A Primer on Biodynamics

—by Emma Onawa, HPC Member

The term organic has become a household word. Even Wal-Mart is capitalizing on organics, not, of course, because of a commitment to sustainability or a healthy lifestyle but because there’s money to be made. And agribusiness has gotten into the act for the same reason, increasingly driving the small, local organic farmer out of business. Organic farming has a great many benefits, but is there something beyond the basic principles and practices of organic farming?

Biodynamics is a holistic approach to raising food that encompasses the practices of organic farming, yet goes beyond to embrace higher spiritual principles. In fact, it predates organics. It’s the outgrowth of a series of 1924 lectures presented by Austrian scientist, philosopher, and artist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner founded the philosophy known as anthroposophy, which means “wisdom of the human being."

Steiner defined anthroposophy as a cognitive path and way of knowledge that connects the spiritual human to the universal spiritual. Anthroposophy’s primary purpose is the spiritualization of life on earth. It uses the term “spiritual science," which integrates precise observation of natural phenomena, clear thinking, and spiritual knowledge, so that a spiritual scientist experiences the spiritual energies at work everywhere. Steiner’s teachings have been applied in a variety of contexts and fields, such as architecture and education.

Biodynamics is based in anthroposophic concepts. It follows organic principles, but for different reasons. The refusal to use synthetic products is based upon a belief that such substances are spiritually dead, rather than chemically or biologically problematic. To Steiner, everything on the physical plane has a spiritual counterpart. A biodynamic farm is a unique organism with a spirit, each part contributing to the whole. To date, its use is best known in the winemaking industry. The community supported agriculture (CSA) movement was also born from the biodynamic movement.

Each biodynamic farm is a self-sufficient unit, a complete ecosystem. The farmer’s task is to observe nature and tailor biodynamic practices to the local environment. Observation is key, since it’s through the observation of nature that we learn to work in harmony with it and allow it to teach us how it works. Observation takes time, but the rewards are great.

Biodynamics parts from, or perhaps builds on, organic farming in a number of ways. Biodynamic farmers often work in conjunction with solar, lunar, and astrological rhythms. Farmers can consult calendars of such phenomena to time soil preparation and the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of crops. In addition, biodynamics uses eight specific homeopathic preparations, two or which are applied directly to crops and six of which are added to compost at specific times of the year, to contribute to the life force of soil and plants. These preparations are specifically prescribed and include the use of animal products and by-products.

The use of compost is key in biodynamic practices. Soil must be built to a stable humus. There should be the precise number of animals, which are fed from the farm, needed to provide manure for fertility. All organic wastes, including vegetable waste, leaves, and food scraps contain precious vitality that should be used in the building of soil.

Biodynamic principles and practices are complex and esoteric. Although general principles apply, they must be adapted to local conditions. This takes time and patience. Biodynamic practitioners may be seen by outsiders as dogmatic, eccentric, and even religious, although they may employ only some biodynamic practices. Yet, biodynamics and similar movements are growing, fueled by disenchantment with an organic practice that has been usurped by agribusiness and constricted by federal standards that define only which chemicals can and can’t be used, and fail to address other issues, such as the treatment of farm animals. And, organic certification is an expensive and time-consuming process.

The organic market has grown into an estimated $12 billion per year in sales and has been growing at about 20% per year. Traditional organic practitioners are seeking other ways to grow beyond the old organic terminology. The Food Alliance label indicates that the farm meets specific standards for wildlife habitat, farm workers, and chemical use. Biodynamic farms are overseen and certified by Demeter, USA. Both organizations are private and non-governmental.

It’s clear that the organic movement is due for transformation. To embrace the spirit of the early organic years, it must be redirected to small, local providers, whose ethics and commitment to sustainability are as strong, if not stronger, than the profit motive. By its nature alone, biodynamics serves to preserve these values. Although still a small movement, biodynamics has the potential to make a much greater impact, as humanity increasingly sees the value of healthy local products, and embraces lifestyles based upon more spiritual principles.

Sources:

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (http://www.biodynamics.com/)

Demeter® USA (http://www.demeter-usa.org/)

“Beyond Organic: Discovering the Secrets of Biodynamic Foods,” E Magazine, January/February 2006, v. 17, #1 (EO 62), pp. 42–43, www.emagazine.com.