If you’ve been around the sustainable food block, you may have run across a term that sounds a little too sci-fi to relate to agriculture and a little too earthy to be about anything high-tech. The mystery term of which I speak is “biodynamic agriculture.” If I’ve already lost you, trust me, you’re not the only one who doesn’t have a clue what it’s all about.
Biodynamic ag has its roots in Germany, where an Austrian scientist and philosopher named Rudolph Steiner engaged in a series of discussions and lectures in 1924. The ideas embodied in his legendary lectures formed the basis of biodynamics. The concept he developed, as the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association succinctly puts it, is “a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos.”
While it may sound like we’re actually talking sci-fi after all, the idea of biodynamics arose out of a concern for the most earthly element around us—soil. After chemical fertilizers were introduced at the turn of the last century, some of the more observant and sensitive scientists out there began to notice a change in soil quality, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Biodynamics was thus the first ecologically minded, grassroots response to chemical-intensive farming.
In biodynamic farming, the focus is on developing and maintaining healthy soils by applying sufficient organic manure and compost, rotating crops, working the soil sensitively, using cover crops, and employing diversified and mixed cropping. Animals are seen as integral to the farm ecosystem, as manure is an essential source of fertility to the farm. The farm is viewed as a living organism, to be considered as a whole and not a collection of unrelated parts. The farmer is considered to be a vital cog in the larger, living farm system.
The thoughtful, spiritual nature of Steiner’s view on agriculture will come as no surprise to those familiar with this thinker’s other endeavors. The movements and methods he helped develop include:
- Waldorf education, which “encourages the development of each child’s sense of truth, beauty, and goodness,”
- Anthroposophy, a practice through which people “seek to penetrate the mystery of our relationship with the spiritual world by searching for answers and insights that come through a schooling of one’s inner life,” and
- the Camphill movement, which aims to create “communities where the values of service, sharing, spiritual nourishment, and recognition of each individual’s gifts and contributions offer a model of renewal for the wider society.”
In his time, Steiner emphasized that humans were losing their understanding of the logic of the natural world. And his words about farming ring just as true today as they did back then, if not more so: “What is necessary to keep providing good care to nature has completely fallen into ignorance during the materialism era.”
Steiner’s philosophies may sound esoteric, and his methods are definitely old-school. But part of revolutionizing modern agriculture involves looking at what works, both in terms of growing crops and benefiting the planet. As farmers have proven for decades, biodynamic farming is clearly successful when done correctly, and it definitely relies on ecologically sensitive practices. Perhaps creating agriculture that is truly sustainable, then, means adopting practices that look backwards and forwards.