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A revitalisation of European farming and the promise of the biodynamic worldview

Abstract

In 2020 and amidst the upsurge in discourse around de-industrialisation, a consortium of sixteen indigenous leaders and organisations released a briefing statement that urged change amongst modern regenerative farming movements. Called ‘Whitewashed Hope’, the critique encouraged these movements to go deeper than simply taking indigenous practices out of context, but rather to encompass the worldviews they represent and in doing so to enable the cultural and relational changes needed for humanity’s collective healing. This paper takes a critical analysis approach to address the question of whether the critique of regenerative agriculture holds true for biodynamic agriculture in particular. This is explored using the hypothesis that there is no evidence of a synergistic relationship between the biodynamic worldview and the indigenous worldview as characterised in the document Whitewashed Hope. Drawing from the works of Rudolf Steiner as well as from other biodynamic texts, the paper uncovers synergies that exist between biodynamic and indigenous worldviews and explores the implications for regenerative farming systems. The aim of this paper is to instigate further debate and enquiry around the underexplored topic of how our worldviews impact our farming systems and of ways to develop an expanded worldview for more revitalised farming in the European context.

Graphical Abstract

Introduction

Contemporary regenerative farming, here taken to include biodynamic and organic farming, permaculture and agroecology, offers sustainable food production approaches that arose over the last century as rational alternatives to the industrial model. Various authors contrast the characteristics of industrialised production—of yield maximisation, the use of chemical inputs, and ecosystem suppression and control—with the ecological production approach of yield optimisation, species and landscape diversification and the synergistic integration of natural processes (e.g., [1,2,3]). While industrial production systems may thus attain high yields and profits over the short term, they are dependent on high costs and energy inputs and are associated with long term economic losses associated with soil fertility, biodiversity and crop nutritional quality [4].

As part of their offer, the common narrative of regenerative approaches is their provenance in traditional farming systems and their application of indigenous knowledge which they combine with modern scientific advances. Thus the early organic farming pioneer Albert Howard (1873–1947) and others in the organic movement were heavily influenced by observing sustainable farming practices in other regions of the world [5]. Similarly, Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, describes agroecology as a “culturally acceptable approach as it builds upon traditional knowledge and promotes a dialogue of wisdoms with more Western scientific approaches” [6], p. 599). Permaculture’s co-founder, Bill Mollison, attributed much of what he developed as ‘permaculture’ to what he learned from the indigenous people of Tasmania and others around the world [7].

It is such narratives that have led, in 2020, to a critique by a consortium of 16 indigenous leaders and organisations.Footnote 1 Called Whitewashed Hope, the critique argues that regenerative agriculture and permaculture offer only narrow solutions to current crises as long as they take indigenous practices out of context. It encourages these farming movements to go deeper and encompass the worldviews they represent so as to enable ‘the deep cultural and relational changes needed for humanity’s collective healing'. The critique identifies six key areas of divergence between the worldviews of what it terms Western cultures and those of indigenous cultures. The aim of this paper is to instigate further debate and enquiry around the underexplored topic of how our worldviews impact farming systems and of ways to develop an expanded worldview for revitalising farming in the European context.

The materially focused worldview of regenerative agriculture

Of the modern regenerative farming approaches, the agroecology movement in particular has positioned itself as representing small-scale, indigenous farmers and their knowledge systems worldwide [8, 9], and laudably defends the need for a plurality of epistemologies to embrace local cultural and ancestral knowledges [10]. This movement includes many farmers’ organisations whose indigenous community members live according to their cultural worldviews that embrace the existence of a sentient, non-material reality as well as a material one. Pimbert, for example, describes the respectful relationship between such communities and their seed which they see as “sisters, mothers and living sentient beings rather than anonymous, inert commodities” [11]. Nevertheless, the science, education and practice of agroecology, as well as of the permaculture and organic farming movements, adhere to the materialist worldview, one that holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature [12]. Acclaimed neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist is more critical of this materially-based worldview, explaining that it rates as low priority issues of culture, nature, spirituality and the soul, and has historically lacked any substantial consideration for the impact this way of thinking and living in Western societies has on the health and well-being of the life-systems of this planet [13]. In attempting to contrast the different worldviews or conceptual frameworks of industrial farming, regenerative farming and a more holistic approach that embraces both matter and non-material dimensions, Wright [14] depicts a transition (see Fig. 1). In this transition, an industrial farming worldview may typically focus on the visible, material dimension as well as on reducing the farming system to its component parts (termed reductionism in Fig. 1A). A regenerative farming worldview considers both the components of the system and the whole sum of the farming system, yet still largely with a focus on visible, tangible matter (Fig. 1B). A  more authentic holistic framework or worldview could be said to include both reductionism and systems thinking, yet also - significantly - both matter and non-material dimensions (Fig. 1C).

Fig. 1
figure 1

The conceptual frameworks of industrial (A), regenerative (B) and holistic (C) farming

That is not to say that more holistic ontological underpinnings cannot be found within modern regenerative farming movements, but that they are the exception rather than the norm [14], while the impact of different worldviews has been vastly underestimated and underexplored in sustainable food systems discourse in general. A recent paper [15] proposes that worldviews and paradigms have the most causal linkages with unsustainable food system drivers, and conversely they also have the biggest leverages on potential mitigation strategies. This is why the message of the Whitewashed Hope critique is so important.

Biodynamic farming—an exception to the whitewashing of regenerative agriculture?

This paper takes a particular interest in one of the modern regenerative farming approaches, biodynamic farming, and considers whether—given its different ontological underpinnings—there is a case for differentiation, whether biodynamic farming bucks the alleged ‘whitewashing’ trend? Paradoxically, rather than claiming to draw from indigenous cultures, the knowledge base of biodynamic farming—primarily one set of lectures called The Agriculture Course—was transmitted by the Austrian philosopher and polymath Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner was openly influenced by German mysticism, theosophy, Gnostic Christianity, the Cathars, alchemists, Buddhism and Hinduism, amongst other traditions [16], and in particular the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yet he primarily explored the spiritual worlds [17] and his lectures were based on his insights and inner visions from these spiritual exercises. “I bore a content of spiritual impressions within me. I gave form to these in lectures, articles, and books. What I did was done out of spiritual impulses.” [18], p. 316).

Steiner proposed a path of knowledge which he called Spiritual Science and through which he claimed one could engage in one’s own journey of discovery to explore the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible to human experience [19]. As a highly developed seer, the concepts resulting from his own spiritual investigations he called ‘Anthroposophy’, meaning ‘wisdom of the human being’. Biodynamic farming arose from this context, the biodynamic conceptualisation of the farm being of a holistic entity, a microcosm in physical form of the macrocosm of the physical, ethereal, and astral forms of the spiritual universe [20].

Materials and methods

This paper takes a critical analysis approach to address the question of whether the critique of regenerative agriculture holds true for biodynamic agriculture in particular. This is explored using the hypothesis that there is no evidence of a synergistic relationship between the biodynamic worldview and the indigenous worldview as characterised in the document Whitewashed Hope. Potential synergies were explored through a 3 stage process of critical analysis. In the first stage, the document Whitewashed Hope was broken down into its six component concepts or categories, as shown in column 1 of Table 1. Then, for each of the six categories, key literature written by or about Rudolf Steiner and his worldview was reviewed for evidence that may refute or corroborate  synergies, and thirdly this evidence was documented in the final column of Table 1 to substantiate the enquiry being made.

Table 1 Six key areas of divergence between modern regenerative and indigenous worldviews as identified in Whitewashed Hope, and evidence of synergies with Steiner’s worldview that underpins biodynamic farming

Results

The six key areas of divergence between Western materially focused and indigenous worldviews, according to Whitewashed Hope, are categorised as: the contrast of dualism versus monism, dead matter versus the consciousness of all life, the notion of good and bad versus a relational striving for balance, the limitations of languages, the need to consider the historical relationship of people to land, and the interconnectedness of human-Earth healing cycles. Table 1 presents these six categories and provides summarised versions of the ways in which materially focused worldviews diverge from indigenous ones, according to the critique. These are presented in the first 3 columns of Table 1.

It was not difficult to find relevant material from Steiner’s collections; he was a prolific writer and orator with over 300 volumes to his name [21]. In fact the challenge was to select the most pertinent texts from within this huge body of work. Twelve texts written by Steiner or by other authors about his work were inspected for evidence which is displayed in the final column of Table 1. This evidence indicates that for each of the six broad characteristics of indigenous worldviews, clear synergies exist with the philosophy underpinning the biodynamic farming approach and these are displayed in the form of quotations and summary points. The selection was subjective and a larger amount of relevant information could also have been included. As such, the evidence presented indicates synergies in philosophy rather than identical phrases or the same  exact meanings.

Looking to other literature, relatively little has been written about synergies between biodynamic farming and indigenous forms of agriculture, whether by the scientific or the farming community. A thoughtful account is provided by Devon Strong, a biodynamic farmer and bison rancher in California who had studied Lakota traditions for 30 years before being adopted by a Lakota family [22]. His work involved merging the Lakota buffalo ceremony with biodynamic livestock management practices. When discussing animal consciousness, Devon explains “This ceremony is much like Steiner’s approach with the biodynamic preps,Footnote 2 a way to give the people access to the spiritual element in the ways of plants and animals (via prep materials) that will attract them to our farms for agricultural use….. Native people had a way of life that was intimately connected to the spiritual nature that Steiner regularly addressed.” (22 p.16). Another example of the practical synergies between indigenous farming and biodynamics is Vanaja Ramprasad’s historical account of soil management in India in relation to Vedic literature, in which she directly identifies a synergy with the biodynamic approach: “With its emphasis on cow dung, the balancing of elements, the tapping of cosmic forces, and its close attention to solar and lunar cycles, Homa farming shares much in common with biodynamic farming as developed by Steiner in Europe in the 1920s. Indeed, biodynamic farming methods are now widely followed across the Indian subcontinent.” [23]. Ramprasad explains how the ancient practice of applying Panchakavya, a concoction of five products of the (sacred) cow, not only has proven benefits as a biofertiliser, a biopesticide and for restoring soil fertility, but also has medicinal applications and is used in ceremonies and rituals, for example to provide a link between ‘earthly and heavenly forces’ [23].

Such synergy does not necessarily mean that all biodynamic farming practitioners hold, or concur with, the philosophy proposed by Rudolf Steiner; a study by Paterson [24], for example, showed that only 25% of a cohort of biodynamic farmers in New Zealand were motivated by its philosophical and spiritual basis. Nor does this affinity mean that all biodynamic farming practice demonstrates the underpinning concepts, as far back as 1928 (4 years after the Agriculture Course was delivered), a decision was made to separate the biodynamic method from its underpinning Anthroposophical origins in order to attract a broader range of farmers to its practice [25]. Yet there remains today a strongly held, familial relationship between national and international Anthroposophical and biodynamic farming organisations, with the global biodynamic movement being coordinated by the Section for Agriculture at the headquarters of the School of Spiritual Science and the General Anthroposophical Society, in Switzerland [26]. That is to say, there is a consciously held relationship between biodynamic farming practice and a worldview that embraces a greater spiritual and cosmological reality.

Discussion

Ways forward for revitalising regenerative farming systems in Europe

Both Steiner and the authors of Whitewashed Hope argue for a more holistic worldview, not for its own sake but in order to both heal and maintain balance and harmony in the world. Does this mean that the regenerative farming movements should look to contemporary indigenous cultures for a more appropriate philosophical framework or worldview than the one they hold at present? The contributors to Whitewashed Hope invite these movements to ground their daily practices in ancestral ways and jointly move toward collective healing, encouraging them to “Learn whose lands you live on, their history, and how you can support their causes and cultural revitalization.”

For European cultures, their own history and land is (also) deeply scarred, by repeated, ancient waves of colonisation, as well as by being the heartland of more recent scientific and industrial ‘revolutions’ that ushered in the materially focused worldview of today [27, 28]. Accepting this invitation would thus entail learning from the contemporary indigenous European worldviews and cultures, such as the Samoyeds of Russia, The Crimean Tatars, the Inuits of Greenland, the Saami of Scandinavia, the Basques, and the Sorbian people of Germany and Poland [29]. It could also mean engaging with the contemporary revivals of those indigenous agrarian peoples of Europe who were either wiped out or integrated into the cultures of their colonisers but who have left indelible traces on European landscapes, structures, cultural rituals and stories [30, 31]. For example, in his book The Druid Garden, Luke Eastwood, a practising permaculturalist and Druid, weaves practical guidance on food and medicinal herb production and usage with knowledge and wisdom from Celtic Europe [32].

Combined with the above, Steiner and others propose methods by which one can develop the means of perception beyond the five senses and use these methods to systematically explore and expand one’s own worldview beyond the material. As previously noted, Steiner called this Spiritual Science, being inspired by German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) who had developed a phenomenological approach (that is, the study of the structures of experience and consciousness) to the natural sciences as an alternative to the rationalist model. In describing this method, Brook explains “it is about a personal engagement and the transformation of your thinking and your being for more responsiveness to the climate, land, people, animals and plants that form the basis of the agroecological vocation.” [33], p.237). Other, related methods for sensory development, engagement and transformation of thinking in the agricultural context include the practice of subtle energy awareness in the landscape [34], systemic constellations methods applied to agriculture [35] and the application of intuition for improved on-farm decision making [9].

Conclusions

There is a clear level of synergy between the characteristics of the worldview expressed in the document Whitewashed Hope and that of biodynamic farming as expressed by Rudolf Steiner, and this is corroborated by the scant other works available on this topic. The document Whitewashed Hope was produced by a diverse range of stakeholders coming to agreement over a share set of trans-cultural principles, demonstrating that a more cohesive worldview is possible that combines both material and non-material dimensions. Such shared ‘truths’ were, for Steiner, the concepts by which we access the world’s inner nature, and when combined with our individua l perceptions that reflect the outer appearance of the world, we may achieve (and even create) a fuller picture of reality [36].

In order to encompass a fuller picture of reality, any such shift in worldview would necessarily impact perceptions on the nature of science, on what is researched and on the way research is conducted, for example hastening the integration of quantum scientific principles into more applied fields. This in turn opens the doors to scientific approaches that may be better equipped to explore both the mechanisms and the broader impacts of biodynamic and other forms of food production that consider the non-material realm. Indigenous, Western materially-focused and biodynamic worldviews, and the their farming systems, are of course more nuanced and complex than portrayed in this paper which only scratches the surface of such a potentially transformative topic that merits far greater study.

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Notes

  1. @CulturalSurvival/Galina Angarova, Māori Waitaha Grandmothers Council & Region Net Positive/Tanya Ruka, NEN, NorthEastNetwork/Seno Tsuhah, Society for Alternative Learning & Transformation & African Biodiversity Network / Simon Mitambo, Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development/Bern Guri, @EarthIsOhana @LoamLove/Kailea Frederick, RegenAgAlliance.org/Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, @Linda.Black.Elk/Tatanka Wakpala Model Sustainable Community, @GreenstoneFarm_LA/Greenstone Farm and Sanctuary, @CulturalConservancy/Melissa K. Nelson PhD, @NatKelley, @GatherFilm, @AGrowingCulture, @Terralingua.Langscape, @FarmerRishi, @KameaChayne.

  2. The biodynamic preps or preparations are natural concoctions of specific plant, animal and mineral that are ceremonially prepared and applied in order to bring balance and harmony to the farm.

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Wright, J. A revitalisation of European farming and the promise of the biodynamic worldview. Chem. Biol. Technol. Agric. 9, 64 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40538-022-00317-z

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Keywords

  • Biodynamic
  • Indigenous
  • Regenerative
  • Farming
  • Europe
  • Agroecology
  • Organic
  • Steiner
  • Worldview