Just in case it has been a while since you studied genetics, we thought you might enjoy an article written for the Star and Furrow (the magazine put out by the Biodynamic Association in the UK), just to brush up! Oh and there are some implications for organic and biodynamic agriculture…
Moving swiftly from the snow to the season of lambs and now dandelions. In my back garden, which backs on to a biodynamic farm the dandelions are everywhere, a wonderful weed, which I can appreciate for their colour, their strength (I have seen them grow through tarmac in a matter of days) and their adaptability. A dandelion is a dandelion and is easily identified in many different environments, but also they reflect their environment in their leaves, stems and buds. So there they are, weeds that are working to break up our compact soil.
But today I wanted to write about collecting dandelions for the biodynamic preparations. One of the compost preparations needs dandelion flowers, collected at just the right moment, at the peak of flowering, all yellow with no seeds. This sounds easy, but in actual fact I have spent some time sorting dandelion flowers to ensure that they were right for the prep.
There is an easier way. Timothy Brink, a biodynamic farmer and inspector told me in an interview – it is really quite simple. Pick your place, with plenty of dandelions, then mow/top etc. Wait three to five days and there you have it, all the dandelions that are in bloom are in peak condition.
Simple and practical. Not without attention, just understanding the patterns of nature and working with them. Now that is brilliant biodynamics.
Just one tip from one farmer. There is a whole body of practical knowledge out there, we try to bring you some in small doses, there will be more. But for now, perhaps you will see the dandelions in all their glory and think of the preparations.
So I have been thinking about biodynamics…
Nothing new there really. I teach about biodynamics, I work in certification for biodynamic organisations, my husband has been a biodynamic farmer and we live on the edge of a biodynamic farm. You get the picture…
How does biodynamics work in the garden? How might you convert a farm or garden (or farmer) to biodynamics? What does it mean anyway?
Is it a philosophy? A way of life? A set of methods? A recipe book?
I suppose it could be any of those, depending on the person and place involved, and perhaps that is the key difference – IT DEPENDS on the person and place involved. (though I have to admit that I don’t really like the last one…)
In this world of binary (black or white, right or wrong, 0 or 1), biodynamics values diversity and complexity. How easy is that? In reality probably not very. Complexity is, well complex, which by definition means it is not simple, to discuss or convey. But complexity also means depth and richness, like an oil painting, a landscape, a human being, or a farm. In detail farms are messy and muddy, just like most humans. Especially at this time of year we are surrounded by mud and mess, but we are also surrounded by species – birds, insects, plants, people and animals, microorganisms and minerals. Not simple, not neat and definitely not binary.
Perhaps in my view, this is actually the first step towards biodynamics, to accept that life is messy – but also that we can see beyond the mess to value diversity, complexity, relationships and species richness. Somehow in the mess there can be the aim for balance and harmony (aim for are really key words). Human beings have the capacity to understand that complexity is good and to actively cultivate it.
Cultivation is not control, working with is not imposing, and complexity is challenging.
Biodynamics is not easy, it is not simple, it is messy, but it can also be real. Not a sound bite, not an advertisement to convince or sell, but an attempt to understand and work with nature, to make nature (which is always complex) even more natural. Life is not a spreadsheet, but something to be lived.
Perhaps this is step one. Accept the mess and learn to love it…
Stay tuned for step two…
My last interview in this particular series was with Prof. Nic Lampkin of the Organic Research Centre on the subject of policy and political challenges to agriculture.
As I have said before there are times when actually I would prefer to run off and be a hermit, not deal with other people and certainly not deal with politics or policy. In fact when I have listened to politicians in the past, I have sometimes wondered whether that politician and I occupied the same world (just as an example – a few years ago Owen Paterson had not heard of community supported agriculture, I’m not sure that it surprised me, but I was not impressed).
Others bravely confront the world of politics and agriculture and have done so in order to support constructive policy and make the world a better place. Nic Lampkin is certainly one of those individuals! So we sat down last Thursday morning to discuss political challenges to agriculture in the 21st century.
I had sent some questions to prepare the interview and in response Nic recommended that I take a look at his presentation on the ‘Role of Regulation in Organic Farming’ in Estonia to IFOAM EU. It was only 13 minutes long but it answered many of the questions I had sent. (the presentation can be found here) Hmmm. Then what do we talk about? Well here are a few highlights:
Organic as Open Source
Nic said that historically biodynamic and organic agriculture are ‘open source’ concepts. There has been continual input and refining of the principles of these approaches to agriculture because they were ideas that were the products not simply of one individual (not even biodynamics) but of many individuals who were combining their points of view, finding commonality and allowing both principles and practice to develop, well, organically (pun intended). That presents a serious difficulty for regulation. How is it possible to encapsulate principled and developmental approaches in regulation? Is it possible to continuously redefine and update regulation in response to experience? How can we keep this ‘open source’ quality when regulation seeks an easily assessible pass/fail approach?
Agroecology as learning process
Well I would love that idea wouldn’t I? Nic described involvement in agroecology as a continual learning process, not something ever finished, but always developing. Can regulation support this? If so, then we will have regulation which truly supports the impulse.
regulation that encourages positive development
A developmental approach is pretty common in the agroecological sector and regulation can be seen as a fossilising influence. But not necessarily. It should be possible that regulation can work as a support to development. Nic mentioned sustainability assessment tools as a support for farmers, something that can motivate farmers in the process of change.
He said that ‘it is vital that regulation and certification are not a ceiling that limit creativity and opportunity’ but a supportive platform from which to begin.
Make regulation an inclusive process
At the moment the process of developing regulation and policy is not as inclusive as it could be. By including the producers, processors, traders and (very importantly) consumers, regulation can become a collaborative experience, taking into account the principles and best practice of producers as well as the aims and expectations of consumers. Taking a well-rounded view of regulation is a bit like taking a well-rounded view of the farm, understanding it as an organism, not just a group of diverse enterprises.
change the conversation – from input to output
Traditionally organic agriculture has been viewed as the avoidance of certain inputs (chemical fertilisers, pesticides etc.) and has involved lists of what you may or may not use. Those lists are useful but they are really only a small part of the agriculture itself!
Agroecological impulses such as biodynamic and organic (among others) really involve both process and aims. In fact many of the aims are the same – regeneration of the soil, plant resilience, care for animals and their well-being, fairness to humans (in the work and the supply chain) – in fact working on the ecological/social/economic levels that are usually considered as the three pillars of sustainability. So if the aims are similar, how do we find the methods? According to Nic we look for ecological processes rather than technological ones. (mostly…)
By focusing on the aims, rather than the inputs we remember our sense of purpose and meaning in what we are doing, and we begin to take into account all of the benefits of this kind of farming! This is about producing food, but not only. It is also about all the things mentioned above, and those ‘public goods’ cannot be separated from the activity of producing food.
Also by recognising the commonality of aims, different streams within the agroecology remember how much they have in common. As Nic said almost 99% of our DNA we have in common and this DNA is really in the aims of the different streams. We have much more in common than separates us after all.
I have to admit that I never expected a conversation about policy and regulation to be so inspiring! But it most certainly was. These were all the right questions, talking of aims and aspirations – the confidence that regulation has its place, and can be a support, but also the confidence that agroecology is not just about producing food, it is much richer than that. So perhaps the conversation is not simple, the message is not a soundbite – but it is rich, inclusive and diverse! (signs of resilience!)
Discussing the social challenges of agriculture with Helmy Abouleish of Sekem
I have had a few weeks of social challenges. In fact one day I was stewing in a rant worthy of Joel Salatin (everything I want to do is illegal). However, a conversation with Helmy Abouleish (definitely a socially gifted individual!) was just the antidote I was looking for to the ranting/stewing, why can’t I just retreat from the world feeling in which I was indulging.
Because I know that realistically, retreat from the world, however tempting, is not my answer, nor is it really an option.
Agriculture is one of those activities in which human culture has been intertwined for as long as we can remember. In the 21st century social interaction as part of agriculture often just happens, rather than is consciously designed – contact between producers and processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers may be cordial or difficult, but it is rarely seen as part of the ‘real’ activity of agriculture. So in my longing for isolation and becoming a hermit, just to avoid the messiness of other human beings (I have enough of my own messiness to be getting on with), it was good to remember that the social cultural aspects of agriculture can also be cultivated and cared for.
Below are a few ideas from the conversation that left me more hopeful and possibly even more realistic.
Agriculture is taking the human into nature
'Agriculture is the opposite to nature. Humans interact with nature through culture and create something which was not there before. This can create something which is far beyond the capacity of nature to renew itself. It is about taking nature to the next level rather than preserving what is there.' - Helmy Abouleish
Countless times I have asked students ‘do you think the world would be better off without humans?’ It is an idea that I enjoy challenging because it is an assumption I used to make myself. I think my initial stage in changing this assumption was to move to ‘we have created the mess, therefore it is our responsibility to clean it up.’
But I have gradually moved more… What if it is not just our burden to clean up the mess we have made? What if it is our gift, that we have the capacity to improve on nature? A big thought but worth thinking (I think).
Nature takes a minimum of 500 to 1000 years to create 1-2 cm of new topsoil, we can do it faster. The processes that break down waste products into nutrients that are available for plants happen naturally, but they happen more quickly and more efficiently in a compost pile.
Just two examples of ways in which humans can create something which is far beyond the capacity of nature to renew itself. This is not interference at a fundamental level, changing nature to suit human needs, this is a collaborative process between the human being and nature to support and multiply natural renewal. We can do that.
Two possible views
Helmy pointed out that there are two very different views of agriculture.
The first – agriculture is an industry with the aim of producing food. This is narrow and somewhat dismissive of the other aspects of agriculture.
In turn this can lead to economic understanding of agriculture that encourages paying attention only to the output/production of the farm. Maximise production at all costs, to maximise economic benefit and at the same time maximum amount of food.
The second – agriculture is a complex activity involving environmental, social, cultural and economic aspects. Culturally we have been tied and shaped by the activity and rhythms of nature and agriculture. Now that we are free of those bonds, how can we work with the complex cultural history that exists and reimagine agriculture without losing the relationship that has been cultivated for so long? Or how can we build those relationships in a new way?
This second view of agriculture is of course one with which I sympathise more (surprise!). According to research done at Sekem, by looking at all of the roles that agriculture plays, including all of the benefits (ethical, environmental, social etc.) biodynamic agriculture is the most productive and most ‘cost’ effective way of producing food (when all benefits are taken into account).
Don’t patronise, preach or convert
At the end of our conversation we spoke about creating possibilities for healthy social interaction in the context of agriculture. At Sekem, everyone who works there, from the farms to the tea packers, has access to cultural activities and education. But it is offered, not enforced. We cannot force culture down people’s throats if they do not want it. We cannot convert farmers who are not interested. We can simply do biodynamics and see if curiosity comes. In Egypt it has, and many farmers have looked over the fence to see how soil is created in the middle of the desert. When questions come, then spot the opportunity and be ready to talk.
Because at the heart of biodynamic agriculture is freedom, curiosity and interest.
So I am recovering from my longing to rant. This interview was after all a balm for my soul, enjoyable and complex, in parts challenging and soothing. Because although ranting and retreating are sometimes useful as short term modes of coping and getting through the day, I know there are better things to be doing with my time.
Nick Barnard (of Rude Health) and I sat down for a conversation over skype about the nutritional challenges to agriculture now. We discussed his book Eat Right, the seemingly inevitable tendency of human beings to enjoy convenience, the relationship between culture and soil and what books farmers should be reading!
Some of my favourite bits:
Hand Food and Mouth Food
‘Korean tradition distinguishes two kinds of food: hand food (which has been prepared, handled from production all the way through to eating) and mouth food (which is only tasted). The proportion of hand food to mouth food should be about 80% to 20%.’
This got me thinking again about Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (I think that’s the right source) in which he says that in general, beyond the approach of ‘Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.’ he actually at a certain point says, you can eat almost anything as long as you make it yourself from scratch…
Which is pretty much my philosophy when it comes to food. I like hand food. I like to be able to make my own croissants, mozzarella, pies, pizza and pasta. Yesterday I made meringues for my daughter to take in as a treat (late birthday celebration) for school. The same (picky!) daughter refuses pizza made anywhere else other than in my kitchen, by me. And the sourdough bread baked last night? According to my son ‘Its Epic!’ (he’s nine… and I have hope that he will learn to love Shakespearean English as much as the surfer dude version he seems to bring home from his classmates at school, just maybe not yet.)
We probably eat slightly too much sugar (horrible sweet tooths in this house) but at least most of it is within a home made context. Does that make it better? Or simply ease my conscience?
Be curious about your food
Don’t just go with the headline ‘All natural’ or even ‘organic’ doesn’t mean its good for you. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, think twice!
I like knowing where my food comes from. I don’t always, I’m not a locavore really, though sometimes I would like to be, the thought of never eating an avocado or mango again disturbs me deeply. But we are really lucky, we get vegetables and meat from the farm I can see from my window, and sometimes I get around to patronising our brilliant local farmer’s market. This is the season of apples and blackberries so we forage and collect in autumn, a luxury I know not everyone can access.
Long supply chains and undervaluing of farmers depresses me and then makes me angry.
I’m not perfect by any means! I still haven’t managed to sign up for our local raw milk dairy, but it is on the to do list…
But I am always curious about food. How is it made? Where does it come from? What are the ingredients and processes behind the food on the table? Are they transparent, or hidden? So much curiosity! So many labels and books to read…
We are part of nature and nature is part of us. Our relationship (or absence of relationship) with food is inherently part of our relationship with nature. Perhaps this is one that needs cultivation!
Farmers should read books
According to Nick, Joel Salatin, that famous American grass farmer and thoroughly enjoyable ranter, said that when he is called in to consult about a farm, the first thing he does is go to the farm library.
I haven’t found a source for this quote, but I seriously hope it is true!
I love reading, being challenged and thinking about things. Questioning and recognising my own assumptions is a lifelong occupation and one that I value highly!
So in the enjoyable activity of preparing for the Biodynamic World View course, reading is paramount, sorting out the accessible from the inaccessible, the inspiring from the everyday. Because farmers often have difficulty finding time to read, I have to make sure that everything we give them is good stuff.
I loved this interview. These are really only just a few of the good bits! Give me good conversation about food and farming any day, throw in a little philosophy, some practicality and plenty of questions – hardly anything could be better.
For our new course Biodynamic World View, I have been conducting a series of interviews about the challenges facing agriculture today. Patrick Holden was up first!
I wanted to ask Patrick what he thought were the ecological challenges in agriculture, he wanted me to ask about the spiritual challenges, so we did both…
Here are just a few excerpts (all from the first 5 minutes of the conversation) there is more! The whole interview will be available as part of the first week of the Biodynamic World View Course.)
In the context of agriculture, how can we undergo a transition from food productions systems which are based on old thinking, fossilised, both in terms of their thinking but also in terms of their use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable capital, polluting, destroying of public health and arguably failing to support the planetary evolution on some deep spiritual level which can only just be articulated, but which nevertheless most of us feel is important?
If it is a human task to act as intermediary between the cosmos and the mineralised body of the earth, then what is demanded of us, as human beings involved in agriculture, that can refine the biomass of which we are part and arguably stewards? (at least on a good day, and there haven’t been many good days recently!)
Now we see a planet which is in crisis – ecological crisis, spiritual crisis, resource crisis… and in all of these agriculture plays a prominent role.
I’m talking about a total transition, to food systems which operate within planetary boundaries. So for me the question that arises is ‘what part do I have to play?’
As I said, these excerpts are just from the first five minutes. This was a conversation that touched on world-wide issues, questions of thinking, understanding and action, how it is to be a steward of nature and what has to happen next.
The challenges are immense, but not insurmountable! There is action to be taken, Patrick’s interview is only the beginning…