Science in Society Archive

Saving the World with Biodynamic Farming

The importance of marginal farmers in India using an emergent agricultural knowledge system against the corporate takeover of farms. Sam Burcher

One farmer, one cow, one planet

What if the world were an apple? One quarter of the apple is land and the rest is water. Cut the land in half and put aside that which is deserts and mountains. Quarter what is left and the peel of one of those quarters represents the topsoil that must feed the whole world. This analogy illustrates how important it is to get the best out of the available soil to provide abundant and nutritious food for everyone on the planet [1].

Peter Proctor is a soil scientist who has worked with the stuff for over sixty years [2]. His favourite invertebrate is the earthworm, which he describes as “the unpaid servant of soil health” and his favourite animal is the cow because of all the dung it provides. Dung is something that Proctor prizes more highly than gold, jewels, fossil fuels, or many other natural resources. His recommendation for green-fingered gardeners and for the long term sustainability and security of global agricultural systems is the same: a complex preparation of medicinal plant material (see Box) added to compost, manure and slurry. The mineral enriched compost preparations lessen soil compaction, enhance the quality of topsoil, increase microbial activity and encourage earthworms.

Known as the father of the modern biodynamic farming movement in New Zealand, Proctor’s work with crisis-struck farmers in India (see also Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming )[3] over the past fifteen year provides a strong grassroots alternative to industrialised conventional agriculture, which is failing on all counts (see forthcoming I-SIS report “Food futures now, organic, sustainable and fossil fuel free” [4]) Like many other critics, he believes that we have become separated from our food by a global system of multinational corporations controlling what we grow and what we eat, and biodynamic agriculture may be the last chance this planet has for a healthy, secure, and ecologically efficient food supply.

What is biodynamic agriculture?

Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced form of organic agriculture with an emphasis on food quality and soil health [5]; and as such, uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. ‘Biodynamic’ originates from two Greek words, bios meaning life, and dynamos meaning energy. The pioneer of biodynamic agriculture was Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) an Austrian scientist, philosopher, and educator. He identified the deleterious effects on the soil and the deterioration of the health and quality of crops and livestock that farmers experienced following the introduction of chemical fertilizers at the turn of the twentieth century. In a series of eight lectures known as the “Agricultural Course” made in 1924 [6] Steiner taught the fundamental ecological principle that the farm is a living organism, an individual self-contained entity within a whole harmonious system. (This is similar to the idea that a sustainable system is like an organism [7], which will be put into practice in an integrated food and energy ‘Dream Farm 2 see How to Beat Climate Change & Post Fossil Fuel Economy [8]). In 1928, the first ecological label “Demeter” was used to certify the high quality nutritional food produced by organic and biodynamic agriculture. Since then biodynamic farming has developed to be one of the most sustainable and successful forms of organic agriculture practiced in forty countries across the world [9].

A biodynamic farm is characterized by self-sufficiency and biological diversity where crops and livestock are integrated, nutrients are recycled, and the health of the soil, the crops and animals, and the farmer too, are maintained holistically. The strength and resistance to disease of the whole system is crucial, so genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which originate from forcing bits of DNA including those from viruses and bacteria into plant cells are excluded altogether. Instead indigenous seed varieties and breeds best suited to the natural conditions (bedrock, soil, weather, flora and fauna, insects, birds and human populations) are developed for the specific locality and further distances too. Biodynamic systems weave together natural plant, animal and mineral resources within environmental limits to enhance the quality of soil and crop production and bring about ecological balance. Consideration of the farm as an ecosystem feeds into holistic management practices that embrace the environmental, social and economic aspects of the farm.

Its objectives differ significantly from those of conventional agriculture, or agribusiness, which maximizes profit with mechanical and technological inputs for unlimited exploitation of the earth’s resources. The biodynamic model feeds family and farm workers first, and then trade surpluses to the local community. A central belief is that specific natural substances are carriers of forces that create life (see Box), and that celestial rhythms, primarily the phases of the moon, directly affect terrestrial life. One main difference between organic and biodynamic farms is that organic farms often exclude animals for ethical reasons and monocrop production is common.

Why a biodynamic farming revolution?

Biodynamic farms have broad ecological implications as a blueprint for agriculture when fossil fuels are scarce (see also Which Energy? [10]). But they have cultural implications too. Today in India, biodynamic and organic farming methods represent a revolution, one farmer at a time, against the vested interests of agribusiness disguised as science and the global dominance of corporations such as Monsanto.

According to Afsar Jafri of Focus on the Global South in Mumbai, the advantage of biodynamic farming for Indian farmers is that they are practising a form of non-chemical, non-toxic farming that does not require the use of any hybrid or GM seeds. He says [1], “Monsanto is a company that monopolises and its only objective is that every farmer in the world who buys seed buys from Monsanto.” And, as 60 percent of India’s population depend on small and marginal farming, the impact of stopping traditional methods of seed saving and swapping, and taking farmers to court for patent infringement where they are fined 1-2 million rupees, is literally killing them. Jafri explains that Indian farmers want freedom and independence from corporate control. “We don’t want any Monsanto or Syngenta to tell us what seed we grow and what crop we should harvest and what food to eat” he says. This perspective reflects Ghandi’s definition of food sovereignty [11] or the right of all people to decide what they grow and eat free of international market forces (see also Beware the “Doubly Green” Revolution [12].)

What are biodynamic compost preparations?

The methodology of biodynamic compost preparations in a contemporary setting is not “voodoo doodoo”, or “muck and magic” as detractors have cursorily labelled it, but instead a scientific combination of six medicinal plant extracts and two field preparations (see Box). Dr John Reganold is the Regents Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University. He says that people may think biodynamic agriculture is strange because of the preparations, but they are so different it would be hard for anyone other than Steiner to come up with them [1]. The biodynamic preparations (BD) consist of recycled mineral, plant or animal manure extracts that are fermented over time and added in homeopathic or very dilute quantities, to compost piles, manure and slurry, which are then applied to the soil or sprayed directly onto plants. The specific properties of the medicinal compounds such as calcium (Ca), silica (Si02) and iron (Fe) regulate the decomposing and humus-forming processes in the soil and provide the rich base needed for healthy plant growth. Without humus, soil is lifeless and lacks the three major nutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) that plants need to thrive. As P and K are not present in the air, they are biodynamically “farmed” into the soil by enriching compost with the BD preparations. Thus nourished soil strengthens plant roots and generally produces nutrient rich crops not deficient in trace elements such as selenium (Se) and zinc (Zn). Reganold’s own studies demonstrate that soils treated with organic or biodynamic compost have a greater capacity to support soil microorganism activity than soils managed with mineral fertilizers and pesticides [13]. One study showed that BD preparations are effective in homeopathic quantities and significantly affect compost development by raising the temperature slightly higher to 3.5 degrees over the first eight weeks [14]. Another study that paired sixteen conventional farms with biodynamic farms found that biodynamic farms have better soils and are more profitable [15].

Biodynamic compost piles are known as “windrows” and can be up to 2ft high and 12 feet long. Windrows are built upon alternating layers of brown organic matter such as dead leaves which provides carbon and green plant matter that provides N. The BD preparations 502-507 (see fig 1) are placed 5-7 feet apart in strategically placed holes at around 20 inches deep in the pile. BD preparation 507 or liquid valerian is poured into one hole and applied all over the outside by spraying, or hand watering. The windrow is then scattered with a few handfuls of soil, covered with straw and left to decompose for six months to one year. Organic residues break down into smaller particles and are then re-synthesised into complex humic substances. Research shows that low tech methods of composting are just as effective as mechanized methods at stabilizing nutrients and humus [16].

The six medicinal plants used in biodynamic compost preparations - 502-508

502 Yarrow flowers (Archillea Millefolium) are connected to the potassium and sulphur processes and helps to draw in beneficial substances to replenish soil growth tired from many years of cultivation.

503 Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) are connected with the living calcium processes that stabilise plants nutrients, dampens down excessive fermentations and improves growth.

504 Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) the whole plant has a relationship to iron and helps to stabilise nitrogen.

505 Oak Bark (Quercus robur) is calcium rich and helps to ward off diseases and fungal attacks.

506 Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) are connected with the living silica processes activating influences in the soil and enabling the effective interrelationships of nature.

507 Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) have a strong affinity to the activity of phosphorus. They are extracted into water and sprayed over the entire compost surface

508 Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) all parts of plant used dilute as a foliar spray fungicide for plant leaves.

One level teaspoon of each preparation is added to a seven to ten tonne compost pile.

The two used in biodynamic field preparations - 500-501

500 (horn manure) is BD enriched cow manure packed inside a female cow horn and buried in the ground 40-60cm deep in autumn. In spring the fermented compost is ready to be dug up and diluted in homeopathic quantities (one teaspoon to 40-60 litres of water) then stirred for an hour in clockwise and anti clockwise directions every other minute before being applied directly onto the soil. The ‘dynamizations’, or stirring, creates a vortex that imbues the biological compounds and the water with the fundamental principle of plant life, “Order arising out of chaos” [1]. One cow horn used dilute for 1 hectare of land.

501 (horn silica) is powdered quartz packed inside a female cow horn and buried for six months through spring and summer. A dilute preparation is then applied as a foliar spray to stimulate and regulate plant growth. One cow horn used dilute for 25 hectares of land.

Dandelion (506)

Nettle (504)

Valerian (507)

Yarrow (502)

Oak Bark (505)

Chamomile (503)

Fig 1: The medicinal BD preparations arranged in a windrow

Biodynamic preparations threatened in Europe

The use of buried animal parts to make BD preparations (see Box) has always been controversial. Peter Proctor explains that cow horns retain some of the enzymes from the animal’s digestive system that act as a catalyst to further aid compost fermentation [1]. However, biodynamic farmers in Europe are facing a challenge from European Union Regulation 1774/2002 that prohibits the burial of any parts of fallen livestock on farms [17], despite no cases of BSE ever being found on biodynamic, or “Demeter” certified farms anywhere in the world. In contrast, outbreaks of animal disease such as BSE, Foot and Mouth and now, Avian Flu and Blue Tongue are ever-present threats in conventional intensive farming systems. In the UK in 2001, 594 000 cattle and 3 334 000 sheep were culled in an outbreak of Foot and Mouth, which cost the taxpayer £3 800 million [18]. This clearly calls into question the economic and environmental sustainability of conventional industrial farming

India’s organic farms work at village level

During the past fifteen years, Peter Proctor has visited India twenty five times to teach biodynamic farming methods to as many farmers as possible. Despite his eighty years, he visits ten villages a day. Proctor’s involvement is part of a major campaign to promote and encourage alternative forms of agriculture that use no synthetic inputs in response to an epidemic of farmer suicides, most of whom were farming GM crops [1]. This initiative has encouraged 10 000 biodynamic compost piles, 4 million hectares under organic farming methods and 1 000 officially supported training schemes for biodynamic and organic farms in the Maharastra region, a suicide hotspot. These farms work at village level and each village has formed an organic federation accredited at district level where farmers participate to solve their own problems. By building up their knowledge base, farmers gain independence from agribusinesses through reducing external inputs. By using biological practices such as green manures, cover cropping, companion planting, and natural insecticides, money is saved that would have been spent on costly pesticides and fertilizers, and is put back into their own communities to improve the quality of life of everyone. This great change in rural prosperity has brought whole communities back together again and enabled the integration of health education and family planning in local settings.

The good news about the benefits of biodynamic farming has spread quickly and there are now in excess of 200 000 compost piles throughout India that recycles cow dung, paddy straw and almost anything else nature provides. For example, one biodynamic farmer persuaded his local council to let him use the tonnes of fallen leaves collected from around the village that would otherwise have been burnt to construct impressively large windrows on his farm. Recycling local and freely available resources such as leaves and dung from the ubiquitous and revered cows provides an appropriate alternative technological strategy for Indian farmers and doesn’t cost lives.

Alternatives to the “Green Revolution”

How to Save the World [1] is an award winning independent film that documents the progress of Peter Proctor and the biodynamic farming movement in India. Writer and director Barbara Burstyn treats us to visions of verdant biodynamic farms where colourfully dressed young men and women prepare the BD field preparations and spray them in spiral motions from large copper bowls onto the soil. The old ploughman driving two golden cows tells his story of how the soil has become soft and almost butter-like and alive with worms under biodynamic systems. Elsewhere, we see vast areas of land where the soil is so saturated with layer upon layer of chemicals that it has become great lumps of dry, dusty boulders where no life exists. Organic farmer Jaspal Singh explains that this is the result of the “Green Revolution”, (see Beware the “Doubly Green” Revolution [11]) - of which his own father was a pioneer - that has not only been a killer of farmers, but has made the soil unproductive, waterlogged, pest infested, depleted of nutrients, and has dried up rivers [1]. Singh says that until he learned about chemical free organic and biodynamic farming systems that uses fifty percent less water, he had no alternative to the chemical and water intensive practices of the Green Revolution.

Globalisation lacks social responsibility

Despite the negative effects of chemicals on the soil the use of pesticides is increasing and claims the lives of at least 200 000 people per year [19] (Picking Cotton Carefully). In many cases this increase is taking place as yields of staple crops are decreasing. (see“Food futures now, organic, sustainable and fossil fuel free” [4].)

In India, seed dealers get huge commission from chemical companies and Indian farmers are forced to take hybrid seeds and pesticides as part of credit packages from salesmen in order to continue to farm. Shantytowns of farmers evicted from their lands because of failed harvests and unpaid debts have sprung up by the rows of pesticide sellers set up in small roadside huts with shelves heaving with packets of GM seeds and tins cans of pesticides. These seeds cost farmers four hundred percent more and yield thirty percent less. A 2006 report shows that 60 percent of farmers using GM seed could not cover their investment, let alone feed their families [20].

How to Save the World captures the rhythmical movement and vitality of India, but cannot resist a cynical take on the corporate model that builds a market by forcing once independent farmers into debt and dependence on international aid for the very same grains and legumes they once grew successfully. It puts the blame for dependency and for world hunger fairly and squarely on the shoulders of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, military dominance and trade liberalization, and not on food scarcity [1]. The failure of the globalised free market is starkly symbolized by miles of empty toll roads, built as an infrastructure for corporate agriculture that many farmers in India cannot afford, or do not want.

A model fit for the future of farming

On the positive side, we are presented with an alternative model to globalisation. The new paradigm is represented by bioRE [21] an organic cotton project started in 1991, which is also an agricultural training centre committed to the development of organic and biodynamic cotton farmers in the Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra regions of India It enables farmers to construct biogas facilities (see also Dream Farms [22]), water tanks and windrows to keep the soil healthy and pesticide-free so they can farm for a long time to come. Farmers are relieved of financial insecurity because bioRE covers them not only for loss of crops, but also for the transition year to becoming organic, or biodynamic farmers. As a textile chain they purchase cotton harvests at ten percent above the market price over a five year fixed contract. This tackles head on the problems of economic globalisation that leave farmers at the mercy of corporations bent on maximising short-term profits. Not only do farmers get a fair price for their cotton, but they no longer have to buy the expensive packages of seeds and pesticides that have led them into debt and suicide. The alternative model directly links the farmer to the consumer through traceable supplies and represents moral, social, ethical and environmental responsibility towards everyone along the chain with satisfying outcomes for all.

How to Save The World leaves us in no doubt that one would be fortunate to find oneself connected to an idyllic rural biodynamic farm where pay and conditions for workers and their families are fair, food is of the highest quality and plentiful, the local economy thrives, the farm shop is a sell out, and the farmer and the local community is happy and content. All the more exciting, as there is no reason why millions more small to medium sized farming communities everywhere could not enjoy the same good life.

For a copy of How to Save the World:; for more on biodynamic agriculture initiatives around the world .

Article first published 16/01/08


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