Desertification and grazing: Quash the dogma

Most policies to tackle desertification are bound to fail. The problem will get solved as soon as they become holistic

By Allan Savory
Last Updated: Wednesday 11 September 2019

I once heard evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris say, “If we had viewed Earth from space for thousands of years, we would describe humans as a desert-making species.” Over that time, we would have watched the few natural deserts that receive almost no rainfall, expanding into regions that receive rainfall as high as 1,000 mm, or more. Such environmental degradation caused by one species is terrifying and it is entirely due to humans. This desertification is occurring in regions that experience seasonal rainfall with long dry periods and is the greatest visible sign of human presence.

Before I go any further, let’s look at the symptoms of desertification, which include increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods, poverty, social breakdown, mass emigration, violence, war and clima te change. I do not include biodiversity loss as a symptom because desertification itself is a symptom of biodiversity loss, starting with the loss of vital soil-covering plant material. Exposed soil between plants results in the available rainfall becoming less effective as water runs off the soil surface or evaporates out of soil, which is why droughts and floods increase.

Over millennia, desertification has led to the failure of many civilisations. During my lifetime (and I’m 84), trillions of dollars have been spent and millions of lives lost because we continuously address only the symptoms. We all know that to be successful, we must address the cause of a problem.

Throughout history we have blamed livestock for causing desertification — too many sheep, goats, cattle or camels over-grazing. Today, thousands of academic papers and reports attribute desertification to overgrazing by too many animals. As a young man in the 1950s, I began to notice desertification occurring in national parks and tsetse fly-infested areas in Africa, but in these areas there were no livestock at all. This made me begin to question the dogma that was being taught and my training as an ecologist.

In a 2013 TED Talk, that went viral, I showed severe desertification on research plots and land managed by USA’s National Parks Service, which did not have any livestock on it at all. What could possibly be causing desertification if it wasn’t livestock? Finding it difficult to do meaningful research in an institution, in 1964, I decided to become an independent scientist. I was helped by thousands of ranchers, farmers, pastoralists and scientists on three continents, and we established the cause, and a remedy, over the next 20 years.

What we discovered is that the cause of both desertification and climate change are the same: Management and policies that have never been able to adequately deal with the inevitable web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity. We have always believed that we have many tools to manage our environment, but all of them are aspects of ever-advancing technology, right from our first stick and stone tools.

Other than technology in various forms, the only tools we actually do have are: Fire and the idea of resting our environment. Both these tools (fire and rest) lead to desertification in seasonally arid regions.

The third tool, technology, can never be used to prevent, or reverse, desertification which is a biological problem that we can only solve using a biological solution. As I explained in the TED Talk, we have no option but to use the much-maligned livestock to help us mimic the vast herds of the past, which all soils and vegetation (in areas of seasonal rainfall) evolved with symbiotically. 

The first piece of this puzzle was how would we do it? For thousands of years, knowledgeable pastoralists herded their animals, fully aware that their entire culture was dependent on their land and stock, but this had resulted in desertification. Then, a century of modern science devised a plethora of rotational and other grazing systems, which accelerated desertification, including in those nations where range science was developed!

There was simply no known way of running livestock without exposing the soil between plants over millions of hectares, which would result in desertification. Except in the areas of our planet that experience constant humidity: In these places, no matter how livestock are managed, desertification does not occur. 


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.