Response: "Holistic management – a critical review of Allan Savory’s grazing method"

Maria Nordborg's 2016 report "Holistic management – a critical review of Allan Savory’s grazing method" attempts to discredit the decades of positive ecological outcomes seen not just by Allan Savory but by thousands of producers now using these practices across the globe.

In the report, Nordborg uses an outdated and incomplete portfolio of scientific studies published on the Savory Institute's website in 2014 as the basis of her critique. Of the 40 publications listed in the portfolio, she outright dismisses any publications that are not peer-reviewed (note: her report is also not peer-reviewed), dismisses 3 peer-reviewed studies that have small samples sizes (a limitation of grazing research where test subjects are large scale ranching operations and not subjects in a lab that can be tightly controlled), and then proceeds to diminish the results of the 11 peer-reviewed articles that demonstrate positive outcomes. She does so by pointing out the limitations of these studies - the inaccuracies of historical questionnaires, that longer timescales would give more conclusive evidence, that only some variables of an ecosystem were studied and not all, etc. While these arguments have merit, they are not exclusive to Holistic Management, but rather limitations and criticisms of grazing research on the whole. 

Since the publication of this report in 2016, there has been a groundswell of peer-reviewed journal articles that directly contradict the conclusions of Norborg's non-peer-reviewed report. (See the bulleted list below for a detailed list). In 2017, Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M published "Grazing management that regenerates ecosystem function and grazingland livelihoods" which discusses in detail "how previous reviews of grazing studies were limited in scope and applicability to larger, more complex landscapes" and that "research must have a realistic, relevant scale and context", while additionally detailing the numerous positive ecological, economic, and social outcomes seen from Holistic Management studies using such a context.

Even more recently, in January 2020 Dr. Hannah Gosnell published "A half century of Holistic Management: what does the evidence reveal?" in the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In this incredibly thorough and insightful peer-reviewed paper, she provides objective insights as to the origins of the academic debates surrounding Holistic Management and why they prevail. In short, they stem from a narrow industrial paradigm in a time before social-economic frameworks existed, so they removed the rancher as a dynamic decision-making variable excluded from the research and altering the results. It furthermore provides a meta-analysis of the multidisciplinary evidence, including the less-studied social, cultural, and psychological aspects, and offers a new lens for researching rangelands in holistic, integrated ways. For skeptics, this paper should be of particular interest for holding up a mirror to their own biases.

Taking a higher-level look at the debates surrounding Holistic Management, a 2017 peer-reviewed paper in Cambridge University Press titled “Who's afraid of Allan Savory? Scientometric polarization on Holistic Management as competing understandings” analyzed trends in the literature according to subject area, continent of publication, and position (positive/neutral/negative). The authors found that the number of papers on Holistic Management spiked in the 1980’s after publication of the first edition of Allan’s book Holistic Management. Early references to Holistic Management originated in North America, and since then have become more evenly spread out across the globe. Among subject areas, those doing farm-scale (rather than experimental) work in dry climates were most likely to have positive positions towards Holistic Management. This shows that, despite internal divisions on interpretations of specific studies, those with first-hand knowledge and boots-on-the-ground experience with Holistic Management are able to more clearly see the positive impacts, and speaks to the difficulties of taking a reductionist approach towards evaluating natural systems which unfortunately is the norm throughout much of academia.

New Peer-Reviewed Articles Since Nordborg's 2016 Report:

  • Gosnell 2020 – This comprehensive literature review outlines a half-century of Holistic Management research, including the main tenets behind the decision-making framework and historical academic debates that stem from a narrow industrial paradigm before social-ecological frameworks were developed. It furthermore provides a meta-analysis of the multidisciplinary evidence, including the less-studied social, cultural, and psychological aspects, and offers a new lens for researching rangelands in holistic, integrated ways.
  • Hillenbrand 2019 – Evaluation of ecosystem processes on a holistically-managed bison ranch in South Dakota's shortgrass prairie compared to continuous grazing practices. Results indicate increased fine litter cover, improved water infiltration, two to three times the available forage biomass, improved plant composition, decrease in invasive plants, decrease in bare ground, and higher infiltration with Holistic Planned Grazing on soils having higher permeability but not on soils having a high clay content.
  • Xu 2019 – Compared ecological outcomes on 44 properties in Argentina using both established/quantifiable metrics and the new Ecological Health Index (EHI), a component of Savory's Ecological Outcome Verification protocol. Strong correlations demonstrate that EHI can be a useful methodology for measuring ecosystem function of grazing lands.
  • Gosnell 2019 – Analyzes experiences of Australian farmers who have sustained transitions from conventional to regenerative agriculture, the majority of whom are Holistic Management practitioners. The authors conclude that transitioning to regenerative agriculture involves more than a suite of 'climate-smart' mitigation and adaptation practices supported by technical innovation, policy, education, and outreach. Rather, it involves subjective, nonmaterial factors associated with culture, values, ethics, identity, and emotion that operate at individual, household, and community scales and interact with regional, national and global processes. 
  • Teague 2018 – Mostly an overview of the state of grazing research. On page 4, he presents a chart showing various C-sequestration rates from multiple sites using Holistic Management. Rates range from 0.5-7 tons-C/ha/year (with ~3 being the most commonly observed).
  • Stanley 2018 – This paper conducts a lifecycle assessment, including direct measure of carbon flux, on various livestock finishing systems and shows that properly-managed livestock create an ecosystem that is a net carbon sink instead of net carbon emitter.
  • Peel 2018 – Case study analyzing vegetation and landscape function at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe. "HPG yields positive long-term effects on ecosystem services (soils and vegetation) and points to the HPG approach enhancing the sustainability of livestock and wildlife in this environment."
  • Teague 2017 – This paper is an overarching discussion on various types of grazing management and the potential for proper (holistic) management to regenerate ecosystem function and grazingland livelihoods. It also dives into the shortcomings of most grazing research that reduces whole ecosystem complexities into individual factors.
  • Teague 2016 – This paper determined that properly-managed grazing, if applied on 25% of our crop and grasslands, would mitigate the entire carbon footprint of North American agriculture.
  • Rowntree 2016 – “From this data, we conclude that well-managed grazing and grass-finishing systems in environmentally appropriate settings can positively contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of beef cattle, while lowering overall atmospheric CO2 concentrations.”
  • Machmuller 2015 – “Farms accumulated C at 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1, increasing cation exchange and water holding capacity by 95% and 34%, respectively. Thus, within a decade of management-intensive grazing practices soil C levels returned to those of native forest soils, and likely decreased fertilizer and irrigation demands. Emerging land uses, such as management-intensive grazing, may offer a rare win–win strategy combining profitable food production with rapid improvement of soil quality and short-term climate mitigation through soil C-accumulation."
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