Holistic Management: Claims are not supported but are there social lessons to be learnt?
The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is interested in promoting a wide variety of views and opinions on nature recovery from researchers and practitioners. The views, opinions and positions expressed within this lecture are those of the author alone, they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, or its researchers.
The Savory Institute claims that Holistic Management (HM) increases production of plants and grazing animals while also increasing soil organic carbon under all conditions in all habitats. Claims have been heavily marketed and popularized in the media including via the now-famous TEDTalk. However, peer-review literature, including our meta-analysis, and a recent review focussed on farm-scale studies, do not support these claims. In this talk we will present this evidence, while addressing some of the criticisms levelled against scientific studies by HM supporters. Finally, we will discuss the social dynamics within HM communities and what lessons these might provide.
Supporters of HM criticize small-scale studies (less than 2 ha), reasonably proposing that production and climate benefits only emerge on large working farms (2-66 ha or larger, our size definitions). In response, we reviewed 22 farm-scale studies from across the globe, and the few social and soil carbon studies available. The review supported the findings of previous meta-analyses, i.e., HM’s intensive grazing approach either has no effect or reduces production, thus negating the claim by HM proponents that there is a difference between ‘the science and the practice’. Seven peer-reviewed studies show that the potential for increased carbon sequestration with changed grazing management is substantially less (0.13-0.32) than the 2.5-9 t C ha-1 yr-1 estimated by non-peer-review HM literature. Interestingly, five studies show that HM provides a social support framework for land users. The social cohesion, learning and networking so prevalent on HM farms could be adopted by any farming community without accepting the unfounded HM rhetoric, and governments could allocate funds to train extension agents accordingly. A future focus on collaborative adaptive farm management and other innovations will be more helpful than any further debate about grazing density.
Heidi’s research interests are in plant physiology, functional ecology, and ecosystem carbon, especially as they relate to conservation efforts in the face of global change. She did her undergraduate studies in South Africa, her home, and obtained a PhD from the University of Hohenheim in Germany where she worked on the contribution on mycorrhizal fungi to plant nutrition. She has worked for many years at the interface of academia and conservation doing action research at Conservation South Africa, while remaining an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. She spent some time debunking myths in grazing science and more recently informing carbon offset projects. She was recently part of a team that made the first global estimate of mycorrhizal fungi as a carbon pool. Her vision is to better integrate research with conservation planning and implementation.