Permaculture and Biodynamics: sustainable systems of living and growing
by Cory Whitney
Observing a new momentum in the biodynamic and permaculture movement brought by young enthusiasts encouraged Cory Whitney to revisit the basics of these two agricultural systems....
Both farming methods have a strong community of followers dedicated to those philosophies
These days a lot of young people are taking up the shovel and hoe to become farmers. They look around the world and see that people have become estranged and alienated from nature, that both are suffering, and that with this increasing alienation our food is largely raised and grown in massive industrial settings at the cost to both our and the environment's health. They're helping to heal that relationship by challenging old attitudes about what it means to be successful and live a good life.
They believe that there are effects of food beyond nutrition and aspects to a good life beyond the modern ideas of health and wealth, and so are building a foundation for a sustainable future through the simple inspiring act of farming. As Bill Mollison says: "Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple."
There have been some interesting stories about these young farmers running farms based on both Permaculture principles and some of Biodynamic farming's ideas. Today in the local farmers market it is increasingly common to find farmers with diverse products grown in Permaculture systems under Biodynamic practices.
They've been inspired by local farming gurus to start growing food in a holistic way that encompasses both a deep connection to the local ecology and to the greater mystical-spiritual aspects of life. Their visionary ideas made me want to review both Permaculture and Biodynamics - and to think again about how they compare and contrast.
Biodynamic agriculture is a farming meets religio-philosophical practice. It grew out of the lectures of metaphysics philosopher Rudolph Steiner (German-Jewish exile and enemy of the Nazi state), and Anthroposophy (anthro = human, posophy = philosophy) movement in the early 1900s.
Biodynamic farming can be considered a kind of art farming. In one of his famous lectures on the ways of living in harmony with some of the spiritual aspects of the world that surrounds us, Steiner said "Die Kunst ist ewig, ihre Formen wandeln sich", (something like "The art is eternal, and only the shapes are changing").
What he is said to have meant is that the practice of farming is something that is all encompassing and has to work to incorporate the whole - the universe, all the community of farmers, animals, and nature. Thus all aspects of the farm and surrounding cosmology are considered carefully in Biodynamic agriculture; eg stars and moon phases as well as the breeds and species of plants.
Permaculture (literally permanent agriculture) is a philosophy-design farming and living method that grew out of the books and Permaculture courses of Australian farmers and researchers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They are systems or gardens modeled on patterns observed in nature. Structures, access and water systems are also designed to be energy efficient and well placed with a focus on the relationships between elements of a system rather than on individual components themselves.
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." Thus farmers who have Permaculture systems spend the most energy planning the system of farming in general but then, as it comes into practice, begin to work less and less as they are slowly enveloped in an abundant and almost free-growing garden.
Biodynamic agriculture and Permaculture differ greatly in terms of farming practices; the former is considered to be ‘beyond' organic while the latter is not necessarily organic. Biodynamic farming has restrictions on chemical and intensive farming methods, while Permaculture relies on good planning and the know-how and sensibility of the system's farmers and communities.
They share a lot in common in terms of culture. Biodynamics has more of a structured community - there are groups that inspect and certify 'Biodynamic' or 'Demeter' foods. There are also many communities, schools, and businesses that are tied in with the Biodynamic movement.
With Permaculture, there are legal limits on who can offer the specialised courses - one first needs to have completed a PDC (Permaculture Design Course). But the word Permaculture itself is not regulated in any way. Both farming methods have a strong community of followers dedicated to those philosophies, and many consider their participation a primary part of their lives.
Biodynamic agriculture and Permaculture differ greatly when it comes to philosophy. Both share strong philosophical and visionary ideas about sustainable patterns of living and social and ecological ethics. Biodynamics goes further to include some ideas that might be described as mystical or astrological. Steiner's interest in metaphysics was a big part of his lectures and has become central to Biodynamic farming. Permaculture has more of an ecological-sciences approach. Mystical and esoteric aspects of the relationship between people and land differ for every Permaculture farmer.
Hence these two systems of farming can be complimentary. A Permaculture farmer can be Biodynamic and vise versa. Neither is mutually exclusive but each is unique enough not to confuse with the other; (you won't necessarily find a Permaculture farmer out burying horns filled with manure under the full moon or a Biodynamic farmer with swales dug across the contours of his fields). To paraphrase Bill Mollison 'Permaculture is the wardrobe and Biodynamics can be a hangar inside'.
Put simply both Permaculture and Biodynamics seek to create sustainable patterns of living and growing food based on systems of ethics that deal with how humans treat the earth and each other. Both are a sound choice for good clean food from happy farmers and animals, healthy soil, and the natural environment. It's no wonder that so many young farmers these days are opting to produce food in this way and so many consumers are seeking this out at the local farmers market.
Cory Whitney is an organic agronomist and researcher looking for solutions to interconnected issues of loss of biodiversity, loss of traditional culture and food insecurity. His primary work is in ethnobotany and human ecology research with indigenous people in Southeast Asia. He is a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, the Slow Food Movement, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. He writes a lot about sustainability issues, forests and farms.
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