“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard it before. A phrase popularized by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr in the early part of the 20th century, it’s a nutritional truism that underpins virtually everything we know about food and how it affects the human body. The link between the food you eat and your physical well-being is inextricable. Everything you eat either becomes part of you or passes intimately through you, impacting your every bodily function. The quality and quantity of your food literally reshapes who you are. The statement is as much philosophical as it is somatic. But, for disciples of biodynamic farming, it’s an expression representing only part of a larger equation.
What Is Biodynamic Farming?
Biodynamic farming is a concept first coined by Austrian writer, educator, and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner in a series of lectures he gave on agriculture in Germany the 1920s. In the most abridged interpretation, it is a return to traditional farming methods, both practically and spiritually. It transcends the more prevalent practice of organic farming.
Biodynamic farming treats each individual farm as a self-contained ecosystem. The health and well-being of the farm, the farmer, the farm animals, the crops, and the Earth are all viewed as integral parts that make up the whole. Biodynamic farmers do not use artificial pesticides, other synthetic chemicals, or genetic modification. They try to limit importing materials from outside their farm, minimize waste, and maximize local resources, including water. Biodynamic farmers also set aside at least 10% of their land for biodiversity, meaning crops are not only grown for human consumption but to provide forage for animals, birds and insects that have a positive impact on the land. Subsequently, biodynamic agricultural methods strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem harmonious with the world around them.
Biodynamic Farming Is Grounded In Fertile Soil
Soil has a significant effect on growing nutrient-rich crops. Fruits and vegetables collect their minerals and vitamins from the soil in which they’re grown. Unfortunately for us, studies on soil depletion are showing the nutrients in our fruits and vegetables are declining generationally with every new harvest.
With soil being of paramount importance in biodynamic agriculture, farmers focus intently on soil building practices. “We’re doing a kind of agriculture here where the soil gets better every year,” a farmer from a biodynamic farming community in Upstate New York said years ago. The better the soil, the healthier the crops will be that grow grow in it, and the healthier animals and people who eat the crops will be.
One way in which biodynamic farmers optimize soil quality is by rotating crops. Crop rotation is the practice of planting different crops season by season. This helps to limit removing the same nutrients from the soil over and over again.
Another method used to enhance soil quality is to “rest” the land. The land will lay fallow for a period of time to allow soil deposits to recover. Manure from animals, which is high in nutrients, is then spread across the land to naturally fertilize the soil and help it to recover. Crops may also be allowed to grow but not gathered. At the end of the growing season, the crops will die and return to the ground to further increase the quality of the soil.
In biodynamic farming, many processes, such as tilling the land, are also done by hand rather than mechanically. The idea being to utilize farming methods that have a minimal environmental impact.
Biodynamic Farming Places A High Value on Animal Welfare
Animals have a central place in biodynamic farming because they play an essential role in the cycle of a farm. Their manure is returned to the land and helps to re-fertilize the soil. Animals living on a biodynamic farm are treated humanely and with respect. They roam outdoors and are fed high-quality foods to ensure they remain healthy. Also, while treatment with antibiotics is common in industrial farming, it is viewed as taboo and unnecessary in biodynamic farming. With the growing concern of antibiotics in the food chain affecting our resistance to diseases, this is an important characteristic of biodynamic practices that should not be overlooked.
How Is Biodynamic Farming Different From Organic Farming?
Foods farmed organically are becoming increasingly popular, and while biodynamic and organic farming share many common practices and concepts, the two methods should not be used interchangeably. Think of organic farming as being focused on the quality of the product, and biodynamic farming as being focused on the quality of the entire farm ecosystem.
Biodynamic farming is rooted in environmental and ecological principles that go deeper than even those of organic farming. For example, raising livestock is not a requirement for an organic farmer, but is of fundamental importance to sustaining a healthy ecosystem for a biodynamic farmer. An organic farmer can also choose to harvest one type of crop (like corn), however, a biodynamic farmer would never plant only one type of crop because you cannot build an ecosystem on one plant.
Spirituality also plays an important role in biodynamic agriculture. Anthroposophy, an esoteric spiritual philosophy with roots in German idealism and German mysticism, forms the core belief system. Dr. Rudolph Steiner meticulously outlines the spiritual practices in his original series of lectures. For example, “preparations” need to be made to the field and include “filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground (40–60 cm below the surface) in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.” The potions and rituals have undoubtedly created skeptics and critics of the whole movement.
The Benefits of Biodynamic Farming
If we put the more magical elements aside, can we, the consumer, reasonably derive any benefits from purchasing foods that have been biodynamically farmed? The answer is certainly, yes. Remembering that we are what we at, biodynamic foods are certainly a better choice than the mass-produced, heavily-processed, non-organic foods all too common in the supermarket. There is relief in knowing biodynamic foods were not treated with chemicals, hormones or antibiotics and were harvested and processed with minimal environmental impact. You can also derive a small amount of satisfaction from knowing you’re supporting the passion of someone who is so devoted to cultivating food in an environmentally-friendly manner.
Where Can You Find Biodynamic Foods?
There are relatively very few biodynamic farms. Worldwide, approximately 5,000 farms in 47 countries have been certified with 1,500 in Germany alone. The movement, however, continues to expand and the market continues to grow. In the US, for example, Whole Foods Market has embraced the movement and supplies a small number of products sourced from biodynamic farming, including: produce, sugar, rice, wine, pasta, and pasta sauce. Just look for the “Demeter Certified Biodynamic” label on the products.here.