Sarah Savory is the daughter of Zimbabwean ecologist and advocate of holistic management, Allan Savory. She lives and works in Zimbabwe and is a passionate advocate of regenerative agriculture, sustainable agriculture and nature management, holistic management, wildlife conservation and all things related. In the coming months she will discuss many of these topics in articles on www.agriorbit.com.
In this article she shares a few thoughts on the fight against desertification.
“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” – Franklin D Roosevelt
It is a fact that we have destroyed our soils to crisis point. If we don’t change the trajectory we are on, our planet will eventually be uninhabitable.
The symptoms of worldwide desertification are everywhere, including horrific droughts, floods and fires.
Our problems are mounting, caused by reductionist management, as opposed to holistic management. This style of management is killing life in soils and oceans and is causing desertification and climate change.
The good news is that desertification can be reversed and that we can bring soils back to life. Action must now be taken to ensure that the effects of desertification are urgently reversed. The public must get behind this movement and take responsibility as the necessary change will not come from governments or big corporations.
Cause and effect
I will now explain why our soils are dying and how we can restore them. It will take every single one of us, including city folk, to affect change.
I recently had two very interesting conversations. The first was with a permaculturalist and the second with a vegan. A similarity in their replies brought me to realise that people have yet to fully understand the huge differences between practices. “But permaculture is holistic,” and “But veganism does use a holistic approach,” were the responses. Practices such as veganism, permaculture, no till and more use the words “holistic” or “holistic approach”, but holistic management is a very specific management framework that can be applied to all practices and businesses, from permaculture to large-scale agriculture and from businesses or individuals in major cities to pastoralists in Africa.
Holistic management came about and was developed by my father, Allan Savory. In his quest to save wildlife and find solutions to the horrific desertification and habitat loss occurring, he realised that in all our endeavours we have never adjusted our management. Our management of everything, for all of history and continuing today, has always been reductionist. This reductionist management seems to be genetically embedded in all tool-using animals.
A hungry otter has an objective: to break open a clamshell. He uses a simple tool (technology), in the form of a stone, to do so. He does this based on past experience or what he learned from his mother.
Or, the president of the United States of America (USA) has an objective: to put a man on the moon within a decade. He and his team also use technology, but various and more sophisticated forms of it and base their choices on research and expert advice, past experience, cost and so on. It’s the same process, or framework, in both cases. Only the degree of sophistication varies.
For humans, who, unlike other tool-using animals, can create visions beyond the simplest objectives, the process has been wildly successful – we have, indeed, put a man on the moon. But this framework has also led to big trouble – we’re destroying life on our own planet at an alarming rate.
Adding to the framework
In the holistic management framework, a few aspects have been added to the genetically embedded reduction management framework. With these additions, the holistic management framework helps ensure that we succeed in our aims, while putting our soil health and our life-supporting environment first. By following the holistic management framework, we can begin to restore our ailing planet.
As soon as management or policy is holistic, the right technique to build soil health floats to the top of our priorities and is used. When management remains reductionist, we all too often use good, known-to-be-successful-techniques, but fail because the technique was inappropriate in the situation in question.
Absolutely everything we do has inevitable social, political, economic and environmental consequences. In other words, everything affects everything else and it is all very complex. When making management decisions, we have always reduced complexity to simply meeting desires, needs or solving problems, without any consideration to the ‘whole’.
Here is a good example of conventional, reductionist management:
Every year in many African national parks, a massive amount of money is spent on pumping water to make it available to the wildlife in the park. Every year more and more animals die of starvation and thirst and the desertification worsens. This is because the management action has been reduced to the need for water (drought) and is not addressing why there is drought and no water in the first place (desertification.)
To address the full web of social/cultural, economic and environmental complexity, Allan Savory developed the holistic management framework. In this framework, rather than reducing the web of complexity, you develop a single, over-arching reason for management in the holistic context.
If we managed our national parks using a holistic context, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, within a few years there would be grazing and water for all the animals. Surface water is an indicator for soil carbon; the more soil organic matter, the greater the water holding capacity. As soils are restored, water tables are replenished, rivers will run longer and surface pools will remain longer into the dry season. This will make the massive expense of having to dig boreholes every year unnecessary.
Change more than practice
Awareness that we have to take care of the environment and change the way we do things is increasing. There is a problem, however – while we see support for practices like no till, organic farming, permaculture, grass-fed meat production and more, these are all merely changes in practice and still fall under the same reductionist management that causes desertification and climate change. Even if a holistic approach is used, the framework is often still reductionist. If we want to truly reverse desertification on a global scale, management decisions have to be made using the holistic framework.
I am a very practical person and a complete believer in the fact that nature knows best. Having grown up in Africa, spending a lot of the time in the bush, observing nature, I know that everything in nature has to die and everything relies on everything for food and survival. Almost no animal in nature ever dies of old age. The cause of death is either predation or disease. Both deaths are very cruel. Mother Nature is extremely harsh, but she certainly knows exactly what she’s doing and everything happens with incredible balance and synergy.
One of the biggest and most essential balances was between herding animals, their pack-hunting predators and the world’s grasslands. These all occur in seasonally arid areas of our planet, which makes up about two-thirds of our land mass. These grasslands developed with a delicate system of balance and co-operation between massive numbers of herding animals and their pack hunting predators. The predators kept the herds bunched together and moving and it was this movement that ensured that these vast herds periodically trampled down the grass, aerated the soil with their hooves and fertilised the grass with their dung and urine. The herds, kept bunched and moving by their predators, were absolutely essential to the health of the world’s grasslands. Without this balance, grasslands die. That is why this problem cannot be solved by either resting the land or using technology.
The influence of human modernisation has disturbed this delicate balance by causing completely unnatural animal movement and grazing and mismanagement. As a result, the grasslands worldwide began to die.
When talking about the world’s grasslands, I am referring only to the places on our planet that have seasonal, erratic humidity. In these areas, vegetation, and insect and micro-organism populations would build up during the rainy months of the year. However, when the rains stopped, the humidity dropped, and as the soil dried out, most of the above-ground leaves and small stems died. Only the trunks and branches of trees and brush and the bases of perennial grass plants remained alive. At the same time, insect and micro-organism activity was drastically reduced as these organisms went into dormancy, died off, or survived in egg or pupal form, through the dry, non-growth period. The grass plants moved energy down to their roots and bases and the above-ground stems and leaves died. The mass of material that remains on the plants becomes a liability because it will block sunlight from reaching the growth-points at the plants’ bases, hampering the growth of new leaves and stems in the next growing season.
How did all that dead vegetation break down every year, in the past? Lightning then, as now, would have sparked fires and consumed some of the vegetation, but relatively few areas would have been affected in any given year. There was a much more powerful ecological influence at work: grazing animals in their masses.
The presence of vast herds was significant because they consumed a fair amount of plant material while it was still green and growing, and they continued consuming it long after growth had stopped. Then they trampled what they didn’t eat into the ground. In the moist digestive tracts of these animals, a mass of micro-organisms continued to thrive in the non-growing season and managed to reduce the large volume of material consumed, to dung. In the following growing season, when insect and external micro-organism populations once again became numerous, they would consume the dung, as well as the dead vegetation that had been trampled onto the soil, and complete the cycle of decay.
In these herds’ absence, only a small proportion of the vegetation produced is able to decay and most is left to break down chemically through oxidation or physically through weathering where wind, rain and hail very gradually wear them down. Humankind soon learned to assist the plant breakdown and replace the role of grazing animals with fire, burning grasslands to try to keep them alive. Grassland burning is a practice that major environmental organisations still practice and support, but fire exposes and destroys soil over time.
The situation is different when dealing with areas of the earth that have constant, year-round humidity. These areas can regenerate when left alone because they developed with different types of wildlife and had no big herds or pack hunting predators. Plants in these environments die throughout the year, but they decompose quickly due to the high numbers of insects and micro-organisms whose populations remain high and active throughout the year due to the constant humidity.
As the ability of plants to decompose and recycle their nutrients is critical to the health of the whole environment, determining the degree of humidity becomes a prime factor in the management of any environment. Non-humid and very humid environments react quite differently to some of the main management practices we engage in daily, yet we have always failed to make this conclusion. Allan Savory calls this the brittleness scale because in non-brittle environments dead grass, leaves and stems are soft and moist and they crumple when squeezed in your hand. In brittle environments, dead leaves and stems are brittle and dry and they shatter when squeezed in your hand.
Because in the seasonally arid (or brittle) environments of the world we no longer have the essential balance of predator and prey and because this is a biological problem that can only be solved biologically, no amount of technology can help us. If we want to restore the world’s grasslands, we have no other option left but to use holistically managed livestock, to mimic the natural movement of those massive herds.
By mimicking nature, holistically managed livestock regenerate grasslands, take care of the soil and restore rivers and this addresses ineffective rainfall and drought. The soil is the biggest carbon sink and reservoir of fresh water that we have. Livestock can be productive in a completely natural environment and can live their life exactly as nature intended any ruminant to live. We could do with billions of them to do the job at hand. At the end of the day, we absolutely have to have livestock on the grasslands in order to save our planet from total disaster. The aim is to be able to slowly but surely restore the natural biodiversity, bring back balance and, eventually, the vast numbers and correct balance of natural and native wildlife that should be there so that they can, once again, do the job they were designed to do in the first place.
I need to make it very clear here that holistically managed livestock is in no way, shape or form, just a grazing plan or system. You couldn’t just plan grazing for the livestock and leave it at that. There is far more to it.
As I said earlier, absolutely everything we do has inevitable social, political, economic and environmental effects. Everything affects everything else and it is all very complex. When planning the grazing of livestock, you would have to take into account the complexity of the particular area under management. Therefore, everything and everyone who live on, off or benefit from that particular land would have to be taken into consideration, including wildlife. People in charge of the land would have to carefully plan their management of the entire area, using the holistic management framework. Only then could the movement of the herd of livestock (the tool) be very carefully planned and monitored.
Livestock has an essential job to do now. Without using them as a tool to mimic nature and help to regenerate grasslands, our soils will continue to die and we will lose all our beloved wildlife and eventually no higher life form will be able to survive. It’s that serious.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter about what our individual choices, beliefs or situations are. Holistic management simply ensures that, whoever we are and whatever we do, with all our management decisions, we will be taking care of and nurturing our natural, life-supporting environment first. It ensures that we are working with nature instead of against it. Every other species manages to do so. It’s time for us to fit back in with nature too. – Sarah Savory.