Grassland is the largest ecosystem on land, so what happens to grassland is important. And today, 70% of grasslands on earth have either turned into deserts or are in the process of turning into deserts. Why? What is happening?
Some areas of the earth don't get enough rainfall to grow trees but get enough to grow grass, like the Great Plains of North America, the Serengeti in Africa, or the vast Mongolian Steppe. Before the domestication of grazing animals, these grasslands were swarming with enormous herds of wild grazing animals. The grass plants and the grazing animals evolved together over millions of years. Believe it or not, they need each other like bees and flowers.
When the wild grazing herds were replaced with domesticated grazing animals, some big areas began turning into deserts. So people made the logical conclusion that domesticated animals make grasslands turn into deserts. Environmentalists decided the obvious solution is to stop domesticated animals from grazing some of these regions of land so the land could recover, but when they do it, the land doesn't recover. It continues to turn into desert.
It turns out, a desertified grassland actually needs grazing animals to thrive again.
The problem isn't the kind of animals grazing on the grass, it's the way the animals are grazing. Wild herds and domesticated herds behave differently. Do you know why?
You can answer the question yourself. What do wild grazing animals always have nearby? Predators! And the predators scare the grazers and make them crowd together in a bunch. So a herd intensively grazes one concentrated area. But of course it starts filling up with poop and piss, so the bunch moves on, and doesn't come back until the stink is gone and the grass has recovered. When a patch of land goes through this repeatedly, the grass grows in abundance. It is getting regularly fertilized and mowed. You know what the fertilizer does, but the mowing is important too.
Without mowing, grass grows tall, goes to seed, and then dies out. That is a grass plant's life cycle. And in the spring, new grass has to grow in the shade of all the dead grass from last season. The old dead grass smothers the new grass, blocking out its sunlight, so not as much grass grows the next year. The bare patches of land harden into a crust, and when rain falls on it, the water doesn't soak in as well. It runs off, taking topsoil with it, and evaporates quickly. So there's less water and nutrients in the soil, causing even less grass to grow the next season. The grassland has begun to turn to desert.
The biologist, Allan Savory, and other pioneers have found a way to mimic the effect of natural grazing animals (with their predators) – but without the predators, using domesticated animals. All a rancher has to do is bunch the animals together, either by herding them carefully or with the use of paddocks, and then move them frequently, and make sure they don't come back to the same plot of ground until the grass has recovered.
You can see some good before and after pictures in Allan Savory's TED talk called How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change. His talk is about how to manage grazing animals effectively. His method is called Holistic Management.
When ranchers begin to use Holistic Management, they have to increase the number of animals every year for a while to keep up with the increase in the amount of grass that grows. It makes the land so much more productive that it produces more food for humans, but it produces more food for the wild animals too. It turns more of the falling sunlight into grass.
In other words, Holistic Management means more of the sunlight is converted into plant material, more of the rain goes into the soil, into the plants, and into the aquifers. Less runs off and evaporates. Floods become less of a problem when they happen, and they happen less often. And the land suffers less from drought, because the more soil life, the more water it can hold. And because more of the water gets absorbed into the ground, the plants are more resilient and more able to survive drought conditions for longer. Thriving grass also cools the atmosphere and prevents soil erosion.
One of the more interesting and important effects of desertification of the largest ecosystem on earth is that when land turns to desert, it releases an enormous amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. And when this process reverses, it pulls that CO2 out of the atmosphere and puts it into the ground. That's because the life in the soil is made of carbon.
Soil life is made up of organisms ranging in size from one-celled bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa, to more complex arthropods and nematodes, to earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and of course, plants. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains millions of beneficial soil microorganisms that include thousands of species of bacteria and fungi. All of this is made of carbon. The carbon comes from the CO2 in the air, brought into the soil by plants.
Experts have estimated that using Holistic Management on only half of our barren or semi-barren grasslands would remove so much carbon from the air that our atmosphere would be like it was before the industrial age began.
Not only does Holistic Management reverse desertification, it produces food without the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides or fungicides, so it prevents the contamination of groundwater and surface-water.
Over 40 million acres of land are now being managed using Holistic Management, and the results are really quite impressive. Look at the before and after pictures in the links at the end of this article. I think you will be surprised at the results. This method is ending poverty for people who rely on these desertifying lands for their sustenance because it makes the land so much more productive.
This can help solve other problems too. There is no reason to burn the Amazon rain forest to create grasslands for cattle. There are already-existing grasslands all over the world in desperate need of grazing animals right now.
By now it should be clear that the title of this article is not an exaggeration. Holistic Management could literally save the earth in more ways than one. But what can you do about it? You can help get it adopted on a larger scale. The more ranchers who use it, the better. Here's where to start: Sign up for updates at the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International. Like them on Facebook (Savory Institute here, HMI here) and share their posts. You'll find plenty of opportunities to get involved. At the very least you can help make this information more widely known, and that will make a difference. You can do the same for our web site updates (near the top of the sidebar) and our Regenerating Grassland Facebook page (here).
And of course one simple and physical thing you can begin immediately is to buy beef and lamb that has been managed using Holistic Management. Support that industry. There are a few ways to find out if your meat has been grazed regeneratively: A New Choice For Consumers: Regenerative Organic. Also check out Applegate Farms. They sell sausages made from meat raised regeneratively. You can also ask your butcher. Sometimes they know. My local butcher, for example, sells a whole line of meat from a ranch in Montana that employs Holistic Management.
The Savory Institute also has a certification program (certifying that the land that produced the meat was managed Holistically), and more and more companies are getting certified all the time. You can track it here: Land to Market.
Simply buying the food and convincing others to buy it will make a difference. The same has already been done with organically grown grains, fruits and vegetables. There are a lot more farmers growing organic food because people voluntarily choose to buy it, even though it's often more expensive. This greater market creates more incentive for farmers to grow organically. The market for organically grown foods has been steadily growing for decades. And the greater the supply, the lower the cost, generally speaking, and as the cost to the consumer drops, more people will be willing to buy it. We can do the same thing with Holistically produced meat.
The bottom line is: The desertification of grasslands can be reversed and you can help get it done. It can happen fairly quickly. Land starts to noticeably recover within two years.
Listen to a podcast about this: Literally Saving the Earth by Regenerating Grassland.
Now look at some good before and after images of what Holistic Management can do:
Getting Results on the Land with Holistic Management
Comparison Photos of Holistically Managed Land Versus Conventionally Managed Land
The Power Of Holistic Management, In Pictures