Powerful Thinking on Agriculture to match Ecocities, continued

Powerful Thinking on Agriculture to match Ecocities, continued

Jody Butterfield and Allan Savory




Check out the surprises in store for me when I read some about his work, and that of his wife Jody Butterfield.

Surprise number one: Savory was the first person and only person in my reading who I who I have found who says as I have from time to time that we simply have not thought systematically enough to reverse climate change. Savory looks at the problem holistically enough and on a large enough scale to draft the biology of the planet to serve in the battle to reverse – not adapt to or slow down but reverse – global heating. His particular proposal is to draw CO2 back down into the soil from which it has been shunted by human activities into the atmosphere. More on that shortly.

My point for years now has been that society has not proportionalized well enough and set priorities to deal in the most powerful ways available with our major problems. The accepted and easier pattern is to try to improve what we are already doing, much of it in principle wrong in the first place, actually intrinsically destructive. The alternative approach to solve big problems is simply to start thinking big and holistically from the start. What are the largest ecological problems we face? Start from there: Population, the base demand of humans to appropriate energy in the form of food from solar energy, chlorophyll and the plants of the world, and where we eat meat, from there too. This with 7 billion plus humans require colossal acreage and in present management is, as Allan Savory points out, shifting carbon from the soil of the earth to the sky. He says when you consider the enormous loss of soil and its nutrients it amounts to about the same load of CO2 shifting into the atmosphere as contributed by burning fossil fuels, probably more. Two problems here, actually, both the loss of soil and its organic matter due to degradation and desertification of soils and the outright ill advised burning of vast areas, often in the theory that it’s good for grasslands.

In other words, he is dealing with two of the primary problems that are really large and key to our future: population and agriculture. The other one, our specialty in Ecocity Builders, is the built environment of cities, towns and villages, the home of about 95% of us humans.

Once we recognize what the really big problems are we need to give them priority and apply what Savory calls “holistic management.” We can’t be reactive but rather systematic, seeking basic principles and taking the stance of observing very stringently how nature actually seems to be working.

Resilience is a good idea as far as it goes and the word is quite popular these days – who doesn’t believe it’s a good idea to be able to react well to changing circumstances. But that leaves to some other sources the initiative to which we must react. But when it comes to climate change, adaptation or even mitigating – making less damaging – is not good enough. Sometimes “resilience” is even seen as a superior concept to guide our actions than “sustainability”. But it is not as good as understanding most important principles in the most basic ways we can about what went wrong and trying to think through creating something new and different. We need to take fresh initiative from more basic principles than even the best of reacting to the forces as they appear to impinge upon us from the outside. In fact, they have been created based on misunderstandings in the first place – by us! We have in fact created these problems we now need to solve as powerful but ill-advised initiatives. The objective should, then, be a better creative process hitched to a better understanding of what is actually happening. Then we might be able to solve problems at the most basic level possible. Perhaps this approach could be profound enough to return us to the dynamic relative stability of the climate system, atmosphere, biosphere and soils. The planet’s soils and atmosphere have maintained a self-correcting healthy balance for the thriving of life for hundreds of millions of years… until humans and our technologies came along and started creating the wrongly conceived things. What if we started creating correctly conceived (healthy) things?

Surprise number two: I’ve “grown up” hearing repeatedly with few disputing the “fact” that pastoral people and their grazing have destroyed soils around the world and turned grasslands to desert. We are talking absolutely immense acreage here. So when I heard Allan (who I’ve been writing to lately and hence think of by first name) say he advocated enlarged herds of large herbivores to bring the soil back to health, I was hearing something very new and strange to my ears. Not that overgrazing didn’t happen in the past causing vast erosion, but grazing of particular kinds ill informed by lack of observation of the way nature actually works on healthy grasslands.

Cattle on The Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe

You may remember my recent refrains that there is no reason cities can’t restore soils with organic waste and enhance, not erode biodiversity both locally and averaged around the world. We just have to make that a priority and go for it, design for it. So when I heard the vast concentrated herds of bison, wild horses, wildebeest, zebra and so on healed soils in a dramatic way I decided this was something to consider most seriously. Allan was definitely proportionalizing right.

In my construct of the proportionally large things we cannot postpone dealing with, the largest impact activities of humans, what I came up with was: 1.) base population of people and therefore their food and basic clothing and shelter demands, 2.) the agricultural/diet nexus which covers most of the even slightly productive soils of the planet and, 3.) the built environment of the wrong kind of city, the city built for, by and of machines instead of humans mainly going about on foot in their cultural/economic lives with potentially positive effect.

So he pricked up my ears, I listened and this is what I heard. If I could garner some seriously good news on agriculture from Allan, for one thing, my new book on ecocities and economics in the larger context would be far improved.

Here’s what big animals do on grasslands

Large herbivores for millions of years evolved with the carnivores and grasses, flowers, herbs and scrub bush lands of the world. Think the Bison of the US Great Plains moving in their tightly clumped millions and the almost endless herds of animals we’ve all seen in nature films of Africa. Wildebeest, zebra, gazelles…. Similar patterns prevailed almost everywhere such conditions exist, the conditions being a temperature and moisture range that provides sufficient time for growing and water for the plants, and thus for the animals too. These lands are on the dry side and have spotty forest patches or none at all. What happens is the large herbivores spread manure and urine across the landscape, richly fertilizing the soil. But in addition, the compact herds mix up the soil and excrement nutrients – along with the seeds of the plants they’ve been eating – by punching the hooves down into the earth a few inches. This “herd effect,” as Savory calls it, mixes up the seeds at various depths with dirt and manure, many seeds at precisely the right level below the surface and right concentration of fertilizer “dilluted” in the dirt  for optimal germination.

Imagine instead the typical herd seen in the US west today: a thin scattering of cattle, with all the predators killed off, dropping their droppings and pee in isolated places and traveling on to graze basically separately, not clumping together with their bovine brethren otherwise they are stuck in feed lot where their excrement is so intensely concentrated as to be a major pollutant. Scattered as they are when on the range they don’t scrunch around with their hooves mixing excrement with dirt but instead deposit seeds in their droppings in such an intense concentration of nutrients, in intense competition with other seeds upon sprouting and sitting on the surface not in the medium they grow best in. Meantime the cowboys aren’t keeping the herd together to do what many wild herds do managed largely by predators, but are off somewhere mending fences.

The massing of natural herds of wild large herbivores is defensive. It makes it difficult for predators to attack and kill many of the grass-eating animals, which is one of the main reasons for the tight clumps of animals. Says Allan, the males have horns not for defense against predators but for sparing with other males for mates. The back side of the animals have dangerous hooves powered in back kicks by the enormous muscles of their rears, the same muscles which make fast take off and running possible. The carnivore’s task is largely to try to separate out individuals for attacks on the neck and shoulder area of the herbivore. So the tight packing of animals is partially for defense. In addition, the tight packing of animals means the soil can get optimally mixed up for seeding the next generation of grasses and other prairie plants. The animals both herbivores and carnivores, grasses and flowers and bushes, and the worms and microbes, insects and prairie dogs, meercats, rabbits, snakes, burrowing owls and on and on that live in and on the soil have all evolved together and the pattern had been working beautifully for exceedingly rich biodiversity and very high soil organics and CO2 holding capacity come ice ages and interglacial periods and millions and millions of years. Along comes a rain – most seeds well mixed into the dirt can wait a season or two or even through long droughts – and sprout they do with no human-applied fertilizer required, nor artificial irrigation nor machines nor gasoline nor diesel fuel nor insecticide nor herbicide.

That’s the way nature worked for eons. Human management was more random and not holistic. People have failed to notice what was going on in nature or simply couldn’t for reasons of lack of resources or ability to control their mobile domesticated meat, milk, wool, skin, bone and horn mines that have been our animals for generally fifteen to ten thousand years. Often human owned herds were small in number down to a desperate family’s single animal. Remember the coup de grace of the foliage and soil of the Atlas Mountains by lonely random goats belonging to very poor people. Almost uniformly overgrazing was seen as simply grazing too much and not as a factor of what actually happened when the grazing was going on. Pastoralist, Allan Savory points out, have often been thereby unfairly vilified since when they do manage well they can actually restore health to landscapes.

Pumping water and CO2 back into the soil

He goes much further, though, in not just pointing out but in actually managing his Zimbabwe ranch to prove that large numbers of cattle or other large herbivores can treat absolutely massive areas of land adding soil moisture and chemicals nutritious for soil health to the degree that streams long gone and waterholes and ponds actually return to desert landscapes. These are landscapes made desert by bad management of the very animals that can restore the landscapes to health. He says the amount of water the soil can retain is truly phenomenal. Allan points out that there’s a great difference between incident rainfall and effective rainfall; the first can run off in flash floods and evaporate quickly back into the air. Effective rainfall, however, is the water absorbed by the land, largely facilitated by the plants that break the fall of raindrops, aid in fluffing up the earth to receive the moisture with their own roots including the dead roots of the sod, as well as from the fibrous organic matter from the manure, and, shading the soil to prevent the rapid evaporation that happens when lack of shade produces hotter surface temperatures. That’s a lot of factors working to retain water in the soil. Then if you imagine a few years going by with that kind of management, natural or by humans and their animals, you can begin to see how the water could accumulate in the ever more porous soil and begin moving under ground as ground water aquifers bubbling up in low spots as creeks and ponds. This is exactly what happens on the land he and his wife and employees manage.

Thinking of all this and his statement that the amount of water that can be sequestered in this manner is nothing less than awesome and a game changer for water balances in the biosphere – even hydro and lithospheres – struck me as likely to be a profound truth. I was recalling flying over vast areas of the world looking down from airplanes at very thin lines of waterways glinting in the sun and noticing the “dry” land could be measured in the many thousands of times the area of the flowing waterways of the continents, all land below stuffed like a sponge with water? Well, largely anyway.

As the sod builds, and it can happen quite rapidly if enough animals populate the land and in the patterns of herds clumped well together producing good mixing of manure, seed and earth, the soil sucks enormous amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere, as well as water out of the rain. Then he goes so far as to say it is the only system he knows that could possibly have the power to absorb so much CO2 out of the atmosphere as to arrest CO2 building up in the atmosphere and begin returning it to the soil.

Allan also points out that the animals produce methane in their digestive process and so does decomposition of a certain amount of their manure and just general decomposition of dead grass roots and various leaves and twigs. This methane is a more active greenhouse heat trapping gas than carbon dioxide but occurs in far less quantity. But he says that in normal conditions the soil takes up and process methane too, breaking it down and rendering a net balance that has held the whole atmosphere in balance for millions of years. What he means by “holistic” management has to be this big: to embrace the whole thing!: earth, water, air, energy, minerals, biological action (us animals and plants) and intelligence (which seems to be innate in these natural processes we are talking about now and can be learned in our own minds).

Elegant wording of the principle

I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes when learning about Allan Savory’s work. It was from Alfred W. Crosby’s book, Ecological Imperialism – The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, 1986 p. 173: “…these animals are self-replicators, the efficiency and speed with which they can alter environments, even continental environments, are superior to those for any machines we have thus far devised.”

In Allan’s own words in a letter he sent to me two days ago, “No technology can ever replace billions of organisms in the moist gut of large herbivores cycling billions of tons annually dying plant material while also laying soil covering litter. And why should we ever try to do this with such machines as were developed, all using fossil fuels, when animals do it free using solar energy and feeding people?”

We all know that in many places there has been a long history of rapid population expansion, so I looked up United Nations figures on population expansion all over the world and in his part of Africa in Particular where, other than in just a couple Moslem countries, we are seeing the fastest growth on the planet. The UN population researchers had a nice symmetrical 100 year set of figures what looked at the last approximately 60 years and projected into the next 40 years, with the assumption based on trends, that population growth in Africa as well as most of the rest of the world would gradually slow. In particular they were looking at the period from 1950 to 2050. I said to Allan that it looked to me that these figures would absolutely override any kind of range management, what did he think?:

Zimbabwe would see a multiplication of population 8.1 times over, Sudan 8.3 times over, Rwanda 10.2, Ethiopia and Somalia 10.4, Kenya, 14.0 and Uganda 17.0. He answered as follows.

Population is of course serious and yes we very much bring it into our work – just do not talk about it because it aggravates the situation – something I learned long ago in Africa if a white talks about it then it turns racial tragically. This is dying out slowly.  We point out that almost all the strife here is due to deteriorating land and rising population – the two collide with tragedy as we see repeatedly.  To deal with it our mainstream NGO’s have three kneejerk responses — put in boreholes and dams to provide water (and the situation gets worse), feed starving mothers and children and treat diseases (and family size gets bigger and problem gets worse) and the third thing is to improve the economy with micro-banking, access roads to markets, etc (and family size gets bigger and problem worse).

I gave a talk on these lines in Northern Kenya not long ago and a woman from USAID came up to me after and said Oh how right you are. We have done all that for forty years here and now there are five times as many people killing each other.

So to deal with this we stress – put in your projects but make sure that some money is always going to two things – teaching people to reverse the land degradation (as we demonstrate here  [at his ranch in Zimbabwe]) and educating and empowering women.  Only the latter seems to lead to family size balancing with resources.

These population ideas seem to me as solid as Allan’s ideas about regenerating grasslands from deserts, if far more conventionally accepted by healthy workers and Planned Parenthood around the world if not the Catholic Church. Imagine his whole systems “holistic management” could include a gradual scaling back to a sustainable number of humans as well as animals, and we could conceivably imagine shifting back to many more natural animals on the land too. We might then imagine a more balanced human diet with ultimately less meat. That’s what would make for more room for the natural plant and animal communities doing their ancient and traditional job of maintaining soil, water and atmospheric gas balances. Multiply that by enormously reduced human impact by people through building cities for people instead of cars and we have a serious approach to very long term return to healthy evolution for out planet. My biggest surprise of all in learning about Savory, is that by combining forces and “holistically managing” population, agriculture (largely through – surprise! – grazing) and the ecocity transition we might see the sort of surprise coming to pass that could actually overwhelm all those negatives that are compounding at this same time.

Richard Register is founder and president of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at ecocity@igc.org

Richard Register
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