The Science of Biodynamic Agriculture
By Hugh Lovel
Biodynamic Agriculture is a comprehensive method of self-sufficient agriculture that produces exceedingly nutritious food. It grew out of Rudolf Steiner’s agriculture lectures which were given in response to the chemical methods introduced in the mid nineteenth century. Steiner’s understanding of the roles of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and how individual agricultural operations lived and grew between the lime and silica poles of nature was both scientific and practical. He identified the processes essential to life and introduced natural remedies to catalyse these processes so farm enterprises can supply what they need from nature’s abundance.
Biodynamic agriculture, the oldest of organic methods, is a science based, holistic, regenerative agriculture that works with life processes to achieve self-sufficient, quality production of high vitality goods. It grew out of the insights of Rudolf Steiner, whose agriculture lectures at the estate of Count and Countess von Keyserlingk near Koberwitz, Poland, 1924, addressed the shortcomings of chemical agriculture.
In his twenties Steiner received his scientific training in maths, chemistry and biology at the technical institute of Vienna and earned his Doctorate in Philosophy with his treatise, The Philosophy of Freedom, which advanced the proposition—now accepted as proven in Quantum Physics—that observer and phenomenon are inseparably linked. Clearly the choice of what we look for is a factor in determining phenomena. Indeed, what we look for is determined by our concepts, without which we have no grasp of what our senses encounter.
Hired by a publishing house to edit the scientific writings of German literary giant, J. W. von Goethe, Steiner was inspired by Goethe’s holistic explanations of the processes behind physical, measurable occurrences. Measurement is fixed at a time and place, but over time living things keep changing. Without moment-to-moment measurements of these changes no processes emerge. Goethe noted that the butterfly in a museum case was only a corpse, and the processes that had animated it were gone. Yet, elusive though they might be, these processes were real.
Steiner, who was clairvoyant, investigated folk lore, herbal medicine, Eastern religions, native cultures, homeopathic medicine and many other disciplines to acquire the concepts and vocabulary to make sense out of his impressions of nature. Particularly in the last years of his life, his medical and agricultural lectures conveyed a profoundly insightful and all-encompassing approach to understanding the maths, physics and chemistry of how living organisms function and how their problems can be dealt with. Most of his agriculture course focused on this chemistry, physics and biology of life. His remedies for biological processes took into account the environment in the broadest possible sense—the rhythmic motions of the sun, moon and planets relative to the earth’s rotation and revolution in the context of the starry universe. His agriculture lectures convey a profound grasp of how specific activities occurring within living organisms relate to the surrounding universe.
His insights include viewing each property as a self-contained organism, whether a large farm or a small garden. The biodynamic method establishes the relationships between cosmological cycles and the activities occurring within the operation.
Since the days of early Greece science held mathematics preeminent amongst scientific disciplines. Ever since Archimedes and Aristotle the mathematical description of life has been the Holy Grail for understanding mankind, nature, the earth and the universe at large. Sir Isaac Newton’s calculus, laws of motion and theory of gravity awed the scientific world more than anything since Euclid’s geometry and the Pythagorean Theorem. And yet, Newton only explained how an apple falls from the tree, not how it gets up there.
At the time Rudolf Steiner began his studies Bernard Riemann’s non-Euclidean geometry was expanding the thinking of all mathematicians. Projective geometry—the all geometry—showed that every system that defined things by their internal composition had a counterpart that defined the same things relative to their surroundings. Steiner had the insight that a mathematics of living organisms required both points of view, the content and the context. It was the boundary between content and context where life arose. Living organisms were products of their surroundings.
During Steiner’s time science was deeply enthralled with the belief that all dynamic systems ran down and lost their available energy. Never mind that this concept—entropy—failed to explain how living organisms grow and reproduce. More realistically, Buckminster Fuller coined a word for the life process, calling it syntropy. Still later chaos theory recognized that from seemingly infinitesimal causes organisation arises at boundaries. Benoit Mandelbrot showed how graphing boundaries reveals beautiful, organic forms of infinite complexity. Finally, toward the end of the twentieth century Rupert Sheldrake showed how quantum mechanics explains many of the otherwise mysterious characteristics of living organisms. At the time of his agriculture lectures, however, Steiner alone among his scientific peers grasped how the enormous forces of the surrounding cosmos affect living organisms—how a seed grows into a tree and yields apples in sublime defiance of both gravity and entropy.
For the human organism the outer universe meets the body at the skin, the digestion, the eyes and other senses, but most importantly in the lungs and at the diaphragm. Life would expire in mere minutes without breath. Thus when Steiner looked at the earth as a living organism he compared the surface of the earth to the human diaphragm.
The activities below the surface he related to Mercury, Venus and the Moon and the activities of the digestive tract, the urinary system and reproduction. These influences enter the soil from the atmosphere and become active within the earth.
On the other hand, the activities above the surface he related to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and the activities of the limbs, the liver and respiration. These influences stream forth from deep within the earth, and are active above the earth’s surface.
Everything that takes place between the earth and the sun works within the soil, and everything that takes place beyond the earth and the sun works above the soil. Increasing and enhancing the interplay between these two activities is what makes agriculture thrive.
Steiner contrasted the hungry, greedy lime with the aloof, aristocratic silica. In agriculture there is always this dance between polar opposites—night and day, winter and summer, nitrogen and carbon, legumes and grasses, soil and atmosphere, inner and outer planets, sedimentary and igneous rocks, plant reproduction and food production. The lime processes in the soil relate to mineral release, nitrogen fixation, digestion and nutrient uptake. The silica processes in the air relate to photosynthesis, blossoming, fruiting and ripening.
As a system, biodynamics helps us balance and enhance agricultural activities, how they fit into bigger and bigger pictures and what the causes and consequences of various things may be. It helps us make sense of and strengthen the biological activities on our farms so they thrive and produce great results.
For Steiner, knowing things was to put them to work. He drew great inspiration from Goethe, who studied the work of Paracelsus, the renaissance physician who established the role of chemistry in medicine. Paracelsus described a remedy as ‘like a spark that, though it has no weight, can set a house afire.’ Steiner’s remedies for agriculture were like sparks of life that took root and grew. Like seeds these remedies could be sown and re-sown, again and again bringing generation after generation of living activities to the soil, the air above it and its plants and animals.
These remedies, known today as the biodynamic preparations, are of two sorts—the field sprays and the herbal compost preparations. Steiner’s field sprays used cow horns as sheaths to focus the resonant energies of the earth on materials packed within the horns and buried either over winter or over summer in the soil. This thoroughly imparted the characteristic energies of the season, transforming the substances within the horns. For the lime polarity he filled the horns with cow manure and buried them over the winter. For the silica polarity he used fine silica powder buried over the summer. Though he identified clay as the mediator between lime and silica and alluded to making a clay remedy in his second lecture, he did not make specific recommendations in his agriculture course. However, traditions are that in making these remedies beforehand he filled the open end of each horn with a plug of clay. In Australia it has become common practice to make both summer and winter horn clay.
He also gave instructions for making six herbal remedies to improve and enhance composts, and a seventh herbal remedy to use in case of wet conditions and excessive nitrification. These procedures can be found in the Agriculture Course and other biodynamic publications.
How Steiner focused on agriculture as the culmination of his life’s work is recounted in Adalbert Graf Von Keyserlingk’s book, The Birth of a New Agriculture, Koberwitz 1924. Steiner’s motivation is also revealed in Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s account of a question Pfeiffer asked him on a train to Stuttgart after the Agriculture Course.
“How can it happen that the spiritual impulse, and especially the inner schooling, for which you are constantly providing stimulus and guidance bear so little fruit? Why do the people concerned give so little evidence of spiritual experience, in spite of all their efforts? Why, worst of all, is the will for action, for the carrying out of these spiritual impulses, so weak?” I was particularly anxious to get an answer to the question as to how one could build a bridge to active participation and the carrying out of spiritual intentions without being pulled off the right path by personal ambition, illusions and petty jealousies, for these were the negative qualities Rudolf Steiner had named as the main inner hindrances. Then came the surprising and though-provoking answer. “This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.”
A nutritional problem which, if solved, would enable the spirit to become manifest and realize itself in human beings! With this as a background one can understand why Dr. Steiner said that “the benefits of the biodynamic preparations should be made available as quickly as possible to the largest possible areas of the entire Earth, for the Earth’s healing.”