Response to “Holistic Management - a critical review of Allan Savory’s grazing method” by Maria Norborg and Elin Röös

Sep 05, 2016

Response to “Holistic Management - a critical review of Allan Savory’s grazing method” by Maria Norborg and Elin Röös.

When welcoming readers to my blog, I invited all to participate openly in a discussion on the paradigm-shifting scientific and managerial insights that made possible the development of Holistic Management. Two people, after reading my blog posts, chose to respond by publishing an academic paper in which they concluded: “Holistic grazing can thus not reverse climate change.”

By walking (and driving) on the Moon, humans demonstrated mastery of complicated technical systems. However, we are as yet incapable of solving most management problems on Earth, the subject of my first series of blogs. I believe it important that discussion center on this tragic situation for humanity, and that as many people as possible are able to participate. I have thus sent the following email to the authors who declined to respond to my posts and, by so doing, excluded most people from this discussion.

Dear Maria and Elin,

I have just seen your study of Holistic Management and in particular Holistic Planned Grazing. I do not doubt your sincerity nor the amount of work put into your paper, including reading my blog.

Global scale desertification and climate change could not be more serious - more dangerous than all wars ever fought. Millions of people are suffering and dying as a result and billions more will. I hope I do not have to spell out the effects of mass emigration to Europe from the desertifying region of North Africa. For over fifty years we have been demonstrating the reversal of desertification through properly managed livestock under Holistic Planned Grazing. Nearly 2,000 range and other scientists did a week of training in the United States in the early 1980s and none found any flaw in the science as you and those you cite allege. But this has not deterred some academics endlessly casting doubt as you also now have done. Tragically none are ever held accountable.

I am not defending anything and wish as always to encourage constructive criticism, without which management and science cannot advance. But let that criticism be about Holistic Management or Holistic Planned Grazing. The papers you cite in coming to your conclusion as usual refer to a plethora of rotational and other grazing systems, that have nothing to do with Holistic Planned Grazing or Holistic Management. Frequently you refer to holistic grazing as a grazing system when Holistic Planned Grazing clearly is no such thing. In my blog I made it clear management systems are only suited to situations where almost everything is predictable – accounting or inventory control systems.

I have noted your conclusions and emphatic statement that “Holistic grazing can thus not reverse climate change.” First, I have only used the words address climate change (reverse is your wording) although I have written and talked about reversing man-made desertification, which is playing an enormous role in droughts, floods, poverty, migration, violence and climate change. Your categorical statement is in direct contrast to my statement to the world that without livestock properly managed (Holistic Planned Grazing or better process when developed) we cannot now save civilization as we know it. Because there is no platform or place for any discussion about the issue of managing such complex situations I started my blog Allan Savory Uncensored to which you refer. In that I specifically appealed to any scientists or others to enter the discussion. That you read it and did not do so, but chose to publish your long misleading paper instead is disappointing. I am not prepared to respond to you alone because millions of people need to know which of us is correct so I will respond in my blog. Please go there to see my response and enter the discussion openly. I will not change or censor anything you write but simply want it open to all to read and comment.

Once more, by endless citing of papers by Briske, Carter, Holocheck, Monbiot and others who keep citing one another and have never yet made any attempt to either understand or study Holistic Planned Grazing or Holistic Management you are doing untold damage, albeit unintentionally. So let’s continue this openly on my blog where many can participate should they wish. When you enter the discussion please let me know where the science, or the process, is flawed in Holistic Planned Grazing and let’s not hear more about studies of grazing systems that bear no relationship. I realize this is a paradigm shift from centuries of herding and grazing systems to replacing them with a management and planning process using all available science and I will try to be as clear and helpful as I can.



Conclusions to alleged critical review

The conclusions reached in your report boil down to the paucity of peer-reviewed papers supporting Holistic Management, a framework for management that enables us to manage complex situations, of which Holistic Planned Grazing (using livestock to heal degraded soil and reverse desertification) is but one aspect.

You cite my report,, which, rather than repeat it here, all concerned can read online. To summarize:

Using [Jan Smuts’] theoretical base, we recognized that land alone is not manageable because it is so tied to the culture, beliefs, and values of the people occupying it. Ultimately the practical management of whole situations, in which land is involved, could only be done by viewing people, their land, and their economy as one indivisible whole.

Land alone is no more manageable than is either hydrogen or oxygen alone manageable in water. The people’s economy is indivisible from land because the only wealth that can truly sustain any community or nation is ultimately derived from the photosynthetic process (plants growing on regenerating soil). Managing holistically involves addressing the one simple underlying cause for widespread failure to address the complexity in agriculture. That cause being simply the genetically embedded way humans make management decisions. Superimposed on our genetically embedded way, unknowingly used by even the most sophisticated scientific teams, we now use a modified holistic framework that does enable us to address social, environmental, and economic complexity simultaneously. ...

Managing holistically involves all the sciences and other sources of knowledge. If an action is new in any environment we also automatically assume that it is wrong because of nature’s extreme complexity that is currently beyond understanding. On this assumption we monitor the point of earliest warning so that management is proactive and no longer adaptive as it has been for centuries. Because each and every managed situation involving land (people, land, money) is totally unique, and also unique every year, managing holistically does not permit replication.

Because of this fact, we can only validate the “science” used and monitor or document “results achieved.” This point is critical to understanding the great difficulty people have insisting on experimental protocols suited to research in comprehending Holistic Planned Grazing because no two plans are ever the same -- even on the same property two years in a row.

What many researchers also fail to understand is that, even if Holistic Planned Grazing were somehow replicable -- as is the case with all grazing systems and rotations -- it still would provide only “results” and not the “science.” Every study conducted of Holistic Planned Grazing has provided documented results rejected as anecdotal by range scientists because there was no replication.


Can you explain why, after reading the above passage, you nonetheless proceeded to cite endless studies of a plethora of rotational and other grazing systems -- though not studies of Holistic Planned Grazing -- to arrive at your conclusion?

Also puzzling is your conclusion, which states: “To date, no review study has been able to demonstrate that holistic grazing is superior to conventional or continuous grazing. One possible reason is that the effects of the holistic framework for decision-making have not been appropriately accounted for in these studies. The claimed benefits of the method thus appear to be exaggerated and/or lack broad scientific support.”

First, you attempt to conflate Holistic Planned Grazing with grazing “systems” -- none of which can ultimately succeed because they fail to address the full social, environmental, and economic complexity. Then, even as you acknowledge grazing “systems” perhaps miss the “effects” of the holistic framework, you surprisingly conclude Holistic Management effects thus appear exaggerated and/or lack scientific support. Please rethink your position because it simply does not make sense.

Furthermore, I believe you are confusing academic support with scientific support, when they are entirely different. Every decision made and action taken when managing using the holistic framework relies upon the most up-to-date science available. How does using available science lack scientific support? I can, however, understand how Holistic Management lacks academic support from people who, trained in narrow silos of knowledge, fail to comprehend management that crosses all disciplines. This is why I quoted John Ralston Saul’s research in my blog and I repeat: “The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and coordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted”(1).

Unfortunately, because management of complex situations is beyond the purview and comprehension of some academics in range science, this proven approach to healing land has been met with rejection and ridicule, even as millions of people suffer and die from inadequate food and water from worsening agricultural conditions, and the whole of humanity remains endangered from seemingly intractable soil degradation and erosion playing a major role in climate change.

If either of you, from your own work rather than by citing papers that have been rebutted (2,3,4,5), is aware of any aspect of Holistic Management that is not based on the best science available today, please let everyone know. I will acknowledge your finding and use all means available to spread it globally.

The second main point in your conclusion concerns the conflict between conventional academic range science and the science used in Holistic Planned Grazing. You state, specifically, “Some claims concerning holistic grazing are directly at odds with scientific knowledge, e.g. the causes of land degradation.” This is true. As expected, academic range “science” and the science used to manage grazing holistically are totally different. This was the point made in my TED talk when I pointed out that we once believed the world was flat -– we were wrong then and we are wrong again.

Range “science” -- so far as I can ascertain -- is based not on any known science, but on ancient and widespread societal beliefs that assumed scientific validity without questioning.

Examples? The belief, conveyed in thousands of range science papers and dissertations, that land can be overgrazed -- when clearly only plants are grazed or overgrazed. The belief that overgrazing is caused by too many animals instead of, correctly, by how much time animals have access to plants. This belief is so deep that, in reading through hundreds of papers and Ph.D. dissertations over the years, I have yet to find even one that bothered to define overgrazing -- because everyone “knew” it was due to too many animals. This erroneous belief, central to the mission of environmental organizations, fundamental to laws and regulations, and the basis of international policy, underlies much conflict in the United States and throughout the world including the mass emigration from North African shores that is changing the political face of Europe.

I have never found any scientific paper establishing any connection between the sheer number of animals and overgrazing. As mentioned in my TED talk, believing this myth at the beginning of my career led me to “prove” that land was degrading because there were too many elephants. Even after the tragic mistake of culling 40,000 elephants, the land continued to worsen. Despite this momentous learning opportunity, we -- humans -- continue to accept this ancient belief as do nearly all range academics.

The science used for Holistic Planned Grazing was supplied by Frenchman Andre Voisin, who established that overgrazing was a function of time and not the number of animals. Despite his research having remained unchallenged for some 60 years, despite publication in four major languages -- and all the lives lost in unnecessary violence with pastoralists as a result of ignoring his insights -- conventional range “science” has still not yet acknowledged Voisin’s profound discovery. Land managers utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing have relied upon this scientific information now for over half a century and not found it wanting.

Similarly, a basic belief of conservation and range “science” is that resting land benefits all environments. That is why I used this image as well as a photo of one of the research plots established all over the Western U.S. but ignored by range academics.


As is clear to the eye, despite over half a century of rest, free from any overgrazing, and despite vast sums having been spent on soil conservation measures, this national park is desertifying as badly as anywhere in Africa. With the exception of Keith Weber’s fine work (6), there are no other peer-reviewed papers on the topic of rest causing harm of which I am aware. The paucity of papers on this topic may reflect the fact that range academics, in general, simply do not believe resting land can cause so much damage. So, again, Holistic Management science differs from conventional range beliefs assumed to be scientifically valid on this point for good reason.

Furthermore, we identified over twenty-five years ago the concepts of the “brittleness scale” and of “partial rest.” Successful land managers worldwide find these insights essential, and the ideas are rapidly gaining traction in universities and with a new generation of farmers -- young and old -- committed to the regenerative agricultural revolution. However, to the best of my knowledge, these concepts do not yet appear in academic journals. One could surmise that range science, based on its poor track record, is not actually science at all but, instead, a collection of beliefs.

If you are aware of any research that indicates overgrazing is a function of animal numbers rather than time, then please share this information. If you know of any low- or high-rainfall, brittle environment in the world where resting the land -- either partially or totally -- is enhancing biodiversity, then please enlighten us.

Tragically, some of the worst land degradation and loss of biodiversity is occurring in national parks surrounding the area where I live in Africa. This devastation is in sharp contrast with the land restoration we are seeing at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management as a result of Holistic Planned Grazing performed by an increasingly large, mixed herd of cows, sheep, and goats. The abundance of wildlife on this verdant and fertile landscape can be stunning. Consider visiting to see for yourself. Many scientists, policymakers, and journalists have already done so over the years.

I encourage you to watch Episode 2, "Plains," of the National Geographic documentary series "Earth - A New Wild" (2015, 54 mins.). It shows how conservation biologist M. Sanjayan, senior scientist at Conservation International and former lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy, traveled to Zimbabwe to meet with me and to learn firsthand about Holistic Planned Grazing.

After seeing thriving grasslands that were restored during a stretch of abnormally dry years, Sanjayan says, in this documentary, "If Allan is right, then we may have to completely rethink life on the plains. The message is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it could be the best thing, the absolute best thing that conservation has ever discovered. … In a million years, I never thought that cows could be so beneficial for the wildlife I love. … As an ecologist, I was taught that people, and especially their livestock, are the enemy of wildlife, but my journey from Africa to the Arctic to here in Montana, is forcing me to rethink everything I know about conservation.” - Dr. M. Sanjayan


Carbon sequestration figures

Lastly, you cite various figures on the potential for sequestration of carbon in the world’s soils. You might note that I, myself, never do so. In my TED talk I said clearly that people who know far more about carbon than I do state that the potential is significant. According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Soil carbon sequestration at a global scale is considered the mechanism responsible for the greatest mitigation potential within the agricultural sector, with an estimated 90 percent contribution to the potential of what is technically feasible” (7). I went on to state that if these estimates are correct, and if we achieved comparable drawdown on only half of the world’s grassland, we could achieve certain atmospheric results: a significant lowering of the carbon dioxide concentration in the air.

I did not quote any figures because I was not aware at the time of any data established with the scientific rigour that I would be prepared to put my name to. However, reliable soil carbon sequestration data is now becoming available from scientists studying the use of grazing to regenerate soil. I encourage all those interested in this topic to familiarize themselves with the most up-to-date information on the matter (8,9).

Almost all the figures you cite are from studies on land subjected to partial rest and overgrazing of plants, which is not surprising as this is what is advocated by range academics and is generally standard practice worldwide. Based on my repeated “on the ground” observations over many decades, all of the land being managed in this way in brittle environments, covering about two thirds of the world’s land, is desertifying to varying degrees.

For some years, I showed pictures accompanying one of your cited author’s work in which he “established” that there was no difference in the carbon/nitrogen balance between grazed and ungrazed land. Of course this was the conclusion, but not for the reasons explained in his paper. Look at this picture and you would, I believe, agree there is likely to be no difference in, say, the amount of carbon sequestered on either side of the fence.


One side is “grazed land” (that is, if you believe land can be grazed) and the other is ungrazed land -- totally protected with all animals excluded. These two extremes have existed side-by-side for over half a century. The explanation as to why there is no difference in the condition of the land on either side of the fence -- because total rest and partial rest are both deleterious -- is absent from the peer-reviewed papers I’ve seen, such as the ones you relied upon. This is because range academics do not believe resting or conservation can be bad.

What I am saying is not new. I have been teaching it for years and my textbook has been used in more than twenty universities and colleges, but range academics -- just as they ignored Voisin’s ground-breaking work because it conflicted with their beliefs -- have ignored this, too. Thankfully, increasing numbers of academics and other scientists are taking note. I was particularly pleased when Michigan State University became the first U.S. university to establish a Savory Institute Hub as part of a growing, global network of hubs offering opportunities to learn about Holistic Management.

The simple and, I believe, inarguable fact is that by conservative estimates we lose over 75 billion tons of soil per year through erosion, more than 10 tons for every human alive. Most of this soil loss comes from croplands constituting only about 20% of the world’s land area. The actual figures would be even more alarming if the far greater but ignored erosion from the other 80% of the world’s land, much of which is brittle environment grasslands, were to be included. In addition, we are burning billions of hectares of land annually. All of this is contributing enormously to global scale desertification and climate change.

If we reject the use of livestock to solve the biological problem of desertification, then what can you offer constructively to give some hope to billions of young people? As I have explained in my blogs, we seem to believe we have thousands of options but this is not the case. Humans have to use some “tool” to fix desertification and to sequester carbon in regenerating soils even as we cut emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Although we have myriad forms of technology, can you suggest any, even from science fiction, that could replace the burning of biomass while also reversing manmade desertification? In over fifty years of posing this question to fellow scientists, not one has been able to come up with a technological solution.

What else, then, do you advocate? We can use fire. But fire, of course, being rapid oxidation, cannot replace biological decay of annually dying plant material in the vast brittle environments occupying two-thirds of the world’s land. And, fire causes atmospheric pollution, bare soil, less effective rainfall, and desertification.
For the vast majority of human existence, the only two tools at our disposal for managing our environment -- including grasslands in brittle regions -- were technology and fire. The only other options are resting the land or using technology to plant trees and other flora.

Resting the land is one of the greatest causes of desertification and no amount of planting trees, shrubs, forbs, or grasses addresses the cause of desertification. As a result, all such planting programs eventually fail, as they have failed for thousands of years. Conversely, it is important to note that in regions where the atmosphere is more humid and desertification is not occurring, tree-planting programs and resting the environment (“conservation”) work well.

My questions are serious. The future of humanity is at stake.

(1) John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West

(2) Gill, C. 2009a. Chris Gill to David Briske.

(3) Gill, C. 2009b. Doing What Works. Range Magazine. Fall. 2009. pp 48-50.

(4) Teague, W.R., Dowhower, S.L., Baker, S.A., Haile, N., DeLaune, P.B., Conover, D.M., 2011. Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tallgrass prairie. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 141, 310-322.

(5) Wolf, K. (2016). “Revisiting the Rotational and Continuous Grazing System Debate Via Meta-Analysis,” chapter two in “Examinations of the Ecology, Management, and Restoration of Rangeland Ecosystems,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Davis.

(6) Weber, K., & Horst, S. (2011). Desertification and livestock grazing: The roles of sedentarization, mobility and rest. Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice, 1(19), 1-11. doi:10.1186/2041-7136-1-19

(7) Gattinger, A., et al (2012). Enhanced top soil carbon stocks under organic farming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(44), 18226-18231. doi:10.1073/pnas.1209429109

(8) W.R. Teague, S. Apfelbaum, R. Lal, U.P. Kreuter, J. Rowntree, C.A. Davies, R. Conser, M. Rasmussen, J. Hatfield, T. Wang, F. Wang, and P. Byck, 2016. The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture's carbon footprint in North America
Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
March/April 2016 vol. 71 no. 2 156-164

(9) Machmuller, B. M. et al. Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter. Nat. Commun. 6:6995 doi: 10.1038/ncomms7995 (2015).