In the early 1920ies the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner was approached by a number of concerned farmers who saw that in just a few years of using artificial fertiliser the soil was getting so depleted that they feared for the future of their land. Faced with this dilemma, Rudolf Steiner prepared a series of lectures that would become the foundations of the Biodynamic planting movement.
‘Biodynamic growing’ has now become a fashionable term, but what does it actually mean?
I would say, Biodynamics is more than just growing food, it is a philosophy or a way of life. Conventional farming methods are all about as much profit can be had, growing the most amount of food in the smallest space and shortest time. In order to do that, sacrifices have to be made. These come in the form of depleted soils, unnaturally forced or grown produce. Just think of the tomatoes or strawberries grown in rock wool with a bit of fertiliser and water, the thought alone just makes my stomach turn. Food grown in the way also tastes bland and uninspiring. But of course if you only eat this type of food then you would not notice the difference. But grow a few tomatoes in good soil on your window sill and taste the difference!
The Biodynamic way of growing food starts already with the soil. There is no rock wool, just rich, fertile soil that is not seen as a commodity, but as a precious material that produces great food.
The most precious ingredient in a healthy soil is humus. This is the part of the topsoil where all the nutrients lie. It is a complex process how nature turns leaves and other organic matter into compost and humus. The humus layer helps the soil to retain moisture and oxygen. It also helps the plants to grow by a way of ion-exchange. In short, humus is the soil’s ‘life-force’ and without it the soil is just a dead material where plants rest in.
Rudolf Steiner took particular interest in the soil and humus layer. He ordered compost preparations to be made out of plants such as nettle, yarrow, dandelion or valerian. These preparations were added to the soil and acted as a kind of soil tonic. In nature these plants are the natural healers and often grow next to fields and flowers. But today they are just seen as garden weeds. But by completely getting rid of them their vital contribution to keep your garden soil healthy is lost. So today’s Biodynamic famers and gardeners add these preparations to the soil to enrich the humus layer. Additionally they plant with the seasons, the water tables and the most controversial part of it – in accordance to the lunar phases.
In conventional agriculture animals are totally excluded from the food production process or are even destroyed by pesticides. In the Biodynamic model animals are actively invited in as part of the growing process. Ladybirds are introduced to kill the aphids, bees to pollinate the crop and earthworms to turn the soil. Cow manure and horns are used as part of the fertilisation process. Of course pests do occur and they are kept at bay with nets or by planting herbs and other (for them) bad smelling plants.
The land is not seen as a short-term commodity, but as a precious ground for growing food that has to be preserved for many generations to come. Sadly some studies claim that over the last century around 60%! of the world’s humus has been lost. The result is more frequent flooding, as it is the humus layer in the soil that can absorb a large amount of water in a very quick time and hold it there as a reserve for the dry days further down the line.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating to go back to the dark ages and of course a growing population brings with it pressure on food resources. But all I am hoping we are getting away from a farming model that only looks at profits and have no regards whatsoever for the soil and its long-term health. I also would like to see animals and ultimately humans again as part of the growing process. We all need to wake up and reconnect again with what we eat. Let’s make all sure that what is farmed is done so in a humanely and sustainable way, not just for us, but for all species here on earth.
P.S. The WWF has just published a study where it claimed that between 1970 and 2010 50% of wildlife has vanished over this time span. Many species such as the River Dolphin have now become extinct.