Today many people are vegetarian or vegan and they are so for a variety of reasons. For most, the reason is a striving to live by the highest principles and wanting to live in harmony with nature and the environment. Aware that animal manure as well as some animal parts, such as cow horns, are used in making the biodynamic preparations, they are keen to find out more to ensure that eating biodynamic produce doesn’t compromise their principles.
To look at this question brings one to the very essence of what nature and biodynamics is all about. We will only be able to scratch the surface here, but we believe it is very important that each individual is free to make up their own mind for themselves as to what diet is right for them and the world., and we are grateful that the question has been raised and the opportunity to discuss it. To do so, requires we first place biodynamics in context of modern agriculture:
The bigger picture of agriculture today
Plants and animals have evolved together in nature to create our present ecosystem, and for thousands of years’ man has been accompanied by domestic animals. In the last hundred years – and particularly in the last fifty years- man in the West has created ‘industrialized agriculture’ and with it the factory farming of animals, which has now spread to large parts of the world. This has severe detrimental consequences for the environment and for our health. Crops are grown on soils being depleted of humus, organic matter and life i.e. are being starved of the very biological processes required to sustain our soils, and hence the life it supports. Instead, the soil tends to be seen as little more than a substrate for the crops, and it is chemistry which prevails by adding chemical nutrients for the crops as well as herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. This is fighting against nature instead of working with her.
This approach to farming is completely dependent on mining non-renewable fertilizers, and using vast amounts of fossil fuels for transport, and particularly for extracting nitrogen from the air. It also means that animals are usually kept in conditions where they are not able to lead a life where they can express their innate nature or ‘being’, or have a contented life in nature using all their senses.
In contrast biodynamic agriculture is about creating farms where the aim is that no inputs of fertilisers and animal feed are brought onto the farm from other parts of the world or even nearby; which is true sustainability. A farm can feed a couple of cattle per hectare above ground but in good soil there is the equivalent weight of between 10 to 20 cows per hectare of soil life under the ground, ranging from bacteria to earth worms. This soil life, like cows and the bacteria in their rumen, also needs feeding to create the humus and fertility which characterizes a healthy soil and which produces healthy food. To do this without inputs from off the farm one uses specially prepared compost, the biodynamic preparations (see below), rotations, cover crops, green manures, traditionally mixed herbal leys and pasture.
The contribution of animals to the health of a self-sufficient farm
Cattle and sheep, with their four stomachs, are able to break down cellulose, with the help of bacteria, and utilise this roughage producing wonderful manure to contribute to the soil fertility. It is worth watching this video of Alan Savoury which explains the further potential of working with animals for the good of the earth, our climate and human beings. http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change?language=en (Note: It is possible not use these herbivores and just feed the soil with plant material , but this does not achieve the same results and is more dependent on machines.)
Pigs and poultry are not able to utilise roughage in this way, although they have other functions in a healthy ‘farm organism’. In modern agriculture they are fed massive amounts of grains and soya, which could be fed to humans. This is because of the demand for their meat. One could argue that ideally only as many pigs and poultry should be kept on a farm which are necessary to utilise ‘waste’ food, i.e. food which doesn’t quite come up to the mark for human consummation, be it grain or potatoes or fruit and vegetables or whey. Cattle and sheep do not need to be fed grain and concentrates yet they, too, are fed large quantities in industrialised agriculture.
There is a new movement springing up in this country, and elsewhere, called ‘pasture fed’ or ‘pasture for life’ so that customers can choose to eat meat farmed only on pasture and roughage. Much is made today of the methane which is produced by cattle and this is correct for cattle fed maize, grain and soya etc. but this is not the case where cattle are raised on pasture, as good mixed pasture not only sequestrates carbon from the atmosphere but also methane. As a biodynamic farm works to the principle of not keep more animals on a farm than can be fed from that piece of land there is not the danger of a biodynamic farm having too many animals and the resultant problems.
The importance of compost and the biodynamic preparations
A very important aspect of a biodynamic farm or garden is that excess plant material and animal manure is composted. Good compost is largely humus, which is good for the soil and ensures that nutrients are held in a colloid, where they are available to plants but are not dissolved in the general soil water. Like using artificial fertilisers, when raw manures are spread on the land, the nutrients can leach into the soil water and be lost, or cause overly luxuriant plant growth, which is not healthy and is when the pests appear! For biodynamic produce to be certified as biodynamic (Demeter) the farmer is required to use biodynamic preparations to put in the compost pile in very small amounts. These are different plants and herbs, some of which are prepared using some animal materials as ‘sheaths’ for the making of these preparations. For example, chamomile flowers are put into lengths of cow intestines, like making sausages, and buried in the ground over winter. When the preparation is dug up in the spring the flowers will have transformed into something like sweet smelling compost. Any traces of the intestine are removed and the material is stored until needed to put in a compost heap. Only very small amounts are used to inoculate the heaps with the natural forces that have been concentrated in them as well as the diverse bacteria and fungi. Other animal materials used for other preparations are cow mesentery (a membrane covering the intestines), stag bladders, and domestic animal skulls such as a pig, sheep or cow. The (medicinal) plants used are yarrow, dandelion, oak bark, nettles, valerian and equisetum.
Cow horns, cow manure, and crushed silica crystals are used to make the two spray preparations. These are sprayed over the whole farm at least twice a year to promote humus formation in the soil and light processes in the plants, which we find improves the taste and the keeping quality of the produce. It is important to note that most of these animal materials would normally be discarded when animals are slaughtered, and animals are not killed specifically to obtain these parts.
How can one understand what is really working in nature and discover what really feeds us in our food and thus how best to produce it – the guiding principle and question that biodynamic farmers strives to answer
So what is this really all about? Stag bladders? Cow intestines and chamomile etc?
When our founder Rudolf Steiner gave his eight agricultural lectures to farmers looking for answers in 1924, he didn’t go into a detailed explanation of how the preparations work, but rather explained how to make them. On the other hand, he did give copious indications and explanations of how to take into account the processes and forces and substances working in nature. This includes the working of the planets in the soil, in plants and in animals. For instance, the different colours in the flowers are due to the working of different planets, and the actual form of the different animals is influenced by them too. Biodynamic agriculture is first and foremost a holistic agriculture, which is why we embrace these cosmic influences in order to produce the best and healthiest food we can – including the animals we raise.
There are the 12 forces coming from the different areas of the universe – the forces of the zodiac – which play a massive role in nature and animal life, and the diversity of plant life and the creating of seed. The biodynamic calendar was developed out of experiments done by Maria Thun (not directly by Rudolf Steiner, and is based on the passage of the moon through the zodiac. Of course the sun and the other planets also pass through the zodiac and have their effect on plant and animals too. In his agricultural lectures, Steiner gives indications on how one should feed one’s animals, and that there is a significant difference on the development of the animals depending on if they are being fed roots (e.g. carrots), leaf, fruit or seed, and of course, much of this applies to us human beings too. Steiner gave many indications elsewhere on the effects on us of different substances and diets such as tea, coffee, chocolate, potatoes, vegetarian, and raw food diets etc. He himself was a vegetarian but he does not say what is better for an individual but rather explains the effects and each must decide for themselves.
Rudolf Steiner’s insights
Rudolf Steiner gave many lectures to doctors and teachers and workmen, all touching on subjects which give insights into these questions and more. They make fascinating reading but are not so easy to understand. Some find his views implausible, as people of his day did when he spoke about the effect of trace elements and how tiny amounts of substance and forces can have strong effects,
Today, however, this has been verified through science as better and more sensitive technology is developed. He also gave warnings about the effect of feeding meat to herbivores and we see the consequence in ‘mad cow’ disease; he warned of the consequence of the artificial breeding of bees and not working with them in the right way, and we can see what is happening with bees in the world today with colony collapse etc.
There is a lot we still do not know about nature and life, and all life’s forces, and it is fascinating to see what continues to be developed by science today, as well as the emerging new sciences such as epigenetics and quantum biology. One topical example is that we are now realizing the huge importance of the biome in human intestines, as well as that in our soils, and how complex it all is, and yet we are just scratching the surface.
Dr.Karl Konig looks at the preparations and their sheaths in the book Earth and Man as well as looking at the animals in relation to the zodiac and creating landscapes etc. He has other books such as Animals: An Imaginative Zoology. Rudolf Steiner had many published, but the Agricultural Course and Nutrition: Food, Health and Spiritual Development are two of the best. There are also a number of books on how to make and use the preparations which can be found on the BDA website; one of the latest which is fully illustrated m is Biodynamic Gardening by Monty Waldin, available from our on line shop
Most biodynamic farms do keep some animals to enable them to have a balanced and healthy self –sustaining farm without the need to bring in fertilisers from off the farm, and they are kept to very high welfare standards and with lots of love! Some animal materials are used in making the important biodynamic preparations but in tiny amounts, and there is no direct contact between the animal material and the growing crop.
It is possible to farm without the larger farm animals and a compost starter was developed using the biodynamic preparation plants but without the animal sheaths and it is sold as QR Compost Activator by Garden Organic. The resulting produce will be good but not the same as that produced by using the methods used in biodynamic agriculture and tried and tested all over the world for the last 90 years.