Category Archives: Biodynamic farming

Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism

Biodynamics versus Permaculture

We had a lovely outing on a recent Sunday to Stanmer Park near Brighton, where the Brighton Permaculture Trust  had organised their 2016 Apple Day. Apple Day celebrates all things to do with the apple, including the revival of old Sussex varieties of apple, some of which the Trust has brought back from the brink of extinction. I’ve bought two of these Sussex varieties (Forge and Saltcote Pippin) for our garden and can’t wait to collect them for planting in December.

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Delicious Sussex apple varieties on display at Apple Day

It was a wonderful autumn day with lots of sunshine and the fine weather brought out families in their thousands. Apart from the focus on apples (including cider-tasting), there were stalls from many local organisations and food producers, as well as morris dancers, a Brazilian salsa band and dancers, a ukulele band, a choir, talks about bees, scything demos, tours of the orchards, permaculture taster activities etc. It was all very good-humoured, well organised and a truly impressive example of a community-based activity that also put across a serious message about sustainability and caring for the earth.

The Apple Day came just a few days after news of the death in Tasmania on September 24th of Bill Mollison, one of the two founders of permaculture.

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Bill Mollison – photo via permaculture.co.uk

Bill Mollison was quite a character and the source of many pithy quotations. Here are some of my favourites:

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”

“If and when the whole world is secure, we have won a right to explore space, and the oceans. Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcome elsewhere.”

 

If you’ve not come across permaculture before (the name comes from “permanent agriculture” but is also coming to mean “permanent culture”), it is both a philosophy and a farming and living method that grew out of the books and permaculture courses of Bill Mollison and his fellow Australian farmer and researcher, David Holmgren. Permaculture systems or gardens are modelled on patterns observed in nature. Structures, access and water systems are also designed to be energy efficient and placed with a focus on the relationships between elements of a system rather than on individual components themselves.

 

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Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – photo via Dr Benjamin Habib’s blog.

David Holmgren once explained permaculture quite neatly by saying “Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.” As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

Clearly the work of the Brighton Permaculture Trust is having an excellent effect in the locality – they have for example helped to establish about one hundred community orchards, revived interest in local food production and sustainable methods of agriculture, and they specialise in working with schools and community groups. They have made enough of an impact to attract sponsorship for Apple Day from Infinity Foods, one of the UK’s leading wholesalers for organic and natural foods.

The impression I got was that those attending the Apple Day are exactly the sorts of people who are concerned that our society has become estranged and alienated from nature, and that this increasing alienation has been to the detriment of both our health and the natural environment. My guess is that these are people who believe that there are effects of food beyond nutrition and that there are aspects of what constitutes a good life which go beyond the modern ideas of health and wealth. As such points of view become more widespread, they are gradually building a foundation for real change and for moves towards a more sustainable future. How many of these people know about permaculture in any kind of detail I can’t say (only a few, I suspect) but clearly they all know the name of the Brighton Permaculture Trust and associate it with the kind of things that they wish to support.

 

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Thousands of people attended Brighton Permaculture Trust’s Apple Day.

 

I couldn’t help but ask myself whether biodynamics would get a similar level of name-recognition from these people – my sense is that probably it would not. Biodynamics and permaculture, however, clearly have a great many of the same attitudes and aspirations. What are the differences and similarities between the two systems?

Permaculture would claim to be an applied science, as its focus is on the application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain practical aims. It’s not about gathering information just for the sake of research but for the purpose of putting its scientific findings into practice. Observation and experience as tools in permaculture suggest that it is not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality and everyday reality.

I would say that biodynamics shares all of these characteristics with permaculture, although some might argue that, as the origin of biodynamics lies with Steiner’s supersensible perceptions and observations, it is not a science in the same sense. But these perceptions and observations by Steiner have been followed up, tested and proved on farms around the world now for more than ninety years. So I think we can argue that biodynamics is also both an applied and an empirical science.

Another shared feature is that, unlike other sciences, both permaculture and biodynamics are holistic and not reductionist. Both of them describe the connections and relationships between natural systems, the multitude of living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself. Both share strong philosophical and visionary ideas about sustainable patterns of living and social and ecological ethics.

Similarly, both permaculture and biodynamics share the goal of creating an almost perfectly closed system, in which all the inputs come from your own resources and as little as possible is brought in from outside. Permaculture does, however, imply that your system grows towards a natural maturity and then sustains itself there, while biodynamics works with fewer permanent plantings and has crop rotation cycles over several years.

Biodynamics, of course, also takes into account the connections with the cosmos, which permaculture does not, except inasmuch as it involves planting by the phases of the moon.

But I think there is a fundamental difference between the two: permaculture deliberately does not have an underlying spiritual system, whereas biodynamics arises out of a particular philosophy and spiritual system – anthroposophy. It’s relevant to quote Bill Mollison here: “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”. What I think he meant by this is that one’s personal philosophy should arise from one’s experience of caring for the Earth and the plants and one’s life experience – and not from reading about it. Not (of course) that this is how most people come to biodynamics – it is often because of the totally delicious food, or the sense that a biodynamic farm is a place where the wellbeing of the earth, plants and animals is tangible – but biodynamics may be seen as carrying a certain amount of historical and intellectual baggage from anthroposophy that is not always easy for people to get past.

 

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A display of French apple varieties – photo via Brighton & Hove Camera Club

 

And here I think is the reason why those people attending the Brighton Apple Day might find themselves feeling more at ease with permaculture than they would with biodynamics. It is because permaculture, with its claims to being a science with its own values and ethics, can co-exist harmoniously with most religious and spiritual systems (or indeed with none) without offering a challenge to them or anyone’s pre-existing spiritual outlook. Biodynamics, on the other hand, is all too often tarred with the “all muck and magic” brush – instead of what it really is, which is a super-advanced science that scientists may catch up with one day – or with some other straw man set up by skeptics in their attempts to attack Steiner and anthroposophy.

It is of course perfectly possible for a permaculture farmer to be biodynamic and for a biodynamic farmer to farm using permaculture techniques. My own view is that biodynamics is greater and more all-encompassing than Bill Mollison would ever have acknowledged; I suspect he would have said: “Permaculture is the wardrobe and biodynamics is one of the hangers inside,” which is probably the reverse of the actual situation.

But I also suspect that Bill Mollison’s approach is the one that is more likely to find favour with the kinds of people who attended the Apple Day. In one of the obituaries for Bill Mollison, some words from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu were quoted: “True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it.”

That surely is how the change that we all so desperately need is coming – like a thief in the night, without governments or media being aware of it, but happening in the hearts and minds of people everywhere – until the necessary changes just seem right and natural and commonplace.  Biodynamics, permaculture, organics and good conventional agriculture will all have their parts to play in making this happen.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Rudolf Steiner

The School of Unselfishness

I’ve just been reading one of Rudolf Steiner’s more esoteric lectures, The Four Sacrifices of Christ, which he gave in Basle, Switzerland, on 1st June 1914. It’s a remarkable lecture, in which Steiner says that in earlier ages the Christ intervened three times in human affairs before he was incarnated in the human body of Jesus of Nazareth and underwent the crucifixion. Steiner has some mind-stretching things to say about unselfishness, extending the concept to our eyes, the natural world, our vital organs, and our thinking, feeling and willing. For reasons of concision, I don’t want to say anything more here but would recommend that you read the lecture for yourself.

What I do want to focus on in this post, however, is the importance of Steiner’s overall message from the lecture, which is how very much the quality of unselfishness is needed today:

“It must come to be realised that a school of unselfishness is needed in our present culture. A renewing of responsibility, a deepening of man’s moral life, can only come through a training in unselfishness, and under the conditions of the present age only those can go through this school who have won for themselves an understanding of real, all-pervading selflessness.”

Well, our present age certainly provides us with a schooling in the consequences of selfishness, which we see every day in its personal, national and international manifestations. Our current paradigm, which stems from the model of Anglo-American capitalism, was started in Britain on the basis of self-interest, greed, fear, exploitation of natural resources and dominion over others and has now become our most successful export. It’s sad to see that this has been taken up with enthusiasm in countries such as India and China. It is this model that has brought us to our present pass in which, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain us. It is this fundamental selfishness which has led us to the crazy position that now threatens the entire planet.

So we need to pay urgent attention to Steiner’s message that “under the influence of materialism the natural unselfishness of mankind was lost to an extent that will be fully realised only in the distant future. But by contemplating the Mystery of Golgotha, by permeating our knowledge of it with all our feeling, we may acquire again, with our whole soul-being, an education in selflessness. We may say that what Christ did for earthly evolution was included in the fundamental impulse of selflessness, and what He may become for the conscious development of the human soul is the school of unselfishness.”

But unselfishness is so rare these days, such an unexpected phenomenon in human culture, that I had to rack my brain to find some current examples that might inspire us. Thinking about it for a while, I came across some instances close to home – literally so in my first example.

About a year ago we moved to a new house and just lately I’ve been enjoying myself by planning a small orchard in our garden. While considering which varieties of apple, pear, plum, etc to grow, I’ve had to think about rootstocks. Many fruit trees do not grow on their own roots but instead skilled nurserymen and women graft scions of desirable varieties onto special rootstocks. These rootstocks control factors such as rate of growth, size of tree and the age at which trees come into bearing. Many of these rootstocks were developed at the East Malling Research Station in Kent during the early decades of the 20th century. The breakthroughs made there were so successful that today 80% of the world’s apple orchards grow on rootstocks pioneered in East Malling. Very many home gardeners (soon to include me) have also benefited from these discoveries. The point about this is that these rootstocks were never patented but simply released into the world as a self-evident good that should not be exploited for profit. As such, they spread rapidly around the globe and are now to be found in many countries.

Evelyn Dunbar A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling 1944 (3′ x 4′: 91 x 121cm) Manchester City Art Gallery

My second example of unselfishness is also close to home, or rather, to work. I have a part-time job at Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. Both Tablehurst and its sister farm, Plaw Hatch, farm on land which is owned by St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. The Tablehurst land was given – yes, given – to the Trust in a magnificent altruistic gesture by Emerson College in 2004. St Anthony’s Trust, in turn, has carried out a truly revolutionary act when seen against today’s society norms. It has refused to use the land as an asset to be borrowed against or mortgaged. Instead, it says to the farms: you can farm this land and use the buildings on the land, as long as you undertake to farm biodynamically. The farms pay very reasonable rents to the Trust, which in turn invests in the training of tomorrow’s farmers and growers. These acts of unselfishness have enabled two flourishing community farm enterprises to grow and develop and to employ between them nearly sixty people who produce superb food for their local communities, while looking after the land, the plants and the animals to the highest standards of husbandry. Capital to support new farm infrastructure and machinery is raised through the financial support of the community rather than through taking out loans.

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Future farmers leading the cows to a new field at Tablehurst Community Farm

This could never have happened in that situation which is so common today, where land is treated as a fast-appreciating capital asset either to be sold to enrich the owner or to be used as security against loans, and which then saddles the farmer with huge debts to be serviced, which is rather like having a noose around your neck. Imagine what could be the effect on agriculture if a similar model were to be taken up by communities around the world and if we were to say to farmers: “Farms today need the active support of their neighbouring communities. We believe that local farms supplying local customers is the best way of ensuring food security, wholesome food for us and our families, and kindness toward land and animals; and therefore as a community we are going to provide you with land so that you can farm on our behalf and with our support, without the need to get into debt.” Such collective acts of unselfishness would transform our world – the Monsanto model of farming would wither as if under a drenching of glyphosate.

The third example of unselfishness will be known to most of us; the pharmacist Sir Alexander Fleming is revered not just because of his discovery of penicillin – the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives – but also due to his efforts to ensure that it was freely available to as much of the world’s population as possible. Fleming could have become a hugely wealthy man if he had decided to control and license the substance, but he understood that penicillin’s potential to overcome diseases such as syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis meant it had to be released into the world to serve the greater good. Fleming chose not to patent his discovery of penicillin, stating, “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” Fleming’s goal was to develop a cheap and effective drug that would be available to all the world. It has saved millions of lives since.

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Sir Alexander Fleming – photo via http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk

This story doesn’t end quite so happily, however, since selfishness and greed crept back in. In 1939, Dr. Howard Florey, a future Nobel Laureate, and three colleagues at Oxford University began intensive research and were able to demonstrate penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria. As the war with Germany continued to drain industrial and government resources, the British scientists could not produce the quantities of penicillin needed for clinical trials on humans and turned to the United States for help. They were quickly referred to a laboratory in Peoria, Illinois, where scientists were already working on fermentation methods to increase the growth rate of fungal cultures. On July 9, 1941, Howard Florey and other scientists from Oxford University came to the US with a valuable package containing a small amount of penicillin and began work at Peoria.

By November 26, 1941, Dr Andrew J. Moyer, the lab’s expert on the nutrition of moulds, had succeeded, with the assistance of one of the Oxford scientists, in increasing the yields of penicillin 10 times. In 1943, the required clinical trials were performed and penicillin was shown to be the most effective antibacterial agent to date. Penicillin production was quickly scaled up and became available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day.

As a result of their work, Fleming and two members of the British group were awarded the Nobel Prize. Dr. Moyer from the Peoria laboratory was inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame and both the British and Peoria laboratories were designated as International Historic Chemical Landmarks. However, on May 25, 1948, Dr Moyer was granted a patent for a method of the mass production of penicillin and thus became a very rich man.

Until this day the British regret that, for ethical reasons, they had asked Florey not to file for a patent on penicillin. The University of Oxford never got its share from the fabulous profits made from penicillin in the US and, to add insult to injury, the UK had to pay licensing fees to US companies.

We could say that Big Pharma has carried on in exactly the same way ever since; and today, despite the mounting evidence of increasing germ resistance to existing antibiotics, the giant pharmaceutical corporations are not researching new antibiotics because they don’t think there will be enough money in it for them. “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” warned Dr Keiji Fukuda, who is the World Health Organisation’s assistant director general for health security.

Antibiotics are usually only prescribed for a week or so, meaning that they are less lucrative than treatments for conditions – like high cholesterol – which have to be taken daily over a long period. So we can see that the selfishness of these big corporations is likely to lead directly to the post-antibiotic era and the return of deaths caused by common infections and minor injuries warned of by the WHO. It seems relevant to quote again from Steiner’s lecture:

 “…In relation to our moral life, our understanding of the world, and in relation to all the activities of our consciousness soul, we must first become selfless. This is a duty of our present culture to the future. Mankind must become more and more selfless; therein lies the future of right living, and of all the deeds of love possible to earthly humanity. Our conscious life is and must be on its way to unselfishness. In a certain connection, essential unselfishness already exists in us, and it would be the greatest misfortune for earthly man if certain sections of his being were as self-seeking as he still is in his moral, intellectual and emotional life”

One final example of unselfishness and what it can mean for the world, so as to end on a more cheerful note. Beyond the fact that you are using it to read these words, the Web has undeniably had a major impact on a large part of the world’s population. It’s certainly one of the most significant inventions of recent times, and one of the reasons it has taken off in such a spectacular way, and led to so many further innovations, was because Sir Tim Berners-Lee decided not to patent it. No patent, so no royalty cheques for Sir Tim; but this farsighted act of unselfishness allowed the Web to spread around the world.

 

 

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Filed under Biodynamic farming, Emerson College UK, Rudolf Steiner

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

At a time of life when most people might expect to have retired and be putting their feet up, the anthropopper (who doesn’t think that retirement is good for people), counts himself fortunate to have not one, but two part-time jobs. Despite a colleague’s cynical observation that there is no such thing as a part-time job, only part-time wages, I love both these jobs and after a long and sometimes frustrating working life, I’m delighted to have work where I feel I’m making a worthwhile contribution, in organisations that are offering hope and practical solutions for some of the world’s problems.

The first of these jobs is at Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. While I was there the other day, I found myself having a sudden flashback to an emotion I recognised – it was how I had sometimes felt when I was a small boy at primary school in the 1950s. It came and went in seconds but I was intrigued as to why I had had this sudden recall of something from my early schooldays, now well over half a century ago. What had made me remember this feeling from so long ago, seemingly out of the blue? Trying to analyse my state of mind at that moment, I realised that I had a feeling of wellbeing, knowing I was in the right place for me and glad to be working on a community-owned farm in which the land, plants and animals are cared-for and where the people are friendly, supportive and look out for one another. I was, in fact, in a situation that I suspect is hardly ever experienced in most workplaces these days. This then led me to the further realisation that, if how I was feeling that day was reminiscent of how I had felt during my early schooldays, then there must have been something warm and secure and nurturing about my primary school and the way in which the teachers and pupils treated one another back then. This was not a Steiner school, it was an ordinary state primary school in the 1950s, long before the days of Ofsted, SATS, league tables etc. Somehow I grew up with the notion that the world was on the whole a safe and welcoming place, that adults and policemen were mainly benign, there was joy and beauty in nature – and I also had a sense of how to behave and how not to behave. This gave me something to rebel against when I was a teenager in the 60s. My generation was lucky to have had these positive experiences, as recent alarming reports indicate that many schoolchildren today have quite a different experience of school.

An international study by the Children’s Society in 2015 found that English children are among the unhappiest in the world. Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared to other countries, and it is truly shocking that thousands of children are being physically and emotionally bullied, damaging their happiness. School should be a safe haven, not a battleground.”

And now in a report dated 9th March 2016, the online Spectator magazine’s Health section has said that: “There has been a large increase in the number of British children prescribed anti-depressants, according to research published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology. The research, led by Dr Christian Bachmann of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, found that prescription rates increased by 54 per cent between 2005 and 2012. In Denmark the figure is higher still, at 60 per cent.”

What on earth is going on? Clearly, something very disturbing is happening with our young people. Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture given in Berlin in 1919, said:

“What the individual human being experiences consciously when he (sic) strives to attain clairvoyance in the spiritual world, namely, the crossing of the threshold, must be experienced unconsciously by the whole of mankind, during our fifth post-Atlantean epoch. Humanity has no choice in regard to this; it must experience this unconsciously — not the individual human being, but HUMANITY, and the individual human being together with humanity.”

So are our young people starting to experience this crossing of the threshold between the physical and spiritual worlds, but unconsciously, without preparation? And if so, what part of the spiritual world are they accessing?

My second part-time job is with Emerson College in Forest Row, East Sussex, where I organise a programme of public talks and workshops by leading thinkers. On 9th March 2016, we were privileged to hear a talk by Lisa Romero, an adult educator, complementary health practitioner and teacher of meditation from Australia.

Lisa’s theme was: Developing the Self – Meditations and Exercise for our Inner Growth. During the course of her talk, she had some interesting things to say about the difficulties and challenges that teenagers are experiencing today. She suggested that teenagers are crossing the threshold into the elemental part of the spiritual world. Lisa enlarged on this in her book, The Inner Work Path:

“Humanity has begun to break through this threshold, the boundary between the physical and elemental world. If those who cross over are unprepared, we will see more mental disorders in our community. As fascination with the occult, psychic powers, and the supernatural continue to grow, all sorts of false paths of ‘inner development’ will become more and more popular. Consciousness-altering substances that exploit a form of gate-crashing to enter the other dimensions will increase. Using these substances to enter different states of consciousness will be seen as an acceptable and inevitable path for our young people.”

Some schools are now teaching their pupils meditation and calling it “mindfulness” so as to avoid any association with the spiritual; but Lisa thinks that this “will lead ultimately to a weakened relationship to the spiritual world, and thereby leave them open to all sorts of potentially harmful influences by stepping backward, not forward, in their incarnating process. All those who truly know the path of inner development know that a healthy relationship to the spiritual world is acquired by completing all the necessary developmental stages of childhood first. These various occurrences that we already see are signs that humanity is crossing the threshold unprepared. Rudolf Steiner describes this unprepared entry into the elemental world, likening it to putting your head into an ant’s nest.”

Where is anthroposophy, and where are anthroposophists, in all of this? One of the things which teenagers need to know at this time is that not all spiritual beings are divine beings. Some of these beings are working to divert humanity from the path of evolution, by encouraging us in our materialism, reinforcing our egotism and selfishness, magnifying our false self and deepening our lower ego – while at the same time supporting our premature access into the spiritual world. Anthroposophists ought to be helping young people to understand that the right path for humanity and each one of us is to align freely with the beings of progression, the beings of the divine spiritual world – but for that to be possible, we must find the progressive being, the divine being within ourselves. Are we, should we be, finding ways of telling that to young people? Are we making sufficient efforts to communicate with teenagers in ways that they can access? I don’t think so. In the meantime, anthroposophy as we have known it is dying. Lisa told me that there are now only 130 society members in the whole of New York City.

The situation appears to be no better in the UK. As Marjatta van Boeschoten, general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, says in the Spring 2016 Newsletter of the society: “This question (of how anthroposophy can best fulfil its given task) occupied me greatly during the Holy Nights, especially when a range of initiatives in the ‘daughter’ movements in Great Britain are either closing, struggling, in conflict or in financial crisis.” To add to Marjatta’s worries, the ASinGB has revealed that 55% of members pay nothing at all towards their annual membership. What is the future of the society if more than half of its members, out of their own free choice, are making no financial contribution whatsoever?

Surely these symptoms are telling us that the present form of anthroposophy is in serious decline. What are anthroposophists doing about this crisis? My own sense is that another form of anthroposophy is seeking to be born, but it is having an extended labour and a difficult birth. It won’t come from trying to persuade people to read difficult lectures or books, it won’t come from attending the same old meetings with a rapidly diminishing number of elderly anthroposophists (not that I have anything against elderly anthroposophists – far from it – I hope to be one myself before too long) and it certainly won’t come from spending too much time online arguing with the critics.

On the other hand, it may emerge from people who become inspired by one or more of the practical applications of anthroposophy, such as biodynamics or education. I’m struck, for example, by the number of young people who are coming to work at Tablehurst Farm, which now employs nearly 30 people, some of whom are starting families there – this in marked contrast to what is happening on conventional farms, where the average age of a British farmworker is 59 years and where a farm of 300 hectares will be run by one or two men with machines and lots of chemicals. It may emerge if we can find practical, clear and sensible ways of speaking about the spiritual realities behind what is happening in the world, as Lisa Romero is doing. Lisa is part of the Goetheanum Meditation Initiative, which is involving young people from many countries. (Incidentally, Lisa Romero will be returning to Emerson in June for a talk and weekend workshop.)

The times are serious and demand people and organisations of initiative. Places like Tablehurst Farm and Emerson College are seeking to play their parts.  Finding ways in which to meet the very real human needs of today’s young people can offer hope and practical solutions not only to them but to anthroposophy as well. Christopher Fry expressed our opportunity in his play, A Sleep of Prisoners:

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to meet us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride man ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise

Is Exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes

So many thousand years to wake

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Emerson College UK, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools, Waldorf critics

Epiphany on the Farm with the Three Kings

On New Year’s Eve, the anthropopper will be joining colleagues at Plaw Hatch Community Farm in Sussex to prepare a very special biodynamic preparation. The Three Kings Preparation is one of a whole group of preparations created by Hugo Erbe (1885-1965) as a result of his lifelong work as a biodynamic farmer in Germany. He experienced a very close connection to the elemental world and sought ways of encouraging their beneficial influences.

Erbe considera.org

Hugo Erbe, who devised the Three Kings biodynamic preparation (photo courtesy of Considera.org)

Following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Hugo Erbe observed a massive disruption and flight of beneficial elemental beings from his farmland. He experienced this deep wound to the living sheath of the earth as a process whereby the elementals were being demonised. To help heal the damage done to the earth’s organism and bring the elementals back into equilibrium he developed a preparation made from the gifts of the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Three Kings brought offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the Jesus child. These three offerings are full of meaning, as you might expect of gifts chosen by initiates. Gold is the symbol of wisdom and of intelligence. Frankincense is a universal symbol for spiritual intuition and sacramental offering. And Myrrh is the symbol of dying, of death, the sacrifice of the earthly in order that the higher may come to life.

Avena Botanicals

Myrrh, gold and frankincense, the three active ingredients of the Three Kings preparation (photo courtesy of Avena Botanicals)

Rudolf Steiner gave significant insights about these substances from his own spiritual research. He pointed out that the gifts of the three Magi were meant to strengthen the development of the Jesus child in three ways. The first help was from gold for the growth of the physical body, connected to the sun forces. The second, frankincense, was for the development of a harmonious soul life. For this, the incense form was supposed to be paramount. Thirdly, myrrh was to enhance the spiritual development. Myrrh oil was used by the Egyptians, for example, for embalming and for those processes that have to do directly with the passage of consciousness into a higher spiritual world.

Pestle Avena Botanicals

The three ingredients have to be pounded with mortar and pestle before being mixed and stirred with warm rainwater (photo courtesy of Avena Botanicals)

Most significantly, Rudolf Steiner pointed out that the resin of the frankincense tree not only protects the plant, but also enables the plant to reconnect itself to the world of the stars from which its growing impulses come. When introduced into the human body, it strengthens milk production in the mother and when passing from the mother’s milk into the infant, it then helps to optimise the development of the young brain. In adults it optimises mental functioning.

The three kings might be said to represent the three higher forces of man: Wisdom, Beauty and Strength. As long as man lives in his lower nature, these three forces are in him disordered and chaotic. But when man has so purified himself that the three forces work together in perfect harmony, and he can freely use them, then the way into the realm of the spiritual lies open before him.

3 Kings Ravenna telegraph

Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar (the Three Kings or Magi) from a Roman mosaic in Ravenna (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)

Ancient mystery wisdom has always held these three substances as symbols of awareness for the spiritual events taking place behind the outer physical phenomena. When prepared in the right way these three holy substances can also serve as gifts to the earth and to the elemental world. The preparation is always prepared on New Year’s Eve and then spread on 6th January, the Festival of the Three Kings.

I will join the Plaw Hatch farm team on 6th January to spread the preparation around the boundaries of the farm. The idea is to walk the boundaries with a bucket in one hand and a brush in the other, dipping the brush and every few steps flicking the preparation in an outward direction, away from the farm boundary, where it falls in a fine spray. This is done so as to invite elemental life forces to manifest within the farm for the coming year and to help and guide us for the coming growing season. It is a kind of offering to the earth and the elemental kingdom and a way of giving thanks for what the universe provides.  Some may scoff and call it nonsensical. All I can say is that it seems to me a natural extension of the old farming adage that believed: “the best fertiliser is the farmer’s boot”. I have always understood this to mean that, by walking the land with consciousness and intent, the farmer is somehow aligning himself with all the forces that work together to ensure good outcomes for the farm, the crops and the animals.

Finally, there’s a quotation from Rudolf Steiner that I would like to share with you, because during dark times, when it is so easy to despair, we should remind ourselves of what people of good will working together can achieve:

“Human communities are the mysterious locations that higher spiritual entities move and sink into so as to work through individual human beings, just as the human soul works by means of the limbs in the body…This is the secret of the advancement of future humanity – to work out of communities.”

(GA 54, Berlin, 23rd November 1905 – Brotherhood and the Fight for Survival)

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner

A Noah’s Ark for all our futures

Despite all my experiences in recent years, I’m still sometimes taken aback by the sheer antagonism towards applied anthroposophy that emanates from some people. No sooner had I tweeted the news that Chateau Palmer, one of the most starry wine producers in the Bordeaux firmament, has gone fully biodynamic and is receiving a price premium for its wines, than someone who tweets as GinaMakesWaves re-tweeted my post to all her 791 followers with the comment: “Biodynamic agriculture offers nothing over traditional organic and it practices animal cruelty”. She then followed up this absurd statement with: “Biodynamic agriculture is a main industry of anthroposophy, both with a complex Nazi past.”

Where to begin, when dealing with such wild assertions? Actually, I’m not going to bother; such wilful misunderstandings are Gina’s issue rather than mine. All I will say is: if you want to find out whether biodynamics practises animal cruelty, just go and visit a biodynamic farm and talk to the farmers and gardeners. As for a complex Nazi past, I wish I could say that no anthroposophist had ever flirted with Nazism, but I can’t say that, because in the 30s and 40s there were a few anthroposophists who leaned in that direction; no more than I can say that no anthroposophist has ever flirted with communism or conservatism or socialism or any other kind of –ism. Because anthroposophy attracts all types of people and, as they say in Yorkshire, there’s nowt as queer as folk.

But in my experience, anthropops are on the whole very decent and caring people, give or take the odd exception – rather like the general population, in fact.

This attack on biodynamics no doubt caught me on the raw, because I had just experienced an exceptionally heartwarming celebration of one farmer’s 21 years on a biodynamic farm, Tablehurst Farm in Forest Row, East Sussex. This was a Midsummer Celebration Lunch for Peter Brown, the farmer who with
his late wife Brigitte arrived at the farm in 1994 with their three children and turned the farm into a shining example of biodynamic and sustainable agriculture that is also a community-owned farm and in addition provides a home for adults with learning difficulties. You can see on the farm’s Facebook page lots of photos of the celebration lunch (scroll down past the cows and flowers), held in the beautifully-decorated Sheep Barn at Tablehurst.

Throughout these 21 years, Peter has dedicated himself to the wellbeing of the land, the plants, the animals and the people working on the farm, without any thought for building up any assets of his own. During this time, Peter has also taken on the executive directorship of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association and has been selflessly involved with many initiatives towards more sustainable forms of agriculture.

This lunch was not just a celebration of all that Peter Brown has achieved but it was also the launch of a fundraising campaign to build an eco-home on the farm for him to live in for the rest of his days. To do this, we aim to raise £100k, not only to build a home for Peter but also to provide housing improvements for the young farmers who are starting families on the farm. As a member of the fundraising committee, I spoke at the lunch and made the following points:

• The average age of a farm worker in Britain today is 59 years
• In conventional farms, 1 or 2 men will look after several hundred hectares of land
• According to an article in the respected trade journal, Farmers’ Weekly, some of England’s most productive agricultural land is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation due to soil erosion

I then compared and contrasted this with what is happening on Tablehurst Farm:

• Young men and women are flocking to the farm to work and some of them are starting families here
• The farm currently has 26 employees and growth looks set to continue
• You only have to walk across the farm to feel the wellbeing from the soil rising up towards you – the biodiversity on the farm is fantastic.

It’s clear that conventionally-managed farms with their monocultures, degraded soils, vast inputs of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and herbicides that pollute the soils and water and reduce biodiversity, are pursuing an unsustainable course.

By contrast, a farm like Tablehurst offers hope for the future. It shows that there are viable alternatives that can preserve and improve our soils, do not ask more of the land or the animals than they can give, and provide employment in situations where young people want to live, learn and start families. These farms are like a kind of Noah’s Ark for our collective future, showing that feeding the world and its burgeoning population does not have to be handed over to Monsanto and other large corporations. A much better, more human future is possible and biodynamic and sustainable agriculture is showing the way.

By the way, it’s just a month after we started fundraising for housing on the farm and we’ve already raised £25k (a quarter of our target). If you’d like to help, there are more details here.

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Filed under Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics

Is the establishment endorsing biodynamics?

I’ve often said that when biodynamic agriculture starts to go mainstream, it will be largely because the chattering classes and opinion-formers have discovered the special qualities of biodynamic wines. There is a delicious irony to this, of course, because anthroposophists on the whole do not approve of alcohol; so to see biodynamics beginning to win widespread and influential support through the excellence of biodynamic wine must be quite provoking to the more dyed-in-the-wool kind of anthropop.

Nevertheless, even I was taken aback to discover that the Financial Times’ distinguished wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson, is now speculating about the merits of biodynamic viticulture in improving the quality of wines at a time when climate change is causing difficulties for vine-growers. Here is what she had to say in her FT column of March 14/15:

“Vine-growers in the southern hemisphere are grappling with their earliest vintage ever, just one more effect of climate change. For us wine drinkers, the most striking effect has been the rise in alcohol levels. Hotter summers have played a key part in boosting average percentages of alcohol from roughly 12 – 12.5 in the 1980s to 13.5 – 14.5 today.

Growers have observed to their dismay that grapes have been accumulating the sugars that ferment into alcohol much faster than they have been accumulating all the interesting elements that result in a wine’s flavour, colour and tannins – the phenolics. … Who wants to drink a wine that can offer little other than alcohol?”

Ms Robinson then lists the various stratagems adopted by vine-growers to get around this problem, including picking grapes earlier, keeping grapes on the vine much longer and then adding acid, reducing the alcohol through intrusive techniques, experimenting with cunningly-timed irrigation to push phenolic ripening closer to sugar ripening etc – none of which sounds likely to improve the quality of the finished wine.

And here is Ms Robinson’s intriguing conclusion:

“But for many growers the world over, what makes balanced wines is balanced vines, which tends to mean old vines, dry farmed. And those who have adopted biodynamic viticulture – the barmy-sounding, hands-on nurturing of vines according to phases of the moon” (actually, Jancis, there’s rather more to it than that) – “report that vines ripen well-balanced grapes earlier and more completely than their conventionally farmed neighbours. Perhaps this is the answer.”

Well…when the FT’s wine correspondent can write in such terms, something is clearly going on. And here is a link to more evidence that biodynamics is receiving endorsement from the heights of the establishment, this time from Prince Charles.

The newspaper is having a pop at our future king, as usual; but the story must be absolutely true, because I read it in the Daily Mail.

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Filed under Biodynamic farming, biodynamic viticulture, Biodynamics, Jancis Robinson, Prince Charles