Desertification

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in recent history, when overzealous plowing and planting—five million acres of native prairie were plowed to grow wheat—followed by years of drought left the “bread basket” of the United States a literal desert. It was a lesson of our intricate connection to the land, but is it a lesson that’s already been forgotten?

A study published in 2013 revealed that current grassland conversion to corn and soy across the Western Corn Belt (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa) is comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The authors noted, “Historically, comparable grassland conversion rates have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s…” The bulk of corn and soy in the U.S. is not being grown for human consumption, but to feed livestock.

How your food choices could help save the Planet!

The rapid growth of concentrated animal feeding operations and confinement dairies has resulted in millions of acres of grassland being converted to grow corn and soy for animal feed, and the loss of those grasslands, and subsequent desertification of the land, is leading to a potential environmental disaster. Grazing ruminants (e.g., cows, goats, bison, sheep) play a vitally important role in maintaining the health and fertility of the land—restoring ruminants to the land in a well-managed way restores vegetation, and restoring vegetation increases carbon sequestration and promotes normal water cycles. It has been estimated that just a one percent increase in soil carbon in an acre of land can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water.

Additionally, by returning ruminants to a life of grazing, you are removing grain feed from the equation, resulting in a lower demand for corn and soy to feed livestock.

The loss of land function and the land’s ability to sustain plant and animal life is called desertification. According to the United Nations, 25 percent of the earth’s land is already moderately or highly degraded. Desertification of the land leads to loss of carbon from the soil, increased water runoff and evaporation (flood and drought), and changes in the microclimate, which ultimately changes the macroclimate. Industrial crop and livestock production is a huge contributor to soil degradation and desertification.

Isn’t Grazing Part of the Problem?

In short, no. Overgrazing can be a problem, but in a well-managed, rotational grazing system, cattle and other ruminants have a beneficial relationship with the land. The animals graze, cutting back the grasses, which initiates new growth. Their constant movement and trampling helps cut manure and other organic matter back into the soil, helping to enrich it. And healthy soil keeps carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere. Experts calculate that if we utilize well-managed rotational grazing practices on just half of the world’s grasslands, enough carbon could be stored in the soil to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere to pre-industrial revolution levels.

97.2 million acres of land are

dedicated to growing corn

(93% of that is genetically modified)

 

More than 70%

of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed

and ethanol production

References

Wright, C & Wimberly, M. “Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. March 5, 2013;110(10)

Itzkan S. “The Potential of Restorative Grazing to Mitigate Global Warming by Increasing Carbon Capture on Grasslands. Planet TECH Associates, 2014. www.savoryinstitute.com

USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

National Corn Grower’s Association 2013 Report, 11 Feb. 2013.


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