Taking a Holistic Approach to Sustainable Agriculture

The holistic approach to sustainable agriculture has been around a long time but has been largely ignored. During these difficult times of economic, social, and environmental woes, a holistic process of managing life, farmland, and business could mean the difference between prosperity and disaster. Improving the way people make decisions produces life-changing results for many.

The concept of holism was introduced by Jan Smuts in 1926 through his book Holism and Evolution. He expresses that nature and life in general function in “wholes” which are interrelated. They exist on many different levels and are dynamic. Whatever happens in one of these wholes influences the other wholes. Acknowledging this relationship helps one to better understand both nature and the man-made components of the world.

While working in the former Rhodesia in the 1960’s, Allan Savory, a biologist and game ranger, made some startling observations and developed some key insights to the understanding of why land degradation and desertification occur. In spite of the good intentions and broad applications of accepted practices and modern science, this phenomenon was and still is occurring at an alarming rate. Based on the principles of Smut’s holism, Savory developed the decision-making framework called Holistic Management. This process of looking at the big picture and making decisions based on your holistic goal is changing the lives of many while improving the land. Ranchers and farmers report increases in production, biodiversity, quality of forages, biological activity, profits and an improved quality of life. Unfortunately, many mainstream scientists refuse to accept the idea, nor are they willing to give the process a try.

In agriculture, the concept has amazing potential for application. The process recognizes the need to consider the environmental, economic, and social components of the farm. Decisions are goal based using a comprehensive vision of what is desired, what must be produced to sustain it, and how that would look. Decisions are tested based on that comprehensive goal and progress is monitored. One of the fallacies that humans often believe is that we can study and dissect nature, thereby understanding it. However, nature is a bit too complex for our minds to fully comprehend. Therefore, when making decisions — especially those that affect the environment — we must monitor! We look for the earliest sign that we are getting off course and correct the situation at the first opportunity. If we are really far from what we intended, we re-plan and test a different course of action.

Although each farm and situation is unique, the process may be used anywhere and in any type of operation if people are willing to try it. Many farmers and ranchers use the philosophy of mimicking nature and following natural cycles. This usually results in less labor and the decreased need for inputs such as money, fertilizer or fossil fuels.

It’s a simple concept for a complex situation and one that is just beginning to gain recognition. It does mean changing the way we think and also requires some discipline. Taking a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture may be the best hope for humans and the future of our world.

Sandra M. Matheson, DVM is a rancher, holistic management educator, and retired veterinarian. Innovative resources are available to help ranchers and farmers take a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture.

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