On World Day to Combat Desertification (June 17), explore how agriculture has contributed to desertification, how it can help reverse this trend, and what you can do right now.
Eight decades have passed since “black blizzards”—massive dust storms—blocked sunlight and smothered people, animals, and vegetation in the American Great Plains. Due in large part to unsustainable ranching and farming practices, the once-lush pastures of the U.S. Midwest were transformed into a massive Dust Bowl through desertification.
Practices similar to the ones that brought the dust storms in the 1930s are still prevalent in the United States and are being adopted by developing countries worldwide. Intensive tilling, over-fertilizing, the destruction of microbes in the soil through the application of pesticides, and continuous grazing are all practices that are spreading.
Some foresee another Dust Bowl returning to the United States. Other regions of the world are struggling with their own crises. Sand storms originating in the desertifying Mongolian Plateau, for example, have been recurring in Northern China for more than 15 years.
Dust obscures the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan (2001). Credit: Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE
The solution, according to natural resource scientists, is simple: cover the soil with plants. Among the most promising paths is regenerative agriculture and ranching—an ecological approach to producing more-sustainable foods, clothing, and fuels while rebuilding ecosystems.
As society deepens its understanding of how systems in nature work as a whole to maximize productivity across ecosystems, agricultural production can shift to mimic “nature’s way” in our own production activities and to allow our broken ecosystems to heal.
Whether you are a consumer, a farmer, a business owner, or a policymaker, the following three principles can help keep the soils where they belong, build a healthy soil ecosystem, and bring moisture back to desertifying lands:
1. Support organic, diversity-based farming of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Large-scale monocultures tend to require fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanical treatments such as tilling. All of these undermine the microbes’ ability to maintain a stable soil structure that can retain water.
Plant roots and active microorganisms hold the soil together. Having a variety of plants growing organically on a piece of land can promote symbiosis—the mutually beneficial relationship between crops and microbes. This relationship builds a drought-resilient agricultural system and prevents desertification from the root of its cause.
2. Support organic “managed intensive rotational grazing”—herds and flocks are regularly moved to avoid overgrazing and improve foraging quality. Over 90 percent of meat, eggs, and dairy products in the United States are produced in concentrated environments using industrial methods. These production systems rely on large-scale monoculture of both the animals and the feedstuff, including alfalfa—the “grass” feed. The expansion of industrial animal farming is rapidly exposing some of the earth’s best-covered lands—forest lands and grasslands—to erosion and desertification.
Having animals and their foods growing on the same piece of land and managing them in a way that suits the local ecological conditions has the potential to increase native vegetation cover and restore ecosystems. There is no standard protocol, however. Experienced ranchers and animal farmers have pointed out that close observation and timely adjustment are required to maintain the optimal balance between animals and plants in unique and constantly changing environments.
3. Explore the realities behind your daily choice of food. Does your food come from a highly standardized and mechanized farm, or one that operates sensitively to meet specific needs of the ecosystem? Is the farmland created as a result of recent deforestation, or is it recovering from historical exploitation and degradation? These questions might be difficult to answer, so if possible, visiting the farm (or its website) and talking to the people who grow the food could help explain the situation.
Working with nature, instead of radically modifying it based on our limited understanding of it, is the only way to protect ecosystems from degradation. Combating desertification is not fighting against nature, but restoring a respect for it.
Wanqing Zhou is a research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute.