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Meat is not efficient right? To feed the world we have to all eat more vegetables, right? Well actually, that might be  wrong. It turns out that the solution to climate change and potential food shortage is one and the same, at least that is the case if the idea I describe today is right. It will mean turning deserts into farm land, more food for all, and enough carbon dioxide stored in the ground to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial revolution levels. Does that sound too good to be true? Well maybe it is, but I find the arguments pretty compelling. The implications for investors are far reaching too.


The inspiration for today’s piece comes from a recent Ted Talk. Ted, in case you don’t know, is a kind of global forum where some of the world’s great thinkers present their latest ideas. That sentence is a little simplistic; in truth Ted has the strapline ‘ideas worth spreading’ and illustrates why I think the Internet is the greatest medium for promoting innovation ever invented. If everyone could be persuaded to watch one Ted talk a week, the world would be a more tolerant place. It was founded by Chris Anderson, who was the editor of a British magazine called ‘Personal Computer Games’ back in the mid-1980s. He later launched Future Publishing.

The talk that has inspired this article was presented by Allan Savory. Mr Savory is himself an interesting character. According to Wikipedia, Mr Savory, who was born in Zimbabwe, was a member of the Rhodesian parliament during the 1970s, and once made the hugely controversial comment, that if he had been born a black Rhodesian he would have become a guerrilla fighter. This wasn’t a comment that endeared him to the country’s then leader Ian Smith, who denounced him as a traitor.

One of the problems with the world today is too much desert. Savory begins by saying the most massive tsunami/perfect storm is bearing down on us. He says this storm is being created by the world’s rising population, land that is turning to desert, and climate change.

He says there is a view that these problems can be solved by technology. Mr Savory accepts that technology can solve the problem of fossil fuels by technology, but he has an additional idea. This is not an idea to replace technologies such as renewables, but an idea to go hand in hand. His proposal is both surprisingly simple and truly exciting. I guess you could sum up his problem by saying nature has had the answer all along.

Desert is caused when we create clear ground. And he reckons around two thirds of the world’s land is turning to desert. And when we clear land in such an environment, water quite simply does not hang around. It evaporates almost as quickly as the heavens can throw it down upon the soil. Such is this problem that Mr Savory was able cite examples of land that looks barren a mere 24 hours after torrential rain.

He said that the key to reversing this is soil. Top soil can soak up rain, and promote plant life. It is generally assumed that livestock is one of the main factors that causes desertification. Mr Savory’s breakthrough is to say this view is wrong.

In nature grazing animals, under constant threat from predators, congregate in massive herds. They urinate on the ground, leave faeces, and trample vegetation, leaving what Savory calls plant litter. Then these animals are forced to migrate to another area, because they have urinated on their food stock. But this plant litter that they leave serves to absorb water when it rains, which in turn promotes fertility. .

In short, massive herds of grazing animals have served to protect the environment, not destroy it as has been traditionally thought.

So Mr Savory’s solution then is to introduce livestock to deserts. The livestock has to be forced into tight herds, and moved regularly. To begin with, of course, the livestock is introduced to areas on the periphery of a desert or onto grassland in the early stages of turning, and as the soil changes it will be moved inwards.

But this idea is not just theory. It has been applied by farmers around the world to stunning effect. Some critics say: ‘But livestock is one of the causes of global warning because of the methane it emits.’ But I understand that this is partly caused by the corn they are fed; in grassland, where they eat more natural foodstock, this is less of a problem.

As we start reversing the desertification process, we create new top soil, which can act as a massive carbon store, thus sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Funnily enough, the green lobby don’t seem to like this idea, because they are used to telling us that the only way we can save the world is if we all turn vegetarian. Well, this idea seems to suggest the complete opposite.

If this is right, the implications for the food industry and indeed for sustaining a growing global population is extraordinary. For investors, the message may be: “buy desert, buy livestock”.  I think this is one the most hopeful concepts I have ever come across. For the talk, go to Allan Savory: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change

 

These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees


Showing 4 comments

  1. Michael,

    This is going to sound like a stupid question, but where is the water going to come from to keep all these livestock alive?

    Did you know that most of the methane emitted by livestock is emitted for the er… front end of the animal? Scientists in New Zealand and working on devices that can be fitted to ruminants to collect methane emissions.

    I would qualify your statement “Desert is caused when we create clear ground” by putting ‘man made’ in front of it.

    I don’t believe for example that the Sahara was caused by the actions of man. It’s extent may have been exacerbated by man – but i think its formation was due to (non-man made) climate change.

    It’s a moot point whether over the aeons of time, climate change enforced desertification was the result of the suns magnitude at the time, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the position of its orbit around the sun or even the amount of CO2, steam, methane and other greenhouse gases etc. etc.

  2. Michael Baxter

    Garry

    Regarding where the water comes from. I think the point is that that in some areas which are turning to desert, there is rain fall, but the soil is in such a condition that the water is evaporated almost immediately.

    Re deserts not caused by man. I think that one of the points that Savory is making is that 10,000, years, or more probably, of hunter gathering and early farming did create deserts.

    The thing that impressed me is that he does seem to have empirical evidence on his side, and indeed provides examples of desert type land that has been transformed, using this method.

  3. I think it’s a great idea. But not a great short term investment opportunity because of several fairly obvious difficulties that could prove fatal to its success.
    The environmentalists might have spotted one of them, to be persisting with the vegetarion stance. Who else can be trusted among the impoverished inhabitants of the desert hinterlands where these succulant herds of fodder producers will need need constant protection from predation ?
    If the combined efforts of our desparate humanity can’t even preserve a couple of dozen Black Rhino’s and the last few Elephants from extinction, what chance is their for free range beef in starving Africa ?

    10/10 to Mr Savory for the idea though !

  4. but only 2/10 for T.B’s careless spelling!!

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