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The time for holistic management

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By Andrea Malmberg

· 5 min read

A new approach is needed to address the most pressing global problems we face today: global climate change, failing agriculture, increased droughts and flood events, catastrophic rates of soil erosion, hunger and poverty, among other disasters, combined with the broadening recognition that our economic models, based on the flawed presumption of infinite growth in a world of finite resources, are inherently unsustainable. This new approach needs to involve a paradigm shift, a whole new way of thinking because the old ways of thinking have helped create these global problems.

Holistic management is that paradigm shift. First conceived and developed by Zimbabwean ecologist, game ranger, politician, farmer, and rancher Allan Savory over 40 years ago, holistic management is guided by a decision-making and management framework that helps ensure economic, ecological, and social soundness, simultaneously, both short- and long-term. We articulated four key insights that are pivotal to our understanding of the natural world—insights that underpin the holistic management framework. Holistic land, grazing, and financial planning procedures enable on-the-ground managers to effectively handle the inherent complexity of stewarding natural ‘wholes.’

The focus of holistic management is on the ecologically regenerative, economically viable, and socially sound management of the world’s grasslands. These environments comprise two-thirds of the earth’s landmass. Their degradation has been ongoing since the first hominids discovered the tool of fire, and has accelerated in concert with the expansion of the human population (with its associated reduction and in some cases eradication of most of the world’s large wild grazing and browsing animals, their subsequent replacement with fewer numbers of more sedentary, domesticated livestock, and soil-degrading cropping practices).

Land degradation starts with a loss of soil cover, composed of both living plants and decaying plant litter, which leads to less effective water and mineral/nutrient cycling, reduced solar energy flow, and reduced biodiversity in terms of species and number of individuals within them. This degradation can lead to the loss of previously sequestered soil carbon (a major source of our existing atmospheric CO2 load), severely degraded land or desertification, and the loss of food production capacity.

The Green Revolution, based on high input, industrial agriculture (massive inputs of petrochemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations) has increased global food production tremendously but has tended to severely degrade its ecological and socio-cultural capital base in the process.

The Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity—quite the contrary. Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss, and oxidation of soil organic matter have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution in many places.

The good news is that land degradation can in most cases be reversed, and this is the task in which holistic management practitioners have been engaged for over 40 years. We now have successful holistic management practitioners spread across the globe, from Canada to the tip of Patagonia, to Europe to Zimbabwe, to Australia to Montana. We posit the necessity of a new ‘Revolution’ (perhaps a Brown Revolution), based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, healthy plants and animals, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and producing food.

The more humid, reliable rainfall regions of the world will have to develop agricultural models based on small, bio-diverse farms, imitating the natural, multi-tiered vegetation structures of these environments. This is where most of the grain, fruits, nuts, and vegetables will be produced. Based on the premise of ecological integrity, these farms, will out of ecological necessity be small and highly diverse. The Holistic Management framework has an essential role to play in the evolution and management of farms in these types of environments, and many others are working on and developing the practical know-how, insights, and production models that will lead to success on the ground.

Most people managing holistically are more versed in the other two-thirds of the world—the grasslands. Broadly defined, grasslands are those environments in which grasses play a critical role in stabilizing soil—from dry deciduous forests to savannas or open grasslands to arid and semiarid rangelands. These are environments that co-evolved in the presence of large grazing herbivores, in conjunction with their pack-hunting predators, and in most instances they are characterized by seasonal or erratic rainfall, and extended periods of the year with very low atmospheric and soil humidity. The presence of these large herbivores, interacting with their landscapes the way nature intended, is critical. Via the skillful practice of holistic planned grazing, we can effectively mimic this behavior, reversing land degradation, and generating social-based profit in the process. In these environments, ranches and grazing lands should be moving to ever-larger management units (which may be achieved through collaboration if not through ownership), allowing for larger herds.

The implications of taking this management approach to scale in the grasslands of the world are massive. Slight increases in soil organic matter over these huge portions of Earth’s landmass may result in the long-term safe and natural sequestration of many gigatons of carbon. In effect, we would be putting masses of carbon back where it belongs— in the soil—and more importantly, where it can actually do some good. Organically rich soils feed soil bacteria, protozoans, and fungi, active populations of which lead to ever greater plant-available nutrients and less and less dependence on outside fertilizer inputs.

Soils that are higher in organic matter also possess greater water-holding capacity, thereby increasing drought resilience and water infiltration, which may lead to regenerating aquifers and groundwater reserves critical for cities and communities throughout the globe. In the process of doing this—in effect, mimicking nature—there is no creation of ‘waste’ as it actually becomes an asset, input costs are dramatically reduced, animals tend to be healthier and more productive, and profit (based on eco- logical integrity, or true wealth, derived directly from the sun) is the result. Of course, we also are producing nutrient-dense, pasture-produced protein—exactly what our Paleolithic, hunter/gatherer-evolved physiology is designed to consume.

This article is an excerpt from The Time for Holistic Management. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Andrea Malmberg is Co-Leader of UVE, a Savory Network Hub, and a Master Field Professional who provides training and support to hundreds of ranchers and farmers in the Northwest region each year.

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