herds no longer have to travel to pools but can water on the river. Women who used to walk as much as five kilometers daily for water now have it available in their communities. Dimbangombe has become productive and vibrant while its neighbors, and similar environments around the globe, are turning to desert. How? “Two things: we brought in increased cattle numbers with holistic planned grazing, and [we] minimized the fires,” says Savory.

The other key intervention, creating firebreaks, put a stop to uncontrolled clearing fires and to fires set by animal poachers, who sometimes torch the grass to obliterate their tracks.

In one hour, says Savory, a half-hectare fire pumps as much CO2 and other pollutants into the air as 4,000 car trips.

With these strategies applied in Dimbangombe, “each year things got better and better,” Butterfield recalls. “Gradually over the years, the grass was thickening up and the ground would close in, covered with plants. Then we started noticing, ‘oh, the wetlands are expanding along the upper reaches of the river.’ We started seeing sedges and reeds growing many yards up from the riverbanks and could now see a huge swath that was becoming wetland. In the past few years especially, it’s been quite dramatic.”

Allan Savory, in his laconic way, makes it all sound elementary. “All we’ve done really is make the rainfall more effective.”

The key to improving water conditions lies in the carbon cycle. In Savory’s words, “The fate of carbon and water tend to follow each other.” Carbon in the soil acts as a giant sponge, keeping rain water in the ground rather than allowing it to stream off. “Every one-percent increase in soil carbon holds an additional 60,000 gallons of water per acre,” says Steven Apfelbaum, founder of Applied Ecological Services, Inc., a landscape-restoration company based in Brodhead, Wisconsin. “This means reduced erosion and sedimentation and downstream flooding.”

So soil carbon has huge implications for climate change. Rattan Lal, Distinguished Professor of soil science in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, estimates that soil-carbon restoration can potentially store about one billion tons of atmospheric carbon per year. This means that the soil could effectively offset around one-third of human-generated emissions annually absorbed in the atmosphere.

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