Biodynamic farming


Interesting to read how a vegan views Biodynamic farming.

Skeptical Vegan

Today I want to address something troubling me. Lately I’ve been seeing the words “vegan” and “biodynamic” paired up more and more often. If you are even familiar with the latter term you probably associate it with fancy wine. It is also becoming a popular growing method for the veggies served in numerous vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but if told the things biodynamics actually involves many vegans would do a spit-take.

Biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner, also founder of the spiritual philosophy Anthroposophy, in a 1924 series of lectures to farmers concerned about soil and crop degradation. While it shares some principles (and controversy) in common with organic farming, Steiner said there were “spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming”, it goes far beyond it. I mean it’s really way out there.

In those lectures Steiner describes a system of agriculture involving potions, rituals…

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  1. Rain17

    Hi Helen,

    Here stateside, looks like anthroposophy went and found themselves a design department. Whole Foods Market recently devoted a little section of their online magazine to Biodynamics. It’s worth a look because it’s meant to appeal to a new generation of potential Steinerites. It will probably work. – about Biodynamic wine – more bio-elitism for your buck

    Whole Foods — also lovingly referenced often as “Whole Paycheck” and “Whole Pension Plan” — also has this guide to the Biodynamic brand on their site:

    Like biodynamics, itself: looks lovely, cooks well, is sprinkled liberally hither to yon with piles and piles of certified b.s. Also, Helen, I should apologize to your readers. Several days ago in haste, I maligned “Northern California liberals primed for” the duplicity of Waldorf education and the anthroposophy lifestyle it’s peddling, or somesuch wording. I’m one such target, so it’s not like I’m so above them.

    The other thing, though, is that Whole Foods Market is “libertarian” owned, and somewhat notorious for their right-wing positions on things like labor and healthcare. Like Waldorf (and the anthroposophy supply chain products stocked on its shelves), the main target market, though, is again the liberal-left environmentalist crowd, certain that they’re raising the 3rd generation of granola-imbibing free range pasture-raised hippies for peace, and whatnot. Also like Waldorf, their positions on certain issues are in plain sight, findable on the internet, and not really all that hidden.

  2. Helen

    Hi Rain, thanks for the info on Whole Foods. I read what Jerry Coyne wrote about what he calls the “dark side” of this business on his Why Evolution is True Blog a couple of months ago; he believes they are selling homeopathic remedies and foods that make unsubstantiated health claims, alongside ordinary wholefoods.
    I have noticed locally how these things can go together, and of course our local health food shop sells biodynamic produce too.
    One of the three UK shops in the chain you mention has appeared in Gloucestershire – what a surprise!
    If people take the trouble to find out what biodynamics really involves, they won’t be so keen to buy the produce – especially vegetarians and vegans.

  3. Rain17

    Yeah, when I was in undergrad, many years ago (Religious Studies major), I did a little presentation that didn’t earn me any environmentalist friends. I ended up looking at the overt religious references in the brands in the local food co-op and their connections to concepts like purity, moral superiority, ritual cleanliness, redemption, and such.

    Years later, the same names populating Whole Foods Market shelves like Eden Foods, Garden of Eatin’ snacks, Maranatha Foods, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, Ezekiel 4:9 bread and the like are still around, bless ’em. There is nothing wrong with those things or naming one’s company that. But the point was that they do not always share the social values of those whose expendable income they are after.

    What I did not know was that Weleda and Dr. Hauschka is really Aryan-supremacist face cream from Jupiter. Now I do. Live and learn, I guess.

  4. Helen

    Finding out about Weleda and Dr Hauschka was a surprise to me a couple of years ago too – they don’t seem keen on advertising their Steiner connections, do they?
    What an interesting subject for a presentation – I will look more closely at brand names from now on. Overtly religious brands probably have more appeal in the US than here. We really are a secular-minded nation, despite our toleration of “faith” schools”.

  5. julian

    “Fix the soil … the rest will fix itself”
    A cultural ‘war on soil’ has been under way for millennia and is becoming ever more expansive. This has all become deeply embedded in our psyche. Biodynamic agriculture advocates the proper maintenance of soil within an important context of care. Other developments in beneficial agriculture also offer great promise for facilitating application of these vital principles by the wider community. A transitional approach would help greater recognition of holistic farming principles with accompanying social and environmental benefits.
    In the Cotswolds, up to 60 tonnes of topsoil per hectare per year are now being lost in the worst affected areas of chemical agriculture2—valuable humus (carbon) that could have aided rain-water infiltration to recharge the aquifers, lost to the sea; aquifers contaminated with chemicals. And base (normal) flows in rivers consequently reduced by 20% in just two decades—in places, the rivers themselves clogged with topsoil and the fisheries destroyed.
    Rivers Trusts, along with the Environment Agency and water companies, are all struggling nationally to deal with the consequences of modern farming. Large grants are distributed to deal with the effects—Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs), Catchment Sensitive Farming, biofilters for pesticides, field buffer strips, and so on; but all instead of actually addressing the fundamental causes—the continued wide use of farm chemicals. As the toxic farming practices that cause these problems are also subsidised, this approach rapidly descends into the economics of the madhouse—not dissimilar to our wider economy.
    After nearly two decades of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, 69% of aquifers show no improvement in water nitrate concentrations, while 31% showed a significant worsening—and the authorities do not apparently understand the reasons why.3
    Agricultural chemical contamination that accumulates in our aquifers is a major limitation on, and additional cost for, the UK’s public water supply, with at least one major UK water company now doubting its future commercial viability (as a result of consumers’ inability to pay the higher bills this incurs). The water cycle and its mismanagement thus provides a clear proxy that illuminates consequent socio-economic, environmental and climatological effects.
    Increased flood and drought risk arise directly from this degraded farmland, with wider associated thermal and capillary soil effects; solutions to which are implicit within Biodynamic practices. All UK household insurance is now surcharged to meet the cost of the resulting raised flood risk, while the 20% of UK houses in the risk areas themselves are increasingly forced to install and maintain expensive Individual Property Protection measures, in addition to the stress and misery involved—just some of the concealed costs of chemical agriculture.
    Self-interest and tribal thinking can blinker us all—however, occult (or rather just ‘hidden’) farming science has long held answers, not least because it is founded on carefully crafted environmental wisdom developed over countless generations. So different from the widely broadcast, yet selective science based upon profit and politics that prevails in government planning today.
    Dealing with effects rather than the causes has become central to our economic activity. Our healthcare costs are inflated by obesity and the many other effects of nutritional breakdown. Medical and agricultural ‘progress’ may be based on very impressive science, but much of this is the wrong science—a science that cannot possibly connect the dots to address the interdependent nature of all these growing and costly problems; now driving the wider economic breakdown.
    There is strong resistance to natural farming methods, with a huge commercial inertia rallied against them, well described in a recent New York Times editorial,
    . . . there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill or of climate change legislation at all. . . . One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields . . . 4
    The EU is little different—at the very least, as a simple result of government incompetence.
    Tough economic conditions, climate change and poor soils are all good prompts for change, and now all this is becoming familiar too in Europe. In Australia, these factors have long combined to create new agricultural ways of thinking. The continent that brought us Yeomans’ Keyline & City Forest Systems and Mollison’s Permaculture continues to innovate in natural farming practices by adopting other techniques, such as Mob Grazing and, from Japan, Higa’s Effective-Microorganisms (EM or Bokashi)—all with good success, and which could be complementary to existing Biodynamic approaches.
    Gloucestershire farmer (and Nuffield Scholar) Rob Richmond has adapted US and Australian Mob Grazing on bio-diverse, herb rich pastures to UK conditions with low levels of additional nutrient (composted manure at rates as low as 1 tonne per hectare) to enhance the soil microbiology5. Significantly, Rob finds that modern Ryegrasses do not host the appropriate microbes that enable the sub-soil processes which are essential to improving livestock nutrition and health while transforming soil carbon (humus) content—increasing it at 0.8% per annum. This typically adds 200,000 litres of rainwater storage per 1% carbon added per hectare (which is variable according to the soil type and temperature).
    A dynamic ‘Carbon Farming’ movement, which turns the problems of Climate Change into opportunities, is growing around the world. Networking knowledge is one thing—cycling nutrients (which directly relates to both carbon and energy use) is quite another; yet both need an ethical basis of collaborative goodwill to succeed—a novel social concept in our present wider culture.
    A key element of soil restoration is availability of natural nutrients to negate the need for energy intensive and soil degrading artificial fertilisers. Livestock are the main potential providers; the two other potential natural sources, green household waste and sewage, are highly problematic. Aerobic composting can be tricky on a municipal or urban basis, with diligence required for controlling malodours, flies, rodents, and associated pathogens. Problems which require the Environment Agency to exercise great caution before approving the siting of new composting schemes, more often not doing so; thus depriving farmland of the bulk of available green waste, and further burdening landfill or incinerators.
    Higa’s EM, a serendipitous discovery made while researching soil microbiology, is increasingly known for Bokashi composting. It is a multiple-use, symbiotic consortium of beneficial bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, producing an anaerobic fermenting process for composting, but so different from the putrefaction normally associated with septic breakdown of waste. An immediate benefit is that this fully contained process reliably overcomes the potential odour, pest and pathogen problems that can otherwise limit siting in urban situations; however, it needs incorporation within municipal soil nutrient planning and a formal study to assess compliance with Biodynamic principles.
    Symbiotic consortia of beneficial microbes were once (pre-human intervention) predominant, in our undisturbed soils and water, in our forests and ourselves; all acting in a probiotic manner to protect and enhance life processes. Our actions, at almost every level of our activities over millennia (particularly in agriculture) have been to disrupt or destroy these processes; antibiotics being merely a recent and ultimately futile innovation here (with growing antibiotic resistance).
    Bokashi composting appears to offer a practical way of engaging people in understanding and rebuilding a relationship with soil and water – a transitional step towards recycling networks with allotment groups and community supported agriculture schemes, which also lead into commercial scale agriculture.
    Practical solutions are important in the vast expanses of Australia, where sufficient animal manures are often not available in the arable farming areas, nor urban waste streams (or subsidies). But here, EM is brewed into activated liquid biological fertilisers using either waste produce from farms, or organic molasses, or even using artificial fertiliser.
    This delivers a more natural and complete nutrition to the plants than the artificial chemical form, which also makes much more efficient use of available nutrient, and also maintains plant vigour and increases plant sugar content, while deterring weeds and growing soil carbon.
    Not qualifying for organic accreditation does not seem to worry the Aussie practitioners of this particular method. Their main interest is long term viability of their farms and overcoming otherwise severe operational and economic challenges. In this, there are important lessons for European agriculture.
    Benign and beneficial farming methods should not need excessive regulation, rather informed common sense. Repressive regulations are mainly required for the toxic farming practices (and associated problems) that have arisen during the past half century but have become a huge burden to all farmers. Standards for maintaining soil carbon content while growing more nutritious food are important—areas where Biodynamic farming has long excelled.
    1. “Fix the soil, and the rest will fix itself.” Barney Hughes, Summer Hill Farm, Junee, NSW, Australia. Film: Regeneration: Saving our soil. (Water21 & Lifeworks Foundation 2009)
    2. Kat Gorham, Cranfield MSc dissertation, 2010 (Water21)
    3. F. Worrall, E. Spencer, & T.P. Burt, Journal of Hydrology, 2009
    4. Gary Paul Nabhan, Our Coming Food Crisis, New York Times, July 21, 2013

    • Nick Nakorn

      It’s perfectly possible to care for the soil without signing up to Steiner’s Biodynamics. If you are using evidence to critique Big Ag then I’d suggest you also use evidence to critique Biodynamics. Where Biodynamics simply includes ‘ordinary’ organic methods that work, Steiner is simply borrowing from existing knowledge – none of which requires his religious/mystical/spiritual/racist spin. There are millions of farmers all over the world caring for the soil in the face of Big Ag who use evidence-based systems without recourse to Steiner; it’s an insult to them to suggest they don’t know what they’re doing. What we need is the very best evidenced methodologies from both industrialised and organic traditions. Wasting your time with Steiners ‘homeopathic’ and spiritual nonsense is to put agriculture back centuries; if we all followed your example, millions of people would die of starvation. What you propose is deeply unethical.

      • julian

        Hi Nick

        The whole article is mainly a discussion of other methods that might also complement BD, that is hardly insulting other organic methodologies, quite the opposite (also film here Higa’s Nature Farming, Biodynamics, Permaculture, etc some working alongside each other: ).
        But you should know BD agriculture also works just fine on its own, for all its ‘woo-woo’ science, some borrowed as you say from time proven indigenous methods, see here as one of many – or – where when I visited 2 decades ago they were just achieving the same Scottish record breaking yield for wheat with BD, that they had set six or so years previously with chemicals. BD food produce, if you have not tried it, is remarkable (so too from those other carbon farming methods that only recently can now like BD, achieve correct soil microbiology etc – by no means is all organic the same).
        Putting agriculture back to some degree is precisely what we do need to do, in order to move forward – the huge unaccounted externalised costs of Industrialised ChemAg are threatening the existence of one major water company that I have worked for – and we are all paying dear for with increasing flood & drought – yet we are told all regulated and based on ‘science’.

        • Nick Nakorn

          Julian, the reason why BD is insulting to other growers is that BD claims to be better when in fact it has added nothing at all to the debate except some nasty and unecessary woo. Woo that does nothing for the process of growing food. The bits of BD that work are not attributable to BD so gthere’s only one reason to support BD and that is if you believe in the woo. If you belive in the woo then all rational discourse is off; you have opted out by giving the woo credence. That’s not just a bad thing for you or those who agree with you but for society as a whole. Lets put it another way. If I follow Vizard’s ‘Tuning A-series Engines’ and build a fast Mini, call it Nick’s Mystic Mini and then claim my special prayers have made the car go faster and my method is special, other mechnics will say – erm, no mate, it’s because you’ve just followed Vizard’s book; in other words, I have not produced anything remotely original, I have lied, I have mystified something otherwise intelligible and have insulted the intelligence of people who know what they’re doing.

          You also seem to have a very odd idea concerning science. Science is not responsible for the problems associated with Big Ag. In fact is science that has uncovered pretty much all the environmental problems we accept today as urgent. Technology, on the other hand, is the application of knowledge towards social goals. When those goals include maximising profit or power in the short term, of course things go wrong. Technology is what happened before science existed and life was pretty bloody awful then. The fact that Steineristas are anti-science is a major problem. Societies without strong science and strong skepticism are prone to being ruled by those who tell the best stories and have the best guns, not by people who tell the truth. I have read a huge amount about the claims made by BD concerning yields and there is absolutely no evidence to back it up. If you can find a proper peer-reviewed trial then you are unique. As you will know, Stu has been asking Demeter for the facts for years and they do not have any that stand up.

          You say “..huge unaccounted externalised costs of Industrialised ChemAg are threatening the existence of one major water company that I have worked for – and we are all paying dear for with increasing flood & drought – yet we are told all regulated and based on ‘science’.”

          I agree that idea of externalities being a ‘free good’ is the biggest con in economics but it’s intrinsic to capitalism, not science; it is anti-scientific, just like Steiner. When super-capitalists tell you their system is ‘based on science’ it’s just their way of attempting to shut you up. Don’t believe them. What we need is more science, not less. We need a scientifically literate electorate who know the difference between science and technology and who are able to challenge what politicians tell them.

          • julian

            Certainly we need more questioning science … and less ‘isms’ but also we also need more care and understanding – and respect for what works. But how people (or farmers) live their lives, providing it harms or affects no others, is up to them. The divisions within humanity are both tragic and pathetic, let alone those within the biological farming movements … I don’t think we have any disagreement there.

  6. Helen

    Hello Julian, thank you for the comments.
    I understand the need to care for the environment and try to improve soil and water quality, and I don’t suppose anyone would disagree with that, but it is rather a leap from that to advocating biodynamics.
    Which bit of biodynamics as opposed to organic methods would you say is particularly useful in the proper maintenance of soil?

    • julian

      Hi Helen

      As mentioned above for Nick, BD agric works very well; I have no particular vested interest in stating that other than in my professional opinion – which I offer voluntarily because this removes all vested interest. By taking existing traditional farming techniques (mainly central european from a century or more ago) Steiner was building on a proven & safe foundation (unlike modern agri) – it could certainly greatly benefit from a description in scientific terms now, which largely was not available at the time of formulating his system. But frankly, it is none of our business, other than the wider community benefit, which I think could be very substantial. The other organic farming systems that I have looked at that can replicate many BD benefits, in building soil carbon and better nutritional value and animal welfare are in the film link above for Nick; improving soil microbiology particularly; but even the apparently really way-out solar & lunar planting calendar certainly works (even on a penthouse roof garden in NYC where a friend has been trialling) – and has profound implications for Climatological Science, see here : (which science interestingly also overlooks soil carbon ….).
      The consequences of the break down of our own UK traditional agriculture in this short local film here. ie BD Agric could have greatly reduced flood risk locally :

      • Nick Nakorn

        Julian, here you’re just piling more nonsense on top of previous nonsense. BD does not ‘work very well’, it does not work at all. The bits that are BD are rubbish. It’s the non-BD bits in BD that work; you’ve almost said it yourself “Steiner was building on a proven & safe foundation (unlike modern agri) – it could certainly greatly benefit from a description in scientific terms now, which largely was not available at the time of formulating his system.” Well, almost. steiner did not build anything; he just replicated what was already known and added woo. You say, “But frankly, it is none of our business, other than the wider community benefit…” What? We are the wider community! BD benefits no-one, it’s a dishonest, bogus load of rubbish as are some parts of Organic agriculture and as are a many parts of industrialised agriculture.

        • julian

          From a good number of BD farms that I have visited I have to say it works very well – in terms of the food quality and particularly wider environmental damage, or lack of it. It is very much a ‘system’ – one of my criticisms of it because I hope it can be evolved further; I agree with you that surely some elements are not required and absolutely – scientific rigour applied; just slagging it off wholesale does not help that process.

  7. Jim

    I have to agree with Helen and Nick. Julian writes as though in criticising biodynamics one is automatically endorsing modern agriculture with all its faults, which of course is nonsense. Nor do these criticisms deny that BD growers include a lot of good practice in their agriculture, the same as many non BD growers. It is the deranged mystical element of BD which is at best irrelevant and worse, intimately linked with a nasty cult. OK, some people like a bit of magic and ritual so why not invent something harmless – what about sowing whilst wearing a kilt and singing extracts from Oklahoma? It would be just as effective as BD’s “preparations” and without the nasty associations. But if we are going to feed the world’s population we need to rely on science ( probably including GM ) rather than mysticism. That and fairer distribution.

    Incidentally does anyone know about the legal status of these preparations? EU law is quite strict on the licensing of products for agricultural purposes – if it is not licensed for a specific purpose it cannot be used. The composts should not be a problem but what about prep 501 ( powdered quartz as a fungicide)?

    • julian

      Hi Jim
      The article was requested as a critique of BD to feature in the current issue of the BDA ‘Star & Furrow’. See above, including Monbiot’s article above, for how ‘science’ has taken our food production into appalling consequences – that are largely unregulated or even monitored. There are far cheaper & safer means of food production, where the total real costs can be accounted for, and that may include BD, though other very similar biological methods (in effect) are available (though no doubt the cattle would enjoy the kilts & singing !) that can easily feed the world, whilst reversing the desertification of 60% of the planet the last 10,000 yrs human activity has contributed to.
      Safety is paramount; trails & science can only ever be partial or selective – that is how we have got in the mess we are in, rather than slowly evolving proven methods.
      If the apparently deranged element of BD works, as it surely does, surely better to investigate than simply knocking it …

      • Jim

        No Julian, the deranged element of BD does not work – the normal good horticultural practice does.

        Interesting that you acknowledge that we have been trashing the environment for the last 10,000 years, ie well before the scientific and industrial eras. Unfortunately that is just what we humans do, at least until we understand the consequences and sadly not always changing our ways when we do. Science is key to that understanding just as it can give us better tools to continue the trashing. Knowledge can always be misused but knowledge is still always preferable to ignorance.

        The real issue is not about the pros and cons of different forms of agriculture. We could try to imagine that BD had evolved entirely without reference to the Steiner belief system. In that situation we might be prepared to say that it is absurd but basically harmless – just organic gardening with a bit of woo thrown in. But the fact is that BD is part of the Steiner world view and that is harmful. And to be frank even without Steiner I would still oppose the woo because the flight to irrationality is always liable to lead to dangerous conclusions.

        • julian

          Hi Jim
          Pleased of course to recognise any authority you have on the basis of your experience or some sort of comparative research that enables your determination here. Some further explanation would be really helpful. As mentioned above, through my career of 35+ yrs as an agriculturalist and env engineer my experience of BD agric has been mostly very positive & impressive (in terms of a range of specific metrics); and in comparison to the highly toxic agriculture that largely prevails otherwise, most welcome, if not urgently so.
          For sure, it could all be better explained & justified – We should be very grateful the BD movement has preserved these otherwise arcane methods so that they may be quantified; as mentioned above they have certainly helped my wider understanding of environmental issues.
          In terms of the wider issues behind anthroposophy, no doubt also here plenty of scope for improvement; it seems little different to many other views prevailing early in the last century including those of the left wing. And unless you are completely detached from modern society all of us living here in the UK presently are associated with a nation state with the most appalling ongoing toxic provenance.

  8. Helen

    I am curious Julian – did you go to a Steiner school? If not, how were you first introduced to anthroposophy?

    • julian

      Hi Helen
      No certainly no Steiner education; I went to Wycliffe but mainly ran the school pig & poultry farm in preference to tedious classroom studies, as well as extensively studying the local aquatic ecology from the age of 11. On inevitably being asked to leave schoolI I first studied BD agriculture as national sales manager of a major farm machinery company. There seem to be many similarities between traditional english country wisdom & anthroposophy – and African come to that; was married to a Somali for 12 years.

  9. Helen

    I still don’t get what led you to look into biodynamics – after all as the writer of this post says, its “really way out there”. It’s just not something people take seriously unless they have been introduced to it by “experts” who have put spin on it.
    For example, I can understand those who see Community Agriculture and think its a good idea, without realising it’s being run by anthroposophists who paint BD as a normal way to do things. The anthros may even protect the average joiner from some of the more bizarre aspects, perhaps just allowing them to ritually stir the pot of dung but not stuffing the cow horns and flaying the fieldmice – I don’t know, but I can see how this might lead someone to think BD is ok – it might even lead them to use the language you use to describe it -“holistic” “wisdom” “arcane” – all words we hear regularly from proponents. Then they start to criticise science and blame it for all our problems, as you have done. As Nick and Jim say there will always be people who don’t mind a bit of woo, and don’t realise the harm being done by anthroposophy.
    As for “many similarities between traditional english country wisdom & anthroposophy” – you are mistaken. Steiner people like to say their rites and festivals are “traditionally British” but they are certainly not that; for example a friend of mine was walking past the local kindergarten the other day and saw “all the women dressed entirely in white”. he wondered why and “googled it” – he found out; yes, that is the Waldorf way to celebrate Whitsun and Pentecost. My friend is very British and fairly knowledgeable about religion but knew nothing of this “tradition”. Anthroposophy has its own traditions, and they are certainly not English.

    Gregoire Perra posted a bit more today about biodynamics, as part of a report he produced;

    “For example, carrots are planted in an earth sign, Taurus, so they grow well (although if planted in June under the air sign Gemini just the leaves will grow because it is an air sign and the leaves are attached to the air, etc.). The cow horns are astral energy sensors, they are filled with substances that will spread to enrich the soil. When there are vermin, meditate; it communicates with the vermin “soul group” which will protect the plant. And if this does not work kill a mouse and spread the ashes by Moonlight. “

    • julian

      … maybe we’re getting a little bit lost in the detail here ?

      I looked at BD agriculture professionally as an expert agriculturalist because it is long standing and established and works, producing an extraordinary quality of food (but I concede also with some apparent detractions) – and it served my company* correctly in studying all the technical approaches here for our product development and marketing excellence.

      *Also as the company I worked for was Austrian encouraged me, though completely mainstream, BD principles are more widely understood and practised here.

      If you want an British take on esoteric knowledge try any freemason of which there are many, all around us in positions of influence and is very closely related to anthroposophy. Personally I think, as I suspect you do, that there is a heap of twaddle in all this, organised religion also. I did deeply offend the head of one big US secret order some years ago by telling him that I thought he was “w*nking with forces he didn’t understand” – but we stayed friends.

      And for me that is the key point here; respect for each others beliefs and working together, with goodwill and simply an understanding of reciprocity, much can be achieved.

      • Helen

        What do you mean “lost in the detail”? do you mean to say you do not know the details of BD practises, or that you do not think they are important?
        What Gregoire describes is what biodynamics IS !

        • Helen

          And I agree about Freemasonry – mucky and murky and all around us, same as anthroposophy. So why are you advocating BD if you agree that “there is a heap of twaddle in all this”? I hope you are not promoting it to the students you mentor at Cranfield Health – that would be irresponsible.
          The details of Biodynamics are embarrassing once they are explained, aren’t they? That’s why we don’t often hear about them.

          • julian

            It is a balanced consideration of BD agric that I personally advocate, equally amongst other biological agric (as you publish above) and within the wider context of chemical agriculture.
            The details of most activities are embarrassing when studied closely.

        • julian

          The detail is of course important as is also the effects – I have greater experience in the detail of chemical agriculture, recently aquifer contamination for water company. My experience of BD agric is derived from many farm visits over many years, looking at fields and produce, sometimes tasting it and also looking at wider environmental effects – I assume you have done some of this also ? There is some crummy, but overwhelmingly otherwise very good.
          From a rather poor google translate of Gregoire I agree sounds potty – don’t disagree …
          But the detail you are concerned with in BD about here pales into insignificance when compared to the appalling detail of vastly wider applied chemical farming practices and those of the company boardrooms promoting these.
          All the students I mentor and do important community work with originating new approaches to env engineering (to PhD level) work with such a balanced view.

          • Nick Nakorn

            I think you’ll find that all farming is chemical farming Julian – unless you don’t count organic chemistry as chemistry. I shudder to think how you manage to mentor PhD Students.

  10. Jim

    Hi Julian.

    No one is suggesting that BD does not work – merely that the results are due not to the mystical elements but to the attentive organic horticulture that underpins it, often supported by an abundance of volunteer labour. Indeed at times you seem to come close to this yourself when acknowledging that other organic systems are effective – I hope I’m not misinterpreting you.

    Of course if you can point to any properly conducted, peer reviewed blind trials in which organic and BD were tested side by side I would be very interested to see the results. Such a trial would I agree be difficult to construct and could not cover all aspects. For example the growers would have to be blinded so both sets of crops would I guess have to be planted by the moon phases. But one plot would have “real” BD preparations and the other dummy ones. Do any such trials exist?

    One thing I would concede about the magical element. Such beliefs can foster a sense of commitment and dedication which leads people to work harder at whatever it is they are committing themselves to. Hence the religious groups doing undeniably good work but inspired by what I would consider mere superstition.

    And no, I am not claiming an extensive agricultural expertise. Just the implausibility of the alleged mechanism for the effects claimed by BD and the lack of evidence that those effects are real. Though if you do know of any trials such as I suggest I might have to reconsider.

    Oh and I’m sure plenty of mainstream farmers with 35 years experience are equally convinced their way is best. Unfortunately we are not good at learning from experience.

    • julian

      Hi Jim

      Totally agree some sound comparative data of BD agriculture would be very helpful. Similarly (and consider Monbiot’s piece above) some decent science to underpin existing agriculture would have been sensible before its widespread implementation (my professional experience is more in this side than the organic).

    • Nick Nakorn

      Hi Jim, I think I’m suggesting BD doesn’t work but BD plus horticulture/farming does work – we’re saying the same thing in a way but I’m happy to chuck out all the BD that does not overlap with the Venn of evidence-led practice. If one does that, the BD label no longer applies so BD doesn’t work at all in my book.

  11. Jim

    Hi Julian
    I think I’ve got a clearer idea of where you are coming from. Would it be fair to say that your sympathy for BD stems mainly from the damage to the environment you see done by the bad practices of intensive chemical agriculture and which you see BD as avoiding? If that is so it would be difficult to disagree with you. And if that was all there was to BD it would be easier, as I suggested earlier, to accept it as harmless albeit a bit odd in parts.

    Unfortunately BD is intimately connected with the whole Steiner movement and anthroposophy, which if I have understood you correctly you regard more sceptically perhaps including it under your heading of “twaddle”. Your brief reference to your time at Wycliffe suggests maybe you were not fully a part of that side of the school.

    If that is a correct reading of your position, and please correct me if it’s not, then I would encourage you to separate the beneficial aspects of BD from the magical anthroposophical ones. I’m sure you will find that the improvements you seek can be obtained without superstition and pseudo-science.

    • julian

      Hi Jim
      Yes – the benefits of BD (and to be fair to the other upcoming natural biological/carbon farming methods which now replicate many of the formerly unique BD benefits – especially soil carbon sequestration and plant / animal health) are simply overwhelming compared to chemical agric.
      Interestingly there are some significant “”spiritual”” similarities between most practitioners in all these farming disciplines – and of course differences too … as this is ‘dangerous’ territory for discussion will go no further than that … as they do stray into pseudo-science. But there is some PhD work presently trying to quantify. The proofs however are in the productivity & wider effects – and would only wish to see all this properly quantified.
      I personally take a dim view of any group or cult – including the wider consumerist cult that largely prevails, yet also takes a very narrow view.
      The work I do is primarily sceptical and community led, on request – and wherever possible gratis which enables economy of thought ! (Presently working on large SW Asian project to reverse desertification).
      Wycliffe is a normal non-Steiner school, with a good reputation, in my time they just didn’t teach the subjects I was interested in, but did then have a working farm (vestige of WW2), which fascinated me.

      • Jim

        Sorry Julian, I’ve mixed up Wynstones and Wycliffe once again! I’m always doing that even though I know perfectly well which is which. I’m getting old.

      • Helen

        I keep thinking I will leave this discussion alone but then Julian you come up with more remarks about BD that are false – BD was not the only method to consider plant/animal health – how can you say that?
        It is however the only method to include such bizarre rituals as part of the “wisdom” of a clairvoyant.
        The problem with promoting BD in the way you do is that it makes anthroposophy appear respectable which it most definitely is not – people are getting hurt through Steiner practices and each time someone like you says it’s harmless more damage is done.
        If you are not fully conversant with the unpleasant aspects of anthroposophy I suggest you do some research before you go around promoting biodynamics.

        • julian

          Apologies if I mislead with “formerly unique BD benefits – especially soil carbon sequestration and plant / animal health”; when I was first studying these aspects 30 plus years ago I could find no other farming system of thought & practice that addressed these, there may have been others that I missed, would be keen to know of any that you do … (Permaculture, Higa’s Nature Farming etc only came to UK much more recently).
          In terms of ‘hurt’ caused by Steiner practices, that of course is another matter and I would not wish to promote anything of that manner. In terms of ‘clairvoyance’ – totally dodgy territory; but intuition, or I prefer ‘nous’, seems to be an important tool, even for good agrochem practice, but especially most of the best biological farming practices. I have also been able to work with some very successful people who appear to have ‘something extra’. Big and dangerous subject – happy to discuss off line; we should be able to define scientifically – maybe specifically through its farming benefits/applications.
          It is primarily preventing damage that interests me most …

      • Nick Nakorn

        Julian, you speak as if BD/Steiner originated something other than the woo. As far as I can tell, Steiner added nothing to the existing knowledge and, since then, a whole lot more is known using conventional science. The whole organic movement (itself having very dodgy beginnings), was created by rich Europeans trawling the world’s archives concerning agricultural practice and passing off previous knowledge as their own with some questionable science thrown in for good measure. Remember that agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years around the world producing both sustainable and unsustainable technologies. Science gives us the tools to assess which old and new practices are worthwhile. We absolutely do not need any pseudo-science to cloud the issue; people’s lives and our ecosystem depend on supporting proper research. In all of the above, you have yet to provide a shred of evidence that Biodynamics adds anything of benefit to agriculture.

  12. Jim

    Hi Nick – referring to your earlier comment ( the indentation gets hard to follow ) I think we are saying the same thing but from a different angle. You can have the “benefits” of BD without the uniquely BD bits. They do absolutely nothing to the soil one way or the other, though what they do to the mind is another matter.

    I approached this assuming Julian was a reasonable chap who’d had a bad experience with mainstream farming and thought he’d found something more sustainable in BD. I wanted to prise apart the anthroposophy and the agriculture to see which he was really committed to and whether he could see that the the healthy agriculture he claims to want is available without resort to pseudo-science.

    For a while I thought I was getting somewhere but maybe not. Julian’s last comment is almost like a different person speaking…..

  13. julian

    Hi Jim
    I would love to be able to ‘prise apart’ the good from the bad, and achieve some measure here; I think we are all saying this – especially the ‘woo’.
    At the moment it is the bad experience we are all having with mainstream farming (just in terms of soil erosion around Stroud – up to 60 tonnes/Ha/pa – ) that very largely can be prevented by BD, and also now other naturalistic/biological – and often like BD – esoteric farming systems. Absolutely, we need also get scientific measure of the esoteric elements, which to some degree are common to all the best biological practice … have a few ideas !
    Here are just some of the externalised costs of mainstream farming; by which the illusion ‘Organic’ is expensive is maintained. (Though note some organic methods are crummy too) :
    Unaccounted costs of agriculture –
    • Increased flood & drought cost largely results from aridification of topsoil, compromised aquifer recharge, increased run-off & evaporation (intensified rainfall).
    • Flood damage & shrinkage of house foundations are the biggest UK insurance cost. (UK home insurance premiums may be surcharged 10% for raised flood risk).
    • Agricultural chemical contamination of aquifers (nitrate & pesticide) is a major limitation on the UK’s public water supply. (increased water treatment costs and leads to greater costs for water storage and transfer).
    • Huge siltation effects of watercourses, loss of nutrient, eco-toxicological effects and contamination of coastal waters.
    • Even livestock farming implicated. eg over-the-counter anthelmintics – increased mobilisation of manure into watercourses – compromised nutrient cycling.
    • Nutrition & public health standards.
    There is a vast range of specific acute problems here that might be detailed further – that do not apply to BD etc.

    • julian

      Hi Rain
      I certainly feel the scientific and consumerist approach is presently limited, mainly in terms of vision, which I suppose you could say is gnostic – but that all beliefs should respected, even if they are limited (which they surely must all be). But I absolutely agree with Nick and others here that some measure is required.

  14. Nick Nakorn

    Julian, I am starting to think you’re just attempting to waste our time. You are constantly damning science and yet call for measurement. If not scientific measurement, then what? “All beliefs should be respected”, what an immoral, unethical and vile position to take – you’re every dictator’s dream. Frankly, I think your whole position is a wind-up. I’m sorry to have lost my patience with you but life is too short for serious subjects to be treated with so little regard for evidence.

    • Helen

      We often hear the assertion “beliefs should be respected”. It’s an attempt to try to integrate different cultural habits into our society I think, and to avoid discrimination. The problem is belief systems are based on superstition or pseudoscience and are in themselves discriminatory; witness the alleged problems of religious extremism in the Birmingham schools currently under investigation. The way some religions treat women and girls, non-believers and even those of a different social class according to their creed is discriminatory and intolerable in the rest of society, but we are asked to respect these habits.
      Anthroposophy discriminates by its attitudes to race, spiritual development, “temperaments”, hierarchies – they even try to make girls wear their hair a certain way, according to the post I mentioned above on the Secular Circle for the Prevention of Sectarianism site.As for respecting biodynamic farmers – their produce can be good, but their beliefs are unpleasant and deserve no tolerance.

      • Rain17

        Speaking of Steineroid duplicity and the temperaments, Helen said: “We often hear the assertion ‘beliefs should be respected’. It’s an attempt to try to integrate different cultural habits into our society I think, and to avoid discrimination.”

        It reminds me of something I recently read on page 1 of Discussions with Teachers. I have a copy in .pdf and also the book. It’s teacher training material found on their own websites. Mr. Man tells us:

        “The important thing for us to remember is the diversity of children and indeed of all human beings.

        Such diversity can be traced to four fundamental types, and the most important task of the educator and teacher is to know
        and recognize these four types we call the temperaments.” (Emphasis in original)

        Yes, the children are SO ‘diverse’ we can also simultaneously hammer and saw them into four categories and four categories, only. Because, it must be remembered at all times, we do not teach Anthroposophy to the children. So stop saying that.

        • Helen

          I quite agree Rain, it is insulting to children and their families to label them in this way. To be assigned to a particular group, and even to a particular spot in the classroom according to the size of your head or the way you walk – it is so unprofessional and quite creepy.
          I wouldn’t have believed this went on if I had not witnessed it myself. Over coffee break in the staff room teachers were discussing a child’s nose in connection with his behaviour quite openly as part of the normal conversation. I wondered what I had stumbled into but only found out on becoming inquisitive about the Steiner movement in general.
          And of course the temperaments and child study are part of Steiner teacher training and insisted on by the SWSF in all Steiner schools.
          I do not know if children or their families are told about what “temperament” they are deemed to belong to – perhaps you know the answer to this?

          • Rain17

            I cannot speak to whether parents are told directly about the temperament issue – I should also say if I haven’t already that I am partnered with someone with children in Waldorf so I am not a paying customer, so to speak (whatever my own misgivings about Steiner/Waldorf, I don’t wish to undermine their parents’ decisions on anything, including school, decisions which preceded my arrival on the scene. I have also stated my own piece to my partner about what I am going to do as an individual, regarding the children’s education and why I am keeping my personal involvement with their school to a once-a-year maximum limit.)

            That said, my experience has been that many parents know about Steiner woo, even the egregious race and religion sentiments, but they don’t take it seriously. They opt instead to focus on the wholesome-looking treats with familiar branding (see the Whole Foods Market discussion above); the wooden toys, absence of technology and if applicable, the presence of prominent, newsworthy, or financially successful families as the social proof of the educational method.

            So, often, my partner’s inquiries into the experiences of others is met with more dismissal flat-out denials, though some will tolerate that line of questioning more than others. I call it “…but no because Rudolf Steiner was a genius…” syndrome. Even people they know who have taken their kids out of Waldorf are reluctant to get specific about why.

            Thanks so much for this site, Helen. It is very helpful for people like me who feel trapped by the Steiner system and so-called “Waldorf Way”.

            Since I just started the Discussions… myself on Friday, I have not gotten a chance to ask my partner about what they have or have not been told explicitly about the use of the temperaments. (I have been looking for a used Handbook for Waldorf Teachers on Helen’s rec. and found Discussions.. that way.)

            I do know it has been made clear to my partner and ex- , in that manner of clearly muddled Steiner logic, that the treatment of the kids by teachers is based somehow in looks, body type, body size, color of cheeks, etc. I believe that typically it is couched in more palatable terms of what is deemed “best” for the student’s physical health and thus their educability. It goes without saying that purchasing a yearly subscription to the local BD vendor I mean supply chain I mean community supported agriculture farm delivery is recommended as the best option for produce.

            Julian has mentioned Alchemy — it’s worth noting that the temperaments/humours are used very heavily throughout Alchemical writings and concepts, as well as other European esoteric traditions. Leave it to Anthroposophy education to try and take it literally.

            Related: The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz on

            • Helen

              Thanks Rain, it is interesting to know how and why people become interested in this subject.
              It says a lot about Steiner education that even among parents at schools there is a difficulty in talking about aspects of it in detail.
              Families are steered towards subscribing to BD foods – I didn’t know that but I suppose it is to be expected.

    • julian

      Hi Nick – You have already well described above one key reason for our scientific failings; the effect of the directive provided by super-capitalists, we can take that further, specifically in agriculture the role of bureaucrats (especially since WW2) has led agriculture down a blind alley way – some incredibly impressive science; but the wrong science.
      Clearly measurement is a major part of the science I promote; of environmental issues that are in the community interest, yet no-one else including government is generally interested in, nor funds.
      In terms of respecting beliefs, this certainly does not exclude robust and valid criticism which is an important counter to tyrannies and also very much part of practical engagement to enable positive change.
      Challenging consensus was how modern science evolved with the formation of the Royal Society after the 30 Years War drove Alchemical thought and practice from Bohemia across Europe, where it took root in London. Its possibly as far back as this that we need (as a society) go to re-invent it.
      If this is of any pointer, senior figures in pharmaceuticals / health & livestock husbandry have suggested to me we haven’t really improved on where the Chinese were 5,000 years ago with their ideas on the importance of nutrition … A huge subject, I’ll pick up below on the ‘nous’ aspect, which relates here also.

  15. Jim

    I’m not sure what gnosticism has to do with this – are you referring to the Jewish/Christian deviant sects or something more generally new age? Anyway, nothing to do with the limitations or otherwise of science unless you are still clinging to the notion that there is some sort of direct intuition of the truth not accessible to science. Surely not?

    Julian – the specifically BD elements have no bearing on the water issues you raise. Do BD preparations prevent water run off and soil erosion? Of course not, the solutions lie in practices which are equally applicable to organic and non organic farming. If organic farmers were quicker to grasp these solutions ( and I’m not sure that is the case ) then fine, give them some credit.

    As for all beliefs being respected. Well I’m not going to hurl abuse at Steiner enthusiasts in the street if that’s what you mean but neither will I pretend that their beliefs are not idiotic and in some cases downright nasty. There is a big difference between ideas which you disagree with but have some intellectual respectability and those which are just totally absurd. Science is honest enough to recognise that just once in a while the seemingly absurd turns out to be the right answer but I think I’m on pretty safe ground where BD is concerned.

    • julian

      Hi Jim
      Deviance from the norm is part of this – though my understanding of nous is simply ‘informed common sense’ – a term I pointedly used in the article above, because anything beyond this runs all sorts of risks of delusion & misinterpretation. Rain17 introduced the Gnostic theme, which does relate here, and is I believe part of the milieu of Steiner’s work; I hoped Rain might have expanded here as she is a Religious Studies major – I will be pleased to be corrected by her …
      ‘Informed common sense’ can take a myriad of forms – and very quickly can challenge the status quo, particularly in any tyrannical system (corporate, religious, political) becoming thus a ‘deviance’.
      My best understanding of how nous derives is as an output of experience, expertise and diligence – vital for farmers of all types (and good science). In a corporate situation its what the workers develop over the years that cause them to often despair at decisions by the bosses (who may well have no practical experience).
      I am over simplifying, many other factors involved here – the brain is an incredibly complex instrument, and I am no psychologist. We can expand further here on developing nous – lets introduce a little ‘religiosity’, maybe some abstinence of earthly pleasures; not because some deity on high ordains it, but simply because it helps maintain the hormonal balance in the brain and thus mental acuity. Its what F1 drivers do before a big race, good parents practice for their children’s wellbeing and even today in military orders around the world. For a farmer it is effectively big race day every day – this is as I understand it part of BD practice. I have certainly come across a few Steiner twits in these respects – but the vast majority are otherwise and extremely sentient, including non-BD farmers it must be said, all for the simple reason that otherwise they would go out of business. But though Steiner stressed this intuitive function, most do it without realising – it is thus ‘esoteric’ – but not weird at all, just common sense. And though maybe as I described it pseudo-science, it was because I have no formal references here.
      We can go much further here – in a consumer society our minds are filled with much. This can prevent us living ‘in the vital now’. Steiner stressed a ‘Christian’ approach here; ie thinking about others – open to much abuse certainly but also not mumbo jumbo, just sound advice for keeping your mind clear and focussed on what is really important.
      And interestingly – very much related to the original ‘Christian’ Alchemical impetus for modern science, that may provide some counter now to the super-capitalism Nick has mentioned.
      If you are able to state that BD preps serve no useful function, great that you have that confidence and might promote something safe here; personally GMOs worry me. My view, without being able to dig into that aspect, and because in toto BD is apparently so much better (from what I have seen and tasted on many farms) than the present agrochem disaster unfolding around us, was to give them the benefit of the doubt (assuming possibly they were part of maintaining the vital microbial processes here). The little I have understood of BD – has taught me much of use, often completely contrary to, but contributing to mainstream science.

  16. Rain17

    Hi Jim,

    I asked the question about Gnosticism mainly because of Julian’s reference to this idea of Nous, which I now see he plans to elucidate. Nous is not unique to Gnosticism from the Early Christian era by any stretch, but modern-day esoterics including those from New Age religious movements often take up Gnostic themes and use that terminology. Especially when it comes to this idea that they have acquired specially revealed, secret, hidden knowledge of capital-T Truth, or are on the quest for such. Sounds familiar..


    • julian

      Hi Rain
      Thank you for comment – I agree, the New Age movement (appears) to sometimes completely fail to grasp the practical realities here; hard work and sound ethics, which is hardly any great secret other than to them. The reason why the various Esoteric farming methods, beyond and including BD, place emphasis on mental acuity is that without the aid of modern chemicals, the mind and awareness of what is going on around the farm become a more important ‘tool’. (I work a lot with small hydropower – similar issues here, especially in implementing – free energy doesn’t come cheap !).

    • Jim

      Hi Rain.
      All is now clear! I originally took Julian to be using nous ( uncapitalised ) in the Northern English sense as in “Ee lad, tha’s not got t’ nous of’t babby”. Trans. “I say my good man, you have no more common sense than a baby”. ( apologies to Northern readers ).

      Actually Julian’s elucidation a couple of comments above seems to slip between this sort of common sense nous and the Neo-Platonic Nous as if they were the same thing rather than near opposites ( at least when it comes to the sort of insight claimed by Steiner ).

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