ISIS Report 16/01/08
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.
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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 .
Peter Proctor is a soil scientist who has worked with the stuff for over sixty
years . 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 ) over the past fifteen year provides a strong grassroots
alternative to industrialised conventional agriculture, which is failing on
all counts (see forthcoming ISIS report “Food
futures now, organic, sustainable and fossil fuel free” ) 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 ; 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  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
, 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 ). 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 .
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
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? ). 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 , “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
 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 .)
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 . 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 . 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 . Another study that paired
sixteen conventional farms with biodynamic farms found that biodynamic farms
have better soils and are more profitable .
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 .
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
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” . 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.
Oak Bark (505)
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 . 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 , 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 . 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 . 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
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  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 ) - 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 . 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 
(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” .)
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 .
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 . 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  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 ), 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
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: http://howtosavetheworld.co.nz/;
for more on biodynamic agriculture initiatives around the world www.biodynamic.org.uk.