Eighty years ago, the visionary philosopher Rudolf Steiner addressed a group of Austrian farmers about the declining fertility and vitality of land, which they believed resulted from the increasing industrialisation of, and use of artificial chemicals in, agriculture. The philosophy and practices Steiner outlined to those farmers laid the foundations of the biodynamic farming movement.
Last month I attended an open day at Steiner House in London to mark the 80th anniversary of what is now a burgeoning and fashionable movement, a movement that counts Liz Hurley, Kate Moss and Roger Moore among its supporters. Despite, or perhaps because of, such celebrity endorsement, the mainstream farming media dismiss biodynamic food as mere faddishness affordable only by the wealthy, and its practices as ‘muck and magic’ with little basis in science.
Certainly, biodynamic husbandry has some bizarre-seeming practices, such as this recipe for ‘horn manure’: stuff a cow’s horn with manure; bury it for half a year; then dig it up and dilute the concentrated essence many times in water to make a liquid fertiliser to be spread at a rate of one horn’s worth per hectare once a year. What could seem more nonsensical to farmers used to loading on artificial fertilisers at the rate of 200 kilograms per hectare?
But scientific scepticism as to the efficacy of the horn potion misses the point. What the practice reinforces is the value that biodynamic farmers afford to all animal manures and rotations used on their land more generally, and the respect with which they treat the environment. Compare that to the widespread pollution of our rivers and groundwater by run-off from the excessive use of agrochemicals in intensive arable farming and the spreading of slurry from indoor livestock units that bear no relation to the carrying capacity of the land to absorb those ‘wastes’.
Increasingly, more out of desperation than conviction, conventional farmers are taking up practices formerly restricted to biodynamic and organic farmers. Sowing seed by the cycles of the moon? What lunacy! But drive through the UK’s major arable areas during sowing time around a full moon, and you’ll see the headlights of tractors turning in seed. For practical experience, not laboratory tests, shows that seeds germinate better during the period of the moon’s strongest gravitational pull. And to cure mastitis more and more conventional dairy farmers are now putting their trust in a few drops of homeopathic solutions mixed into their animals’ drinking troughs, rather than a tube-full of antibiotics injected directly into the infected teat.
Apart from practical husbandry and remedies that reduce their dependency on the agrochemical and drug companies, biodynamic and organic farming offer mainstream farmers something beyond price. They have a clear sense of purpose and underpinning philosophy. Crucially, their adherents believe what they do should have positive benefits beyond their individual farms and businesses to society as a whole. Such selflessness is also self-serving. Calling for fair prices from supermarkets and consumers is an understandable priority to farmers struggling to survive, but unless they can show that, in addition to producing our staple foodstuffs, agriculture has a higher purpose of maintaining the vital resources of soil and water and the wild creatures that are integral to the land and its fertility, then they will struggle to gain the public’s much needed trust and support.
That does not mean that only biodynamic or organic farmers are worthy of such trust and support. But it would be to the long-term benefit of agriculture generally, if more farmers felt and talked about their land and its living systems with the respect and reverence that Rudolf Steiner was able to accord to even the humblest, if most useful of creatures. ‘Wonderful regulators, safety valves for the vitality inside the earth,’ wrote Steiner. ‘These golden creatures – for they are of the greatest value to the earth – are none other than the earthworms’.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004