Yesterday’s Farm, Today’s Desert

Almost all resources come from the ground. But what happens when we destroy the ground?

Balbina Nyoni knows how quickly fertile land can turn to desert. When she was a girl growing up in Sianyanga, Zimbabwe, her home was beautiful. A small river flowed through her village. The vegetation of the savanna was so thick that it was difficult to walk through. Her family’s livestock always had plenty of food and water.

When Nyoni was a teenager, her environment began to change. First, the river where she swam as a child dried up. Then the vegetation began to die. The ground became dry and bare. The land could no longer support herds of grazing animals. People had to travel farther away in search of water and forage for their cattle. Sometimes, the village men had to be away from home for months in order to herd their cattle far enough to find new water sources.

By the time Nyoni became a mother, she was struggling with hunger and a lack of clean water. Colonies of izinyebe, stinging ants, covered the soil. Their stings felt like scalding water pouring over her skin. Nyoni wrapped her feet in plastic to protect them, but the ants still ate her vegetable garden and the eyes of her baby goats.

By the time Nyoni was 37 years old, her beautiful childhood home had become a barren wasteland. “I wake up very early to travel several kilometers to fetch water before it gets too hot,” she told Global Press journalist Gertrude Pswarayi in 2011. “By the time I return home, I will be so exhausted, but I still have to fetch firewood, prepare a meal for my family and do an endless list of other domestic chores, such as cleaning and washing clothes.”

Eventually, the villagers became reliant on international food aid in order to survive. In less than a lifetime, their land had disintegrated into desert.

Sianyanga is not the only place where fertile land has been destroyed. Worldwide, more than 45,000 square miles of arable land turn to desert each year. If this rate of destruction were to continue, two thirds of the planet’s landmass would be desert by the end of this century: most of Africa, Australia, Central Asia and the western United States.

How bad is desertification, really? Will it affect you? And can it be reversed?

Soil Degradation

Desertification may be the greatest environmental threat facing humanity. One study conducted by the Economics of Land Degradation, backed by the United Nations, found that expanding deserts could drive 50 million people from their homes within a decade. It could also reduce global food production by 12 percent over 25 years, resulting in higher prices, malnutrition or starvation.

To stave off this crisis, UN officials have called on governments to tax meat and milk consumption in an attempt to reduce methane emissions from cattle and other livestock. Their argument is that methane from cattle flatulence is insulating the planet to an unnatural extent, altering weather patterns and causing deserts to spread. According to Prof. Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of a UN report on resource management, a global shift toward a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger and poverty.

While the threat of spreading deserts is real, this UN plan to halt desertification is dangerously flawed.

Methane emissions do not create deserts. Actually, increased levels of greenhouse gases have helped boost green foliage in some of the world’s most arid regions.

So what causes deserts?

In temperate and subtropical climates with a rainy season and a dry season, vegetation is necessary to hold moisture in the soil between the rains. But for this kind of vegetation to thrive, it needs a healthy soil containing decomposed plant and animal matter. This organic matter is called humus. Once the humus content of the soil falls below a certain threshold (3.5 percent in most temperate climates), both the nutrient storage capacity and the water storage capacity of the soil decline. This reduces the ability of plants to survive a long dry season. Once humus content drops below 1 percent, traditional farming is no longer possible.

This is exactly what happened in Sianyanga, Zimbabwe, during the latter half of the 20th century.

For years, the villagers cut down shade trees for firewood. They burned down natural grasses for cropland and herded their cattle into much smaller grazing areas (paddocks) where they remained day after day. They grew corn on the same plots of land. What they did not realize is that the humus content of the soil was depleting. Fields that formerly yielded 2,000 pounds per acre barely produced 100 pounds per acre. Meanwhile, cattle paddocks were overgrazed to the point where the soil dried up from direct exposure to the sun. A once fertile ecosystem became an expanse of dry dust, only able to support colonies of stinging ants.

Ecosystem Management

Deserts spread through soil degradation caused by mismanagement like deforestation, overgrazing and crop monocultures. Scientists estimate that Earth’s soil has lost 25 to 75 percent of its original humus content since the dawn of human agriculture. While the drylands of Africa and Central Asia are the regions hardest hit, the most intensively used agricultural soils of Europe and North America have also been depleted.

Many farms in the U.S. have humus values below 2 percent. They are able to sustain high crop yields only by using chemical fertilizers and intensive irrigation. But such industrial farming techniques work only for so long. Once the soil’s humus content falls below 1 percent, even chemical fertilizers start losing their effect.

The only way to reverse soil degradation is to stop destroying humus and start creating it. While UN scientists might find this fact ironic, the best way to create humus involves herds of methane-producing cattle.

In the 1950s, wildlife biologist Allan Savory observed parkland in Northern Rhodesia where roving herds of grazing animals were blocked from entering. A strange thing happened: The soil began deteriorating.

Savory concluded that the plant life of an ecosystem is just as dependent on the animal life as the animal life is on the plant life. Desertification did not occur in healthy ecosystems where herds of antelope, buffalo, gazelles, wildebeest and zebra grazed on the grass. This was because the hooves of the animals aerated the soil, and their manure fertilized the land. But when the animals were killed or driven away, the soil degraded and the land turned to dust and sand.

Over several decades, Savory developed a set of principles designed to increase the humus content of arid soil. Under Savory’s Holistic Management Plan, domesticated livestock are used to fulfill the role that wild herds formerly performed.

Cattle nibble down grasses in a way that promotes growth. Their hooves trample dead plant matter into the soil to be decomposed by microorganisms. They add organic matter to the soil in the form of manure. Because the herds are moved regularly, continual grazing doesn’t damage the plant cover to the point the soil is overexposed.

When the villagers of Sianyanga reached out to Savory’s Africa Center for Holistic Management in 2006, the first thing the staff recommended was pooling the village cattle into a single herd. The animals were herded through all the paddocks, never spending more than a few days in any one place, but spending each night in an enclosure to keep them safe from predators. They would return to that enclosure each night for a week or two, then the enclosure would be moved. The animals would aerate and fertilize the soil in the enclosure so effectively that the enclosure also became a tool they could use to prepare an entire crop field. This usually required several moves of the enclosure to cover the whole field. The grazing areas surrounding the fields also benefited from the herd, and grass was able to grow again. This system was designed to mimic the natural effects a herd of cape buffalo would have on the land.

After seven years of these techniques, the land surrounding Sianyanga started to become fertile again. Most of the ants have left, and the riverbank is covered with grass. Water has even started flowing in the riverbed for part of the year. The revived landscape has attracted wild animals back to the area, and the crop yield of the village fields has tripled. According to Savory’s wife, Jody Butterfield, the increased yield was “the difference between feeding your family for two months versus feeding them for the better part of a year.”

Instead of relying on international food aid, most residents can now feed themselves. Some even export food to surrounding villages. There is still a lot of work to be done to restore Sianyanga to the paradise Balbina Nyoni remembers from her childhood.

The way to stop desertification is to stop degrading the soil, such as with crop monocultures. Animals and plants need to be raised together on bio-integrated farmsteads that keep soil ecosystems healthy.

“There is only one option, I’ll repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable, and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature,” Savory stated during a ted Talk in 2013. “There is no other alternative left to mankind.”

Land Sabbath

What biologists like Allan Savory likely do not realize is that many of the ecologically sustainable principles they espouse were revealed to the ancient Israelites at Mount Sinai some 3,500 years ago.

One Old Testament law that critics mock is the land sabbath. God commands people to let their land rest every seven years from crop production. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard” (Leviticus 25:2-4).

During the land sabbath, no crops can be sown or sold. Nothing can be harvested except what people pick from their personal gardens for their own consumption. Grain stored during the previous six years can still be sold, but the land sabbath severely discriminates against landowners who rely solely on crops for their income. This is a major reason God instituted this law. Growing crops is good—but if not controlled, it becomes a lethal weapon against the soil.

“[T]he land sabbath uses the sheer power of economics to encourage farmers to adopt a diversified program; based on livestock and the production of meat, milk, eggs, wool, etc,” reported the December 1971issue of the Your Living Environment series, produced by the agriculture department of Ambassador College in Bricket Wood, England. “It encourages grassland farming (the feeding and fattening of livestock on grass), rather than excessive dependence on cereal grains as animal feed. It discourages an excessive dependence on crops that require annual sowing and harvesting. And it encourages small vegetable gardens, diversified and intensively managed. Interestingly enough, by encouraging just such a program, God induces farmers to adopt the ideal fertility-building methods.”

Instead of robbing the soil of nutrients until the land turns to desert, God’s agricultural laws ensure that the soil is rejuvenated at least once every seven years by the microbe-rich manure of grazing herds. There is a reason God promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. Where there is milk, there are cattle. Where there is honey, there are bees. Both cattle and bees are vital to a healthy ecosystem with enriched soil and vibrant plant life.

God molded the first human being out of humus and gave his family stewardship over the planet. He provided mankind with instructions on how to sustain the environment, including these two principles: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet tragically, mankind as a whole has selfishly depleted the soil and failed to take care of the planet entrusted to them.

The Bible tells us that a time is soon coming when “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1). But first, mankind must learn to stop robbing the soil, and instead start regularly rejuvenating the soil so that a healthy and proactive ecosystem can be sustained indefinitely!