Holistic Management

What it is

Holistic management (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) in agriculture is a systems thinking approach to managing resources that was originally developed by Allan Savory for reversing desertification.

In 2010 the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, Operation Hope (a "proof of concept" project using holistic management) was named the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for "recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet's ecosystems."


While originally developed as a tool for range land use and restoring desertified land, the holistic management system can be applied to other areas with multiple complex socioeconomic and environmental factors.
One such example is Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which promotes sector integration in development and management of water resources to ensure that water is allocated between different users in a fair way, maximizing economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. In essence, coordinated holistic water management takes into consideration all water users in nature and society.
Another example is mine reclamation.
A fourth use of Holistic management is in certain forms of no till crop production, intercropping, and permaculture.
Holistic management has been acknowledged by The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS).


The holistic management decision-making framework uses six key steps to guide the management of resources:

  1. Define in its entirety what you are managing. No area should be treated as a single-product system. By defining the whole, people are better able to manage. This includes identifying the available resources, including money, that the manager has at his disposal.
  2. Define what you want now and for the future. Set the objectives, goals and actions needed to produce the quality of life sought, and what the life-nurturing environment must be like to sustain that quality of life far into the future.
  3. Watch for the earliest indicators of ecosystem health. Identify the ecosystem services that have deep impacts for people in both urban and rural environments, and find a way to easily monitor them. One of the best examples of an early indicator of a poorly functioning environment is patches of bare ground. An indicator of a better functioning environment is newly sprouting diversity of plants and a return or increase of wildlife.
  4. Don't limit the management tools you use. The eight tools for managing natural resources are money/labor, human creativity, grazing, animal impact, fire, rest, living organisms and science/technology. To be successful you need to use all these tools to the best of your ability.
  5. Test your decisions with questions that are designed to help ensure all your decisions are socially, environmentally and financially sound for both the short and long term.
  6. Monitor proactively, before your managed system becomes more imbalanced. This way the manager can take adaptive corrective action quickly, before the ecosystem services are lost. Always assume your plan is less than perfect and use a feedback loop that includes monitoring for the earliest signs of failure, adjusting and re-planning as needed. In other words use a "canary in a coal mine" approach.

Four Principles

Holistic management planned grazing has four key principles that take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between large herds of grazing animals, their predators and the grasslands that support them:

  1. Nature functions as a holistic community with a mutualistic relationship between people, animals and the land. If you remove or change the behavior of any keystone species like the large grazing herds, you have an unexpected and wide ranging negative impact on other areas of the environment.
  2. It is absolutely crucial that any agricultural planning system must be flexible enough to adapt to nature’s complexity, since all environments are different and have constantly changing local conditions.
  3. Animal husbandry using domestic species can be used as a substitute for lost keystone species. Thus when managed properly in a way that mimics nature, agriculture can heal the land and even benefit wildlife, while at the same time benefiting people.
  4. Time and timing is the most important factor when planning land use. Not only is it crucial to understand how long to use the land for agriculture and how long to rest, it is equally important to understand exactly when and where the land is ready for that use and rest.