Holistic management (agriculture)
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Holistic management (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) in agriculture is a systems thinking approach to managing resources that was originally developed by Allan Savory for reversing desertification. In 2010 the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, Operation Hope (a "proof of concept" project using holistic management) was named the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for "recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet's ecosystems."
The idea of holistic planned grazing began in the 1960s when Allan Savory, a wildlife biologist in his native Southern Rhodesia, set out to understand desertification. This can be seen in the context of the larger environmental movement. Heavily influenced by the work of André Voisin and the ineffectiveness of mainstream rangeland science of the time, Savory concluded that the spread of deserts, the loss of wildlife, and the human impoverishment that always resulted were related to the reduction of the natural herds of large grazers and even more, the change in behavior of those few remaining herds. Livestock could be substituted to provide important ecosystem services like nutrient cycling when mimicking those uniquely coevolved grasses and grazers. But managers had found that while rotational grazing systems can work for diverse management purposes, scientific experiments had demonstrated that they do not necessarily work for specific ecological purposes. An adaptive management plan was needed for the integration of the experiential with the experimental, as well as the social with the biophysical, to provide a more comprehensive framework for the management of rangeland systems. None of these sources of knowledge could be understood except in the context of the whole. Holistic management was developed to meet that need.
In many regions, pastoralism and communal land use are blamed for environmental degradation caused by overgrazing. After years of research and experience, Savory came to understand this assertion was often wrong, and that sometimes removing animals actually made it worse. This concept is a variation of the trophic cascade, where humans are seen as the top level predator and the cascade follows from there.
"I have been particularly fascinated, for example, by the work of a remarkable man called Allan Savory, in Zimbabwe and other semi arid areas, who has argued for years against the prevailing expert view that is the simple numbers of cattle that drive overgrazing and cause fertile land to become desert. On the contrary, as he has since shown so graphically, the land needs the presence of feeding animals and their droppings for the cycle to be complete, so that soils and grassland areas stay productive. Such that, if you take grazers off the land and lock them away in vast feedlots, the land dies. "- His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) from a speech to the IUCN World Conservation Congress
Savory developed a flexible management system designed to improve grazing systems. Holistic planned grazing is one of a number of newer grazing management systems that more closely simulate the behavior of natural herds of wildlife and have been shown to improve riparian habitats and water quality over systems that often led to land degradation, and be an effective tool to improve range condition for both livestock and wildlife. Holistic planned grazing is similar to rotational grazing but differs in that it more explicitly recognizes and provides a framework for adapting to the four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle including the carbon cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics (the relationship between organisms in an ecosystem) as equal in importance to livestock production and social welfare. Thus the holistic context in the planning stage leads to different decisions in dealing with that complexity. Holistic management has been likened to "a permaculture approach to rangeland management".
While originally developed as a tool for range land use and restoring desertified land, the holistic management system can be applied to other areas with multiple complex socioeconomic and environmental factors. One such example is Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which promotes sector integration in development and management of water resources to ensure that water is allocated between different users in a fair way, maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. In essence, coordinated holistic water management takes into consideration all water users in nature and society. Another example is mine reclamation. A fourth use of Holistic management is in certain forms of no till crop production, intercropping, and permaculture. Holistic management has been acknowledged by The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS).
- Define in its entirety what you are managing. No area should be treated as a single-product system. By defining the whole, people are better able to manage. This includes identifying the available resources, including money, that the manager has at his disposal.
- Define what you want now and for the future. Set the objectives, goals and actions needed to produce the quality of life sought, and what the life-nurturing environment must be like to sustain that quality of life far into the future.
- Watch for the earliest indicators of ecosystem health. Identify the ecosystem services that have deep impacts for people in both urban and rural environments, and find a way to easily monitor them. One of the best examples of an early indicator of a poorly functioning environment is patches of bare ground. An indicator of a better functioning environment is newly sprouting diversity of plants and a return or increase of wildlife.
- Don't limit the management tools you use. The eight tools for managing natural resources are money/labor, human creativity, grazing, animal impact, fire, rest, living organisms and science/technology. To be successful you need to use all these tools to the best of your ability.
- Test your decisions with questions that are designed to help ensure all your decisions are socially, environmentally and financially sound for both the short and long term.
- Monitor proactively, before your managed system becomes more imbalanced. This way the manager can take adaptive corrective action quickly, before the ecosystem services are lost. Always assume your plan is less than perfect and use a feedback loop that includes monitoring for the earliest signs of failure, adjusting and re-planning as needed. In other words use a "canary in a coal mine" adaptive approach.
Holistic management planned grazing has four key principles that take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between large herds of grazing animals, their predators and the grasslands that support them:
- Nature functions as a holistic community with a mutualistic relationship between people, animals and the land. If you remove or change the behavior of any keystone species like the large grazing herds, you have an unexpected and wide ranging negative impact on other areas of the environment.
- It is absolutely crucial that any agricultural planning system must be flexible enough to adapt to nature’s complexity, since all environments are different and have constantly changing local conditions.
- Animal husbandry using domestic species can be used as a substitute for lost keystone species. Thus when managed properly in a way that mimics nature, agriculture can heal the land and even benefit wildlife, while at the same time benefiting people.
- Time and timing is the most important factor when planning land use. Not only is it crucial to understand how long to use the land for agriculture and how long to rest, it is equally important to understand exactly when and where the land is ready for that use and rest.
One limitation of any land management system is that economically and politically powerful users can easily quantify and argue their needs. It is harder to define the economic value of ecosystem services and, therefore, the ecosystems and people most dependent on them for their subsistence become voiceless and often neglected users. In theory Holistic Management framework addresses this issue, but it is not always seen in the field. Another common criticism of holistic planned grazing is that while farmers and ranchers around the world believe that it works for them and they have even received awards, the majority of range scientists have not been able to experimentally confirm that intensive grazing systems similar to those at the center of holistic management show a benefit, and claim that managers' reports of success are anecdotal. There is however a growing body of research work which is reversing the claim that the only evidence for holistic management is anecdotal.
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