Holistic Management

Global Warming and Holistic Management

By Seth Itzkan

As many of you no doubt already realize, global warming is the predominant issue of our time. It is the elephant in the room.  This is the focus of my activism and I am committed to finding solutions. One of the most promising solutions I’ve come upon is equally the most intellectually stimulating. It mitigates global warming while restoring grasslands, replenishing water tables, increasing biodiversity and feeding people. In order to learn more about this practice and witness it firsthand, I’ve traveled to Zimbabwe where I volunteered at the Africa Center for Holistic Management. They work with neighboring villages to restore their grasslands. I have blogged about my visits here, Hut With a View.  Additional information about Holistic Management on the Savory Institute website.

There are two striking facets at the heart of this innovation. One concerns the practice, which uses livestock, and the other concerns climate, which is impacted by grassland health.  Further explanation below, but first an overview of what the managing lands holistically looks like.

Hope for a Livable Climate: A Quick Presentation

Reversal of Desertification, South Africa


Photo credit: Kroon Family

Left side of fence shows the Kroon family ranch in the Karoo Region of South Africa. Average rainfall is 230 mm. This land is under Holistic Management, i.e., more animals, tightly packed, frequent, controlled, and well-planned movements – mimicking impact of natural herds, restoring soil (retaining carbon and water) while providing livelihood opportunities. No technology, irrigation, or fertilizer is needed. Right side of fence shows conventional, low-density “continuous” grazing, that quickens desertification, leading to loss of carbon and water, and consequently, diminished livelihood opportunities. Reversing desertification is a global warming mitigation strategy because atmospheric carbon is captured in stable and long lasting organic molecules in the soil. Improvement in soil and vegetative cover also restores water tables and contributes to evaporative cooling.

Reversal of Desertification, Mexico



Photo credits: Guillermo Osuna.

Las Pilas Ranch in Coahuila, Mexico. Average rainfall 500 mm. The arrows mark the same point on the horizon. Over a twenty-five year period, from 1978 to 2003, the barren landscape was completely revived. (Although the first picture is from 1963, the restoration with Holistic Management didn’t start until 1978.) During the restoration period, the livestock population was doubled and grazing was done according to a plan that paid close attention to grass health. Although there appears to be more water in the earlier photo, the man-made pond shown is merely runoff captured by a constructed dirt dam. The dry, sandy land surrounding it retains no water. The restored terrain in the later photo is estimated to hold at least six-times as much water as the depleted terrain, but now the water is held in the soil and vegetative matter in a state referred to as “green water.” Previously, a one-inch rainfall would fill the trough. After restoration, even a six-inch rainfall is all absorbed (as it should be). The trough has grown over and is no longer needed to water the animals, as formerly dried-up springs in the vicinity have begun flowing year-round once again.

Reversal of Desertification, Zimbabwe

Zim - elbow - 2006 - w date & ovalZim - elbow - 2009 - w date & oval




Photo credits: ACHM, Seth Itzkan

This time-series sequence shows the transformation from a barren landscape in Zimbabwe to a healthy grassland savanna. Average annual rainfall is 600 mm. The land, which had been barren for decades, is “treated” with a heavy concentration of animals.  About 500 cattle are corralled on the site for 7 to 10 evenings, leaving an excessive amount of dung and plant litter. Within one year after the animal treatment, short-rooted annuals start to grow (the white stringing plants).  With the emergence of plants, the land is thus incorporated into a carefully monitored grazing plan. After only a few years, the annuals are densely packed and providing good ground cover that helps retain moisture and builds biodiversity in the soil, creating a home for microbes, insects, and the like. These annual plants are a necessary first-phase in the restoration, but they don’t do much for carbon capture. After about 8 years, however, the perennials start to show up (the taller pinkish-beige colored plants). These have deep roots and accelerate carbon capture in the soil. The perennials represent a “positive tipping point” in the soil recovery. Eventually, this landscape will be covered in perennials, as long as the grazing plan continues. If the grazing stops, however, the plants will oxidize, and the land will return to its prior desertified state. The savanna needs grazing.

Reversal of Desertification, Zimbabwe (with Yours Truly)



Photo credits: ACHM, Seth Itzkan

This photo collage shows a 2013 picture (me included) from a site in Zimbabwe superimposed on a 2004 photo taken from the same spot. The explanation of the transformation is described in the photo sequence above. In this collage one can clearly see the change from barren to healthy landscape. Particularly, note the emergence of deep-rooted perennial plants among the annuals. The perennials will be instrumental in capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it in stable organic molecules in the soil. Of course, the erosion has also stopped. This is only possible, because animals, in higher concentrations with controlled movements, have been added back into the management of the land.

Future Possibilities

The above series show actual and simulated pictures to illustrate future possibilities. The top left shows a barren landscape in Zimbabwe, typical of the region and much of the world where once healthy grasslands have degraded.  As we saw from the previous examples, land like this can be quickly restored, with dense annuals appearing in only a few years and the deep-rooted perennials appearing some years later. The simulation above shows how that land can look in 3 to 5 years after treatment with animals and inclusion into a proper grazing plan. Eventually, that location could be covered in perennials and actively capturing carbon while replenishing the water table. The bottom left shows a dried gully in the Chaco Canyon area of New Mexico.  Note how there is no grass left at all and even the woody brush is dead or dying. There is no soil and thus, nothing to hold moisture.  Lack of rainfall is not the problem. Even at 8 to 9 inches of rain per year, there should still be a healthy cover of grass, as there is in the Karoo photo above (similar rain profile). This area can be restored, and with proper management and policy formation, it will be again. If we can picture it, we can achieve it.

Grasslands Love Carbon

Map from White et al (2000). Additions from Seth Itzkan.

Grasslands are the largest ecosystem on the planet (not counting oceans). They cover approximately 40% of the landed surface. They are also prodigious stores of carbon, holding approximately 735 gigatons in the first 100 centimeters. This is approximately 35% of all terrestrial carbon and nearly equal to all the carbon in the atmosphere. Estimates are that historic terrestrial carbon loss from land degradation (via deforestation and agriculture) is approximately 450 to 530 gigatons, or 35% larger, at a minimum, than the carbon release from all fossil fuel burning since 1750. Even if half of the lost organic carbon were restored in forests and grassland ecosystems, climate change could be significantly mitigated if not reversed. Because carbon in soil can be bound longer than carbon in trees and other vegetation (with estimates of decades to millennia), soil restoration is the best hope for large scale and long lasting carbon capture, and grasslands are the largest ecosystem in which to facilitate this drawdown.

Estimates of Historic Carbon Emissions Through Land Use / Soil Depletion

537 Gt C (Buringh, 1984)
500 Gt C (Wallace, 1994)
480 Gt C (Ruddiman, 2003)
456 Gt C (Lal, 2004) p 1625

Estimate of Cumulative Carbon Emissions From All Fossil Fuel Combustion: 1751 to 2010

337 Gt C (Boden, Marland, & Andres, 2010) – for the DOE, http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob.html

How We Think About The Future

Two versions of a New Scientist cover tell different narratives about our future. The cover on the left is real, from the February 25, 1999 issue, and the cover on the right is made up. It is suspected that images of the future influence outcomes. The captions on the doom-and-gloom scenario on the left read, “Earth 2099 … Population crashes … Mass Migration … Vast new deserts … Cities abandoned … How to survive the century”. The captions on the hopeful scenario on the right read, “Climate stabilization … Vast new grasslands … Water tables replenished … Sustainable economies … How to restore promise this century”. The cover on the right is more likely to help us achieve a desirable future. When we realize that everything mentioned in the positive cover is possible, entertaining such thoughts is no longer merely fanciful thinking, but is legitimate goal setting. We need to change how we think about the future if we want to achieve these goals.

The New Face of Climate Heroes

new face of climate heroes

We have come to think that climate heroes are only scientists or protesters. Hopefully we can realize that climate heroes are also everyday people, including livestock herders in Africa. Many are doing what they have always done, except now slightly modified, using animals to impact landscapes the way nature intended, restoring degraded ecosystems and providing promise for the future.

How Holistic Management Works

Livestock as Restorative Proxies for Wild Herds

Regarding the practice, Holistic Management does the rather unthinkable thing of using domestic ruminants (livestock – cattle, goat, sheep) as a restorative force. This is achieved by moving the livestock in a quite unconventional way that mimics the behavior, and thus the beneficial impacts, of wild ruminant herds, now decimated, such as buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, etc., that native grasslands and savannas evolved with. The dynamic between grasslands and their grazers is one of the most spectacular examples of coevolution. Neither can exist without the other. It is theorized that the degradation of the world’s grasslands, moving from prairie to desert, is as much due to the decimation of the wild grazers, as it is to the disruption of agriculture.  Even without the introduction of tillage, native grasslands will wither without the essential biological impacts that wild grazers provided.

Thus, in the absence of wild herds of grazers, which are today almost entirely extinct, Holistic Management uses domestic ruminants to achieve similar outcomes in a native grassland ecosystem. Doing this is counter-intuitive, of course, because for so long domestic ruminants has been ruinous to their surroundings. On close examination, however, this is because the management of the animals was unlike anything that existed in nature. Invariably, the conventional management involved too few animals being more or less stationary, thus overgrazing the plants while also not churning the soil in the fashion of a densely packed and mobile herd. Grasslands need many animals in flux, like flocks of birds or fish. In the Holistic Management practice, villagers, or private ranchers, combine small groups of livestock into a large, tightly packed herd that is always moving, like nature intended, not staying long on any location, and not returning to graze until plants are recovered. When managed properly, this way, outcomes are quite unlike those we are used to seeing.  Severely degraded land has been restored to healthy savanna, complete with dense grass cover, robust wildlife, and replenished surface water.

Grasslands as Prodigious Carbon Sinks

The second striking point concerns climate. It turns out that grasslands are major players. Approximately 40% of the landed non-ice surface of the planet is grasslands in one form or another, including prairie, steppe, savanna and semi-desert. These are all areas of seasonal rainfall that characterize most continental interiors. They also are areas that were once home to unimaginable populations of wild ruminant herds. Thirty to seventy million buffalo roamed North America before the European invasion, and with their predators and other grazing and burrowing species, such as the four billion prairie dogs, made the American Great Plains the fertile, carbon rich, land that it was.

Although, admittedly, grasslands may not look like much, if you could peek below the surface, you’d see oceans of terrestrial carbon, and to a climate scientist, this is pure excitement. The carbon is stored as complex organic molecules in the soils that are enriched through a symbiotic relationship with perennial plants roots which may extend fifteen feet below the base. These grasslands are estimated to contain 730 gigatons of carbon, or 35% of all soil organic carbon on the planet. This carbon (not to be confused with fossil carbon – coal and oil) is part of the carbon cycle and thus part of the balance of atmospheric carbon that also includes fluxes from the oceans. What has been long known, but more recently relevant to the climate discussion, is that the cultivation of land for agriculture, and thus the demise of healthy grasslands, is historically a mammoth contributor of carbon to the atmosphere. Degrading soil is a type of a “burning” as organic carbon in oxidized when exposed to the sun and air. Estimates of the release of carbon into the atmosphere from land degradation range from approximately 450 to 530 gigatons. This is 35% greater, at a minimum, than the carbon emissions from all fossil fuel burning since 1750, which is estimated at approximately 340 gigatons.

The opportunity here is that what was once lost, can be restored. If we restore only 50% of what has been lost, we can capture 200 gigatons of atmospheric carbon, enough to significantly mitigate global warming. The process of restoring soil, means, literally, replenishing the carbon within. Healthy soil has more carbon than degraded soil. It’s that simple. This isn’t how we typically think of ecosystem restoration, but that’s what is happening. The darker and the deeper the soil, the greater the carbon stock. There are approximately 10 billion acres of degraded grasslands soils that are potential sinks for carbon capture.  My goal, and, I would argue, a desirable goal of all climate activists, in addition to eliminating fossil fuel burning, is to restore grassland ecosystems.  This is essential in order to capture excess atmospheric carbon and assure a safe climate for our future.

Reversing Desertification = Mitigating Global Warming = Environmental Justice = Social Justice = Economic Justice = Desirable Future

While visiting Africa, I came face-to-face with desertification, abject poverty, and the developed world’s idea of help, which is distributing bags of rice. I was embarrassed to look at people who were standing on line for handouts (always women and children) and could see the shame on their faces.  I also, fortunately, saw an alternative scenario of abundance, restoration, and self-reliance. Proud villages with good crops, taking care of themselves and ready to share. That is where my heart lies. What I also realize is that all these issues are intertwined. Reversing desertification, mitigating global warming, and achieving environmental, social and economic justice are all facets of the same whole. Many of the colleagues I met in Africa engaged in land restoration were women’s rights advocates. This is because women are always the ones that have to fetch the water, and, as rivers dry up, their hikes become longer and more excruciating. The land restoration process directly impacts the welfare of women, which impacts family, which impacts community, which impacts state.

In the first world, we only see global warming as a technology issue – better windmills and the like – but for most of the world, it’s a land health issue. Desertification leads to famine while also exacerbating drought and regional warming. We need to address the root causes of these problems. Holistic Management helps do that by simply and effectively allowing small scale and subsistence land and livestock owners to restore their degraded grassland surroundings. This is simultaneously helping themselves and their environment. Much of this work is being pioneered in Africa (as some of the slides below will show), including South Africa, where Mandela was from.

The struggle for land restoration is a struggle for justice. Either people will be self-reliant and living in balance with their ecosystem, or they’ll be subjected to external hierarchies that are inevitably degrading and deleterious. Where land is restored, people are elevated and global warming is lessened. It would make Nelson Mandela proud. We are bending the moral arc of the universe.

Closing & Contact

Below is an overview of this topic including pictures I’ve taken in Zimbabwe. If you haven’t yet seen it, I gave a TEDx talk on the matter in 2012 and was interviewed in Worldwatch. I hope to return to Zimbabwe in early 2014. If you have any questions, or would like to help, please call or email me.

All the best,


Boden, T. A., Marland, G., & Andres, R. (2010), Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions (O. R. N. L. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Trans.). Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.: U.S. Department of Energy.

Buringh, P. (1984), Organic Carbon in Soils of the World. In G. M. Woodwell (Ed.), The Role of Terrestrial Vegetation in the Global Carbon Cycle: Measurement by Remote Sensing, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Lal, R. (2004), Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security. Science, 304(5677), 1623-1627 doi: 10.1126/science.1097396

Ruddiman, W. (2003), The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era  Began Thousands of Years Ago. Climatic Change, 61, 261-293.

Wallace, A. (1994), Soil organic matter must be restored to near original levels. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis 25(1-2), 29-35. doi: 10.1080/00103629409369000

White, R., et al. (2000), Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Grassland Ecosystems. Washington, DC, World Resources Institute: 81.


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