Climate change and agriculture

|   Heilpflanzen, Präparateforschung

Lin Bautze & Ueli Hurter

This article is a slightly abridged version of the dialogue article from Newsletter No 116 of the Section for Agriculture of: Lin Bautze, Project Manager "Living Farms" and Ueli Hurter, Co-Leader of the Section for Agriculture.

Lin Bautze The IPCC Special Report on "Climate Change and Land Systems" has recently been published. Since 1992, several hundred scientists on behalf of the United Nations have brought together the latest research findings on climate change in this body. The report summarises four key aspects relating to our food system and agriculture:

1)  As humanity we are dependent on land resources and climate. Under all calculated climate change scenarios, our food security worldwide is negatively affected by climate change. The degree of impact varies depending on geographical location and social, economic and ecological resilience.

2)  Agriculture is one of the most vulnerable sectors and therefore particularly affected by the effects of climate change. Soil quality and quantity have been explicitly recorded here as threatened. The current rate of soil erosion in current agricultural practice is up to 100 times higher than the parallel development of the soil. In the long term, this condition poses a massive threat to our agricultural foundations.

3)  Agriculture can either produce further emissions or help to prevent or compensate for them. Biodynamic and organic farming methods are strongly recommended to reduce further emissions while increasing the resilience of agricultural practices.

4)   To ensure a sustainable future, the IPCC recommends rapidly implementable and locally adapted climate protection measures. These should be based on the experience of local actors from all sectors of the value chain and thus be implemented jointly.

Ueli Hurter Agriculture is never climate-neutral. There are historical and current examples where it is climate-dependent (Timbuktu Collective, Agricultural Conference 2019), and there are many examples where it is climate-damaging. What is new about the 2019 situation is "only" that we have a global awareness and that the data are also available to draw up a global climate balance. Why does agriculture have such a strong impact on the climate? Because its essence is to permeate the lower with the upper and the upper with the lower. The inauguration of agriculture in ancient Persian culture consisted precisely in tearing up the earth with the plough. This was an outrageous act! A reach into the dark depths, a step into Ahriman's empire. But the upper light and warmth - symbolised in the Persian sun creature Ahura Mazdao - could thus penetrate into the lower. Food in quantity and quality thus grew in the fields and gardens, enabling a great stage in human development: the stage of settling down, also known as the Neolithic Revolution. This is how man became a terrestrial human being. He is now no longer "the glorious stranger" (Novalis), but "he is called to form the earth" (Novalis). Since that time, agriculture as the basis of sedentariness has been both an opportunity and a danger for the soil, water and atmosphere. What the IPCC report shows with current data, namely that agriculture is part of the problem and at the same time part of the solution, is also consistent with a recognition of the nature of agriculture. If we go a step further, it becomes clear that the "bottom", which is open to the "top", is, in the organic sector, especially carbon and nitrogen. In fact, CO2, CH4 and N2H are the main greenhouse gases. In the troposphere, 8,000 to 18,000 metres above the solid ground, they form a shield (an atmospheric ground) which reflects the sun's heat that was reflected back from the earth and sends it back to the earth again (greenhouse effect). The result is a global increase in the heat in the atmosphere. This process is intensified and accelerated by various feedback effects. So much for atmospheric physics. Is there also an atmospheric biology? Or even a biodynamics of the atmosphere?

Potentials of biodynamic agriculture

LB For agricultural practice, the results of the report can be interpreted in two extremes. We can refuse to change, ignore it and hope that nothing else happens or that the scientists gathered are wrong after all. That would mean maintaining the status quo, not cutting emissions and hoping for an adaptable and technically skilled humanity. The other extreme would be a radical change: renouncing further emissions and acting quickly. The Special Report advocates rapid change, and the will to act seems to have arrived in our society, at least since Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future demonstrations. The report also stresses that agriculture must develop resilience, a resistance, as quickly as possible. This requires above all that we accept the new, unavoidable conditions and develop confidence in our own ability to emerge from the crisis. It means to reflect on one's own farm conscientiously and regularly, to look at it and to make timely adjustments. This requires a trained eye, access to knowledge about different options for action and the will to look one's own reality in the eye. If we now look quite rationally at the possibilities which biodynamic agriculture offers for climate protection and resilience, we can see that this form of agriculture:

  • renounces costly chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and instead uses its own local organic fertilisersinvests in soil development through soil-bound livestock farming, composting and crop rotation diversity
  • has developed a certain sovereignty, e.g. by thinking in closed cycles, which means that soya imports from Brazil can be dispensed with
  • always deals intensively and conscientiously with its own soils, plants, animals, people and interactions on the farm and in the world

Expressed in figures, this means that if we convert 50% of agricultural land in the EU to organic and biodynamic farming, we can save or offset up to 30% of agricultural emissions by 2030. At the same time, long-term trials have shown that organic and biodynamic farming can cope better with climate fluctuations and extremes. Thanks to good soil structure, harvest losses are lower than on conventional farms during extreme weather events and drought. At the same time, the diversity practised by biodynamic farms in the field, in animal husbandry and in the farm branches secures these economically. In this way the people on the farm remain more capable of acting in the future. This gives us the opportunity to follow a path in agriculture which makes use of the existing, practised potential of biodynamic agriculture. This must be considered according to the location and possibilities for action of each individual. In some regions or farm areas, action can be faster and more effective than in others. For example, when I look at my farm I can see that composting or the strategic planting of trees and hedges is easier to implement and takes less time than building up the soil humus.

UH Rudolf Steiner did not speak in a Persian mystery language in the "Agricultural Course" in 1924, but rather he responded to his listeners to such an extent that he used cutting-edge agronomist language. He spoke of sulphur, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen - exactly the substances we are talking about today. Carbon (C) is the one that forms the basic structure in organic matter. A plant being forms its body from carbon. It germinates, grows, blossoms, fertilises and dies. What remains is the seed of this specific plant and the humus, which is like a universal seed. The carbon lives dynamically in the life cycle in the individual plant, in the whole plant stock of a field, in the whole landscape with cycles of over a hundred years, if you think of the trees. If we manage to keep the carbon in cyclical life, then we are not only not damaging the climate, but we are creating a positive climate. Nitrogen has a very difficult time getting from the air, where it is present in atomic form as N2 in massive quantities, to organic life. A soul must want to form a body in order for the nitrogen to enter earthly life. This is the case with animals and with the plant family of legumes. With these two sources it is quite possible to have nitrogen in sufficient quality and quantity on the farm. The synthetically and industrially produced nitrogen fertiliser - which easily escapes into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2H) s.o. and is 265 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 - is not necessary! However, a certain amount of animal husbandry, especially with ruminants, is necessary for on-farm nitrogen management. This principle is implemented in Biodynamic agriculture according to Demeter standards, which make the inclusion of animals mandatory. In practice one does not work with chemical substances, but the ideas one has of them are very formative for the how and what in practice. With the above outlined knowledge about substances as carriers of life, soul and spirit in the balance of nature, I work differently than when I think of dead chemical atoms. Consequently, in biodynamic agriculture the unit which enables and can carry a closed living flow of matter is the basic unit with which we work in practice, and that is the individual farm. It is virtually an "agricultural individuality" which forms the body of the agricultural organism. All the efforts of the practitioner relate primarily to this whole and only secondarily to the individual aspects of the farm, which can be regarded as organs in the sense of the farm organism. With this grasp of always thinking, feeling and acting from the whole, the biodynamicist is something of a dreamer. Because the whole is not concretely tangible, it has to be imagined. This can lead to astonishing manipulations. I once came across a farm that was struggling with high calf mortality. The farmer's corrective measure was - among other things - to plant many hedges. You could say he is a dreamer or he is crazy! But it was clear to him that if he wanted to strengthen the lack of structural forces that cause the ruinous diarrhoea in his calves, then he had to encourage them with hedges in the countryside so that the forces could get to the calf via the mother's feed and milk. Is this not like working in the atmosphere? You go to the periphery with a phenomenon in your inner consideration and from there comes the flash of inspiration that makes you act at a very specific point, seemingly far away from the cause. In other words: Biodynamics, always acting from the periphery, is climate-farming in its approach.

Making the available potential visible

LB If we now come back to the big picture of our current transformation, the question arises why are not (even) more farms currently switching to biodynamic farming and climate-friendly agriculture? For such a conversion, knowledge, role models and options for action are needed. Every farm is individual, unique and consists of specific interactions between people, animals, landscape and the global environment. If we now want to make conventional, organic and biodynamic farms equally capable of action, we need the knowledge portfolio from which the practical and eco-socially sensible solutions for our own farm can be drawn. We need the inspiration of people who have already implemented solutions and their willingness to share their own experiences with others. Then farms can act locally and at the same time keep the global in mind. To close this gap, a new research project was launched at the Section for Agriculture. In the project, "Living Farms: Potentials of biodynamic places in times of global change", 15 to 20 biodynamic farms worldwide are visited, researched and portrayed. Their strategies, thoughts and options for action are made visible in short videos. In this way agricultural practice, extension services and consumers can gain access to the worldwide repertoire of possibilities offered by biodynamic places. This access enables them to grow together to meet the challenges of global change.

UH Climate change concerns us all. It affects us all. It requires many insights, many prototypes, many solutions. Biodynamics is not THE solution. It can make a contribution. Because, as we have seen, its essence is to look and act from the whole to the individual - and that is the cry of the climate crisis: the Earth is a whole, the Earth is a living being, and as such it wants to be treated as such by us humans. Our contribution is actually our farms. It is not science (anthroposophy, "agricultural course"), nor just (Demeter) products that can be inspiring for many. But we think that our farms could work for many people in a way that inspires and encourages them to do what they do. Because the farm is concrete, the soil, plants and animals are real, the people and the community are not idealistically thought of, but are, with 100% of their difficulties, part of the whole. The farms are also social laboratories where, for example, new forms of ownership are tested. Farms are also food workshops, where neither fast food nor slow food is produced, but true food. This is how we want to show our farms in all modesty. So that this can also be seen in Nepal, the Philippines and Iceland, we wrap these portraits in video films. So we are back at Ahriman, the circle is complete, agriculture is born from the encounter dynamics of sun and earth.

More information about the project can be found at: | Facebook: Sektion.fuer.Landwirtschaft | Youtube: Sektion für Landwirtschaft | Instagram: @section_for_agriculture

More information on the Website of the Section for Agrculture

Rose with the children in the school garden (Photo: Lin Bautze)