What is Holistic Agriculture?

Carol Schaffer
Photo: C. Schaffer

Recently, I watched a TV program about rehabilitation of sloths illegally taken from the wild for the pet trade in Colombia. According to the narrator, the sloths were treated with holistic medicine. This puzzled me. I thought holistic medicine involved treatment of body, mind, spirit, and emotions. I couldn’t help wondering what we know about the mental, spiritual, and emotional life of sloths.

The word “holistic” gets used in diverse contexts these days: in medicine, agriculture, design, anthropology, even the body care products industry and product branding. “Quench and Heal Lip Balm,” “Tummy Fiber,” and “Diabalance Diabetes Supplement” are a few examples of products that are marketed as holistic. In light of this proliferation of the term, I’ve been asking myself: what is holistic agriculture?

My dictionary defines holism as “a philosophic theory first formulated [in 1926] by Jan C. Smuts [which holds] that the determining factors in nature are wholes . . . which are irreducible to the sum of their parts. . . .” Although Smuts is credited with introducing this concept to Western philosophy, holism has played a central role in Eastern cultures for millennia. In fact, holism can be seen as the antithesis of Western reductionist science, in which understanding is gained by analysis of the components of a system (Nisbet et al. 2001). (See Masanobu Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution for an example of the former.)

At around the same time Smuts was advocating holism, Rudolph Steiner developed biodynamics. Farmers using biodynamics apply “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture” and “recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos [emphasis in original],” based on the premise that “within what is scientifically observable there are non material forces at work.”

Photo: USDA
Photo: USDA

The term holistic is also used to refer to a management system developed by Allan Savory, who is often credited with developing holistic management. This approach is designed to restore degraded grasslands using a method that integrates economic, social, and environmental variables (particularly movements of grazing livestock) into land management. Chad Kruger applies the term holistic in yet another context: complex process modeling of ecological factors that “enable[s] us to construct a theoretical whole.” (See Reflections on Savory: The Science and the Philosophy.)

Complicating things even further, a Worldwatch Institute blog lists five holistic alternative farming methods, which include “Duck attack on the rice paddies of Asia,” “It is all about the bushes and the bees in Canada,” “Ancient and modern aquaponics around the world,” “‘Do nothing but microorganisms’ farming in Thailand,” as well as “Polyculture—an agricultural system that tries to imitate the diversity of a natural ecosystem by using multiple crop and animal species in the same space.”

Ducks used to eat pests and weeds in rice paddies. Photo: S. Moore
Ducks used to eat pests and weeds in rice paddies. Photo: S. Moore

I’m left wondering what, if any, form of unconventional agriculture might not be considered holistic. In fact, Lady Eve Balfour’s foreword to a textbook on holistic agriculture equates holistic agriculture to an “ecological alternative to intensive chemical farming” (Widdowson 1987:viii).

Two themes run through these multiple meanings: inclusion of (1) a non-material dimension and (2) more variables and interactions than conventional agriculture considers. The word holism also has an emotional appeal: It can invoke nostalgia for a past that was natural, in a state of equilibrium, and sustainable, in which the earth and all its diversity was respected. (For a different perspective on farming that mimics nature, see Andy McGuire’s post Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it.) It has connotations that are anti-establishment, anti-reductionism, even revolutionary. Those may or may not be valid descriptions of holism and reasons for supporting it, but I think it is best to identify them and separate them from scientific reasons.

Does it really matter what we mean by holistic agriculture? I think it does. In both professional and interpersonal communication, I find that a lot of confusion can be avoided if we agree on what words mean.

Biodynamic agriculture is clearly holistic in the original sense of the word. But it seems to me that many other approaches to agriculture that are termed holistic are quite comfortably grounded in Western scientific traditions, although they may consider more variables than conventional agriculture.

Let me make my bias clear. I’m a product of Western culture, and I have an analytical view of the world. I believe in Western science, although I also think we can improve scientific research by including more variables and interactions between them, considering perspectives from multiple disciplines, and adding a hefty dose of humility. I don’t consider my approach holistic, although I do not discount the possibility that there are phenomena that we cannot perceive, let alone measure, with our current technology.

I would like to see the term holistic agriculture reserved for its original meaning: agriculture that encompasses a spiritual dimension in addition to component variables that we can measure; but I also realize that that is not going to happen. Language is dynamic, and other uses of the term are well established.

Nevertheless, to keep holistic agriculture from becoming a fuzzy catchphrase, I suggest that each time we encounter the word holistic in the context of agriculture, we scrutinize it, asking what, specifically, it implies in the particular context in which it is used, and if its use in that context is appropriate.



References Cited

Fukuoka, M. The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Example. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. 2001. Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review 108:291–310.

Widdowson, R. W. 1987. Towards Holistic Agriculture: A Scientific Approach. Pergamon Press, Oxford, UK.


3 comments on "What is Holistic Agriculture?"
  1. Bertie, you have some interesting examples and bring up some good points. When used to refer to agriculture, does holistic=agroecology=”sustainable and organic”=integrated=natural? And why do we gravitate to such language?

    I have come to the conclusion that there is some deep seated perception in us that things are not as they should be, in the world in general, and specifically in agriculture. Both philosophy and religion have tried to explain this; both are used in Chris Smaje’s paper “Genesis and J. Baird Callicott,” http://www.equinoxpub.com/journals/index.php/JSRNC/article/view/4137. It is behind a paywall, but you can see Smaje’s thought provoking blog, Small Farm Future, here, http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/.

    Perhaps something is wrong, and it is as Jared Diamond says, that agriculture is “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” (http://discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race) Whatever the case, unless we want people to starve, or a cataclysm, one worse than modern agriculture, reduces our population drastically, we are stuck with not just agriculture, but high-yield, intensive agriculture.

    1. Andy,
      Smaje, Callicott, and others have perceptively explored the religious and philosophical roots of our sense of alienation, which is reflected in our fondness for terms that imply a more natural approach to agriculture. In addition, I wonder why we gravitate to this language at this particular time in our history. Clearly the development of large-scale monoculture and agribusiness geared to commodity production in a globalized world has provoked a feeling of unease. More specifically, Julie Guthman1 lists five mid-20th century trends that contributed to the contemporary critique of industrialized agriculture: health food concerns, back-to-the-land experiments, the food cooperatives movement, environmentalism, and contemporary agrarian populism. My point is that in addition to exploring the spiritual roots of the sense that things on the farm are not as they should be, understanding the political, economic, and historical context of that perception can help us make choices that have an impact those trends.
      I agree with Diamond’s critique of the transition to the kind of agriculture that creates vast fields of one or a few crops. But there are other kinds of agriculture. Many societies combine hunting, gathering, and horticulture or agriculture. Sometimes we don’t recognize the resulting “unusual gardens” because they don’t look the way we think ag lands should look. For instance, until recently the Nez Perce practiced deliberate management of favored food plants such as camas, by periodically burning camas meadows and replanting all immature bulbs and about half the mature ones they dug up.2 A photo of a 19th century Nez Perce woman sorting camas shows bulbs the size of small potatoes. Today’s camas bulbs are the size of large olives. It looks to me like Nez Perce practices increased the productivity of this important food source in their unusual gardens. I don’t think this kind of management is more “natural” or better, but I do think it is important not to lose the knowledge that made it possible (as I argued here: https://csanr.wsu.edu/cultural-wisdom/).
      1 Guthman, J. 2004. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press, Berkeley.
      2 Marshall, A. G. 1999. Unusual gardens: The Nez Perce and wild horticulture on the eastern Columbia Plateau. Pp. 173-87 in D. D. Goble and P. D. Hirt, eds., Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples: Readings in Environmental History. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

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