Biodynamic Farming: Going Beyond Organic Agriculture in Search of a Truly Holistic Method of Growing Food

HJ: Organic farming is wonderful and I am grateful it exists, but Biodynamics is really the future for anyone who cares about food quality and health. What is ironic about this is that the Biodynamic methodology was developed prior to the concept of organic farming.  Organics are largely an offshoot of  the concept of biodynamic agriculture, based around similar core principles. However, as organic farming grows in popularity, its standards are becoming diluted by large corporations whose primary motive is profitability, not quality or conscience.

What exactly is biodynamic farming? It is a highly evolved system of growing food that incorporates cosmic cycles, spiritual awareness and highly specific herbal compost and plant nutrient formulas above and beyond the fundamental principles of organic agriculture. Biodynamics is much stricter and less amenable to industrialization, as it would be difficult to implement on massive scales — outside of a decentralized, local food movement model, which is truly the only sustainable alternative available at this time that could meet the world’s food needs. Biodynamics is about creating an entire mini-ecosystem on a farm — with soil health as the principle concern, whereas organics in this day and age are typically about maximizing crop production per acre using natural methods.  While far better for soils than conventional farming, organic agriculture still stresse soils out if they are not properly and consciously taken care of.

Learning the difference between Biodynamics and organics is an important distinction and one that this article helps us understand.

– Truth

Organic Versus Biodynamic Agriculture: Agricultural Production Methods

By Stephanie Zonis | The Nibble

In 1924, one Rudolf Steiner, born in the area that is now Slovenia, combined two of his greatest interests, philosophy and science, and laid out the basis for something called “anthroposophy.” According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA, www.biodynamics.com), anthroposophy is “a new approach to science which integrates precise observation of natural phenomena, clear thinking, and knowledge of the spirit.” Anthroposophy is inextricably linked with the principles of agricultural production that most people know today as biodynamics.

Steiner turned to agriculture quite late in his lifetime. He believed that the introduction of chemicals into the farming system (including the same synthetic fertilizers andpesticides eschewed today by organic farmers) was a major cause of degradation of vitality in the soil. Unlike today’s organic practitioners, however, Steiner believed this degradation came about because of a spiritual dearth in those substances, not because of any hazardous materials or properties they contained. This lack of vitality in the soil would lead to a similar deficit in the plants grown in it, and, ultimately, in the humans who consumed those plants. Incidentally, the term “biodynamic,” short for “biologically dynamic,” was not Steiner’s; his followers came up with it.

The Debut of “Organic Farming” & Dual Systems

In the early 1940’s, Jerome Rodale, an American inspired by, among others, Steiner, began farming organically. The use of the term “organic farming” dates back to 1940, when it was mentioned in Lord Walter Northbourne’s book, Look to the Land.  Organic farming is based on the ideas of soil fertility, biodiversity, and stopping the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Is one system preferable over another? It would be difficult to answer that question in an article of this length, but we can examine elements of the two systems; there are a number of significant divergences in philosophy and practice. One of the biggest differences I’ve found is in the area of soil. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (ofrf.org), organic farmers seek to “nourish the living component of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients.” In other words, organics is about building up and keeping fertile soil. In biodynamics, the soil itself is treated as a living organism.

Biodynamics includes the use of “cosmic rhythms,” where different phases or cycles of the sun, moon, planets, and stars determine both the quantity and quality of their light that reaches plants. By paying close attention to a very detailed planting calendar, biodynamic farmers are given precise dates and times for everything from the best time to apply pest controls to optimum dates and hours for sowing. So specific is this calendar that it often provides a range of days and certain hours with favorable or unfavorable lunar or planetary aspects. An example of this is: “Monday, December 19 @ 11:00 p.m. through Thursday, December 22 @ 2:00 p.m. (Avoid two hours before and after Venus’ upper nodal point @ 11:00 p.m. on December 21.),” taken from the planting calendar on the BDA website.

Composting is important on most organic farms; it is vital to the success of a biodynamic operation. Composting, building up and enriching soil via natural means, is part of the perfectly reasonable logic that humans have wreaked havoc upon the planet’s natural resources, not least, our soil. Biodynamics carries matters a step further. The BDA appears to regard organic agriculture, at least in the U.S., as a well-meaning but weak and excessively limited practice, one that has strayed from its foundations. To quote from the BDA’s website: “Organic agriculture rightly wants to halt the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing Earth.” The BDA believes that biodynamics does have a cure for “the ailing Earth.” This cure comes in the form of “medicines,” prepared by biodynamics practitioners from both plant and animal materials, combined according to strict formulations during particular times of the year. These preparations are then buried in compost piles for set amounts of time, which, the BDA states, organizes “the chaotic elements within the compost piles.” When done, these “medicines” benefit the Earth by drawing “new life forces from the cosmos.” An example is a preparation of chamomile blossoms, which is stuffed into cattle intestines, buried in the fall, and dug up again in the spring.

Self-containment is not necessarily a principle of organic farming, but a self-contained farm is put forth as an ideal in the biodynamics system. This sounds wonderful, but I question the practicality of such an ideal. It is extraordinarily difficult for any farm operation to function as a self-contained unit. The Demeter Association, whose American branch is the sole biodynamic certifier in the U.S., correctly declares that importation of materials onto a farm “reintroduces some of the same set of problems that conventional agriculture presents, namely dependence on the earth’s natural resources to transport, mine, and refine a myriad of materials.” But to insist that this can be avoided entirely through sufficient time and “foresight in developing the right farming system” strikes me as being too narrow-minded. I don’t know that an agricultural operation, especially one just starting out as organic or biodynamic, can be expected to have a full grasp of all materials that will be necessary for self-containment five or ten years down the road.

Incidentally, if biodynamics sounds like a return to the days of hippies and protest marches, you’d better think again. Remember that, in the U.S., organic production methods were viewed the same way until very recently. Now, organics are serious business, with an increasingly larger share of the American market in several sectors. Given the amount of work required and the restrictions placed on both organic and biodynamic farming, neither can be a casual endeavor if you want to make a living from your operation. There may be some hippies in both production systems, but I can guarantee you they haven’t the time to sit around trading love beads.

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