Why We Need to Know More About Biodynamic Farming
We urban dwellers are slaves to our labels. Certified organic, fair trade, free range… when we don’t grow our own, it’s all we have to go on. But how much do we really know about what each certification entails, and how does it impact us? Over the last few years, you may have encountered the term biodynamic. Maybe you thought about what it could mean, or perhaps you thought it was just another word for biodiverse. It’s not. And it’s becoming increasingly topical in Europe and America, even though its practices have been around for 100 years. So why is it only getting such widespread airtime now? And why is it not more popular in South Africa?
No matter how good biodynamic agriculture is at leaving the world better than we found it, it’s controversial, starting with its founding father, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Back in 1924, he addressed a cooperative of farmers in Europe in a series of eight lectures, stating that if we continued on our current trajectory, we would bring about the total destruction of the environment. He wasn’t wrong, but if his proposed action plan has been slow to take root it’s because of its unconventional nature.
BIODYNAMICS IN BRIEF
In short, biodynamic farming is based on a combination of scientific understanding and the spirit and elements of nature, encompassing various considerations.
- The healthy development of any farm depends just as much on the conscious involvement of all forces – the farmers and workers – as well as unseen forces like the spirit of the farm and the cycles of the moon, as it does on scientific factors.
- A farm is like a biological organism, and must be approached holistically, reintegrating every plant, animal and human into the greater context of the place, even beyond the borders of the farm.
- Practically speaking, pests, diseases and weeds are seen as symptoms of an imbalanced system (or organism). Pest management, then, is about finding and addressing the cause, not just treating the symptom.
- A grower who manages a biodynamic farm or garden looks to the cosmos before planting and harvesting crops, using a biodynamic calendar based on the position of the moon and stars. Many biodynamic farmers make use of the lunar calendar, but it’s not a prerequisite to getting an official Demeter Certification (which classifies your farm as biodynamic).
- Biodynamic practices involve Steiner’s nine preparations, which are made from specific herbs, minerals and animal manures that form the base of the field sprays and compost used.
- Where organic farming practices allow the use of fertilisers and pesticides from anywhere, biodynamic practices require that every farm produce its own compost and nutrients as much as possible.
WHY THE PINCH OF SALT?
Similar to life’s more esoteric practices, like yoga, biodynamic farming remains under researched on a scientific level, and comes with a spiritual element that’s hard to quantify. But like yoga, farmers don’t need to subscribe to the spiritual aspects of biodynamics to get the certification.
Whether or not spirituality comes into it, there are many farmers who need to feel personally connected to the land to excel at what they do. A farmer who was born and raised on a particular farm often feels a deeper connection to the place, and is more invested in its success.
Some proponents of biodynamic farming follow its practices because it’s a sound agronomic system that delivers very real benefits to the farm, like healthier soil, better quality crops and a more vibrant ecology. The reason why South Africa hasn’t embraced biodynamics to quite the same degree as Europe and North America could be because organic – from a consumer perspective, at least – is enough.
THE BIG BIODYNAMIC SPLASH
Unsurprisingly, perhaps given the end result’s terroir sensitivity, some of the movement’s greatest pioneers hail from the wine world. In fact, some of the finest wines in the world are grown in biodynamic vineyards – particularly in France, Italy and the US.
As a case in point, Champagne Telmont – one of the premier sponsors of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – is created in biodynamic vineyards, although the company’s commitment to leaving the world better than we found it stretches beyond its farming practices to measures like reducing the weight of their bottles, using recycled glass and banning any of their products from being shipped by air freight. In effect, Telmont’s carbon footprint is not only neutral, but negative, meaning that on the whole, their operations are actually good for the environment.
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
More and more, consumers are demanding food and beverages that taste great, and that are grown and produced ethically. Beyond organic and fair trade, by design, biodynamic ticks all those boxes, even if consumers don’t fully grasp what it entails. In truth, even biodynamic farmers don’t always fully understand it, as it is as complex as the cosmos. But perhaps in recognising the endlessness of nature, we realise that we can never know everything about what impacts the world around us and how things grow. Perhaps in the end, it urges us to consider that when it does so much good, do we need to be so cynical?