Zimbabwean, Sarah Savory, daughter of ecologist and holistic management advocate, Allan Savory, talks to www.agriorbit.com about regenerative and sustainable agriculture and holistic management.

Humankind’s knowledge and technological power has increased more rapidly in the last 400 years than in the previous 200 000 or so years that have made up modern human existence. It is no coincidence that the planet’s health has entered a breathtaking decline during the same few centuries.

Technology feeds out constant success stories, provided we ignore the longer-term effects it has on the environment and on rural communities. The things we make do exactly what they are designed to do; the watch tells us the time, the computer computes. They do not do anything unplanned or unexpected; they are not self-organising and generally will not work if a part is missing, a battery goes flat or the fuel runs out. Technology is complicated, rather than complex, and the problems associated with it are referred to as tame because they can generally be solved, given enough time and money.

We are experiencing greater and greater problems, on the other hand, with the things we manage. These involve people and human organisations, things scientists call soft systems, or natural resources, which they term natural systems. These systems do not behave predictably and are self-organising. If a person or a species dies, the organisation or biological community adjusts and continues, albeit in a changed form. They are complex rather than complicated, and the problems associated with them are referred to as wicked, because they are difficult or impossible to solve. It is this complexity that has made soft and natural systems so hard to manage.

Whole system management

A study of our planet and the many creatures inhabiting it, does not allow for meaningful isolation and even less so for the control of variables. We cannot isolate our problems and successfully manage them because individual parts do not exist in nature, only wholes, which form and shape each other. When we ignore this fact, the knock-on effect or unintended consequences of our management decisions can be devastating.

The result of us doing this, and the biggest threat to all wildlife and humanity, is global desertification with its many associated symptoms including: increasing droughts, floods, wild fires, poverty, social breakdown, poaching, biodiversity loss, urban drift, violence and climate change. Every year, governments and institutions waste billions of dollars treating isolated symptoms while continuing to ignore the cause. This is what is known as reductionist management.

Grassland desertification

Many of our crucial industries, without which we cannot survive, are destructive and extractive. Agriculture is one such industry, producing dead soil and eroding soil to a large extent. We have seen some adjustment in agricultural practices to rectify this but there is still a long way to go.

A shocking two-thirds of our planet’s land mass is desertifying. Grasslands in areas with long dry seasons are dying world-wide. These are the parts of the world we need to focus on, because areas that experience year-round humidity developed very differently to the arid grasslands.

Plants in humid environments decompose quickly due to the high numbers of insects and micro-organisms that remain active throughout the year because of the constant humidity. Left alone and rested these areas will recover and regenerate with no input.

But, in arid areas, during the long dry seasons, insects and micro-organism activity is drastically reduced, as these organisms go into dormancy. This means that something else is needed to break down plant material during these long, dry periods. That something is millions of herding animals, with the vital moisture that is needed in their guts.

Balance is essential

There is a delicate balance and a synergy between predator, prey and soil health. Animal movement, numbers and timing are all essential to functioning grasslands. Huge herds of animals should be roaming across the earth’s grasslands, kept bunched together and on the move by their pack-hunting predators. This animal movement ensures that the soil is churned up and aerated by hoof action, while the grass is fertilised and trampled to form a protective mulch over the soil. Human reductionist management ignored the vital balance and complexity of these relationships, and over the years, humans have wiped out most of the planet’s wildlife.

Today, we have total imbalance. Thinly distributed, diminished herds staying in the same place for too long and very few predators. Domesticated livestock protected by herders may have no fear of predators and become part of the problem. Over-grazing and over-resting will kill a grassland. All this mismanagement increases desertification. Historically and right up to the present time humans have blamed the resource for causing the problem. Management of natural systems has somehow ignored the complex, interconnected structure of the natural world where survival relies on the health of the whole system.

The holistic management framework was developed by my father, Allan Savory, an ecologist, who realised that complexity would have to be addressed, if we were to have any hope of a future. Holistic management considers all economic, environmental, social and cultural aspects at the same time. This framework shows us how our management of natural resources has caused climate change and desertification. And because desertification is a biological problem, that no technology will ever fix, the holistic framework introduces us to a biological tool that can reverse desertification. This tool is livestock.

Holistic management

Allan Savory’s system puts the health of our life-supporting environment first. The Holistic Planned Grazing system puts forward the use of any herding animal, as a tool, to mimic the migratory movement of grassland antelope, and to regenerate the earth’s grasslands. By applying this simple framework to our systems we could reverse desertification and change the world. Holistic management restores life to soils, rivers and grasslands. Biodiversity returns and wildlife begins to thrive. The soil supports life and is the biggest carbon sink and reservoir of fresh water on earth. We must regenerate the world’s grasslands; for our children and for our wildlife.

Management changes will change the world. By changing our management, we will change our world. If we insist that governments and institutions apply the Holistic Management Framework to decisions and policy making processes, we would be putting the health of our life supporting environment first and automatically begin to manage resources regeneratively and reverse climate change. We can no longer afford to sit around and wait for governments to change…we have to lead the change. – Sarah Savory