For the second year, the Agriculture Conference at the Goetheanum took place online.Over 650 people from all the continents joined in a varied programme of lectures, interactive workshops, open-space events and artistic presentations.
While agricultural production over the past century was aimed mainly at quantity, today's focus is on creating quality. But what type of quality are we talking about? Is it a simple outer quality that guarantees a particular appearance and specific nutrient content, or is it a holistic quality that includes vitality, authenticity and even the ethics of food production? After all, it is not merely nutrients that feed us, but also forces and meaningfulness – and we even seek a quality in the encounter with food.
Creating a holistic quality in our food has been an important aim of biodynamic agriculture from the beginning. The many aspects of this living quality were the subject of the presentations by the various speakers during the Agriculture Conference.
Strong words from strong people
Arizona Muse, founder of the DIRT Foundation for the Regeneration of Earth and a top model from the USA, opened the conference with a passionate plea for biodynamic agriculture and for the care of the earth as a living being. The dramatic effects of the textiles industry on the earth and on human beings have prompted her to become completely committed to biodynamic agriculture. Carlo Petrini, founder of the international Slow Food movement, showed how each one of us – from the farmer to your everyday consumer – is a co-producer and therefore a contributor to quality. Maike Ehrlichmann, a successful nutritional therapist, inspired everyone with her personal Honest Eating method. This method teaches those in search of advice to activate their own internal nutritional adviser.
Atmosphere and mood for good quality
How quality initially develops on the basis of a specific quantity was demonstrated by Ueli Hurter, taking cereals and milk as examples. Jean-Michel Florin explained how, in contrast to quantity which is measurable, a holistic all-encompassing 'atmospheric' approach is needed to grasp quality, and this is something every person can become capable of every day through their senses.
Quality is like a thread running through all the stages and phases from soil to plate. The big question that extends beyond compliance with quality standards through external checks, is how to develop a sensitivity and attitude that make it possible to permit the creation of a holistic living quality throughout the production process. One element of this is to pay attention to the atmosphere, whether this is in the byre with the animals, in the dairy, in the shop or even in the kitchen. Everyone knows how a positive atmosphere in a family kitchen affects the meals. Although this is a subtle aspect that is difficult to measure, it is often what actually makes the difference. Chef Agata Glazar was well placed to speak about this from experience. She cooks with those ingredients that are to hand, with passion and without relying on recipes. If a guest asks about it, she tells them the story of the food. Careful sensory perception of the wealth of colours and aromas of fresh fruit and vegetables is her starting point for a healthy and tasty meal.
Exploring the subject
The subsequent presentations showed how subtle biodynamic agricultural practices promote the integration of the processes of growth and differentiation (or maturation) in crop plants. Controlling the processes correctly through farming practices enables production of both the optimum quantity and quality.
The doctor Thomas Hardtmuth described how we need to look beyond the plate, all the way to our gut and its microbiome, whose important role in our physiological and psychological health is substantiated by numerous recent research results. On the other hand, the microbiome is extremely sensitive to moods and a beautiful and attractive environment. This is something that can also be seen in animals, such as cows. Severe and ongoing stress seriously disrupts the healthy composition of the microflora in the gut. The quality of food therefore extends to include the atmosphere at mealtimes and even the general environment we live in.
Examples from practice
Quality development rests on the development of biodiversity and the development of human communities, as shown by two very different examples. One is the biodynamic urban garden initiative in the city of Rosario in Argentina (first prize from the World Resources Institute in 2021) that recultivated almost 1,000 hectares of urban land. The other is the Alliance for the Land (Alianzas por la Tierra) created by the Spanish winery Gramona near Barcelona, where over 450 hectares of grape monocultures were transformed into a diverse biodynamic farm with domestic animals.
Mechthild Knösel, a passionate farmer from Germany, showed very convincingly how ethics is directly connected to quality. From a feeling of responsibility and respect for her animals, she decided that no animal would leave her farm alive. She took part in a study that showed how stress hormones in cows were significantly lower if the animal was slaughtered on the farm than in the slaughterhouse. This produces directly measurable effects on the quality of the meat.
In order to maintain the quality throughout the entire manufacturing process, the product must be "improved" during processing, meaning "raised", as indicated by the French word "élevage". The baker and farmer Olivier Clisson illustrated this point with beautiful pictures.
Romana Echensperger, Master of Wine and book author, spoke about the freedom of the vintner, because to produce a living and authentic quality requires the grower to be able to produce in freedom. During interviews for her book "Von der Freiheit, den richtigen Wein zu machen" (About the freedom to make the right wine), she discovered that biodynamic viticulture, in contrast to industrial viticulture that fixes and standardises its methods, is based on the freedom and autonomy of the grower, resulting in the production of a very individual and authentic wine.
The oenologist and researcher, Georg Meissner, made a plea for careful observation of the vine, in order to understand its gesture. This is the basis for its transformation into the once sacred substance of wine and for authentic terroir wines.
Developing consciousness and quality
The morning introductions by Jasmin Peschke, which were accompanied by wonderful musical improvisation, traced the development of human consciousness in parallel with the concept of quality. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, after a period of the intuitive perception of quality, there was a gradual reduction in all sense perceptible qualities. For the benefit of objectivity, quality was reduced to numbers, dates and facts. This rationalisation then led to the industrialisation of agriculture. This produces carrots and living organisms as though they were cars, in other words dead objects, and measures their quality using corresponding criteria and methods. The great challenge of our century is to rediscover past agricultural ways of production and qualitative methods. This will enable us to produce and understand a living quality. Biodynamic agriculture can look back at nearly 100 years of experience and wishes to make its contribution to this rediscovery.
The American biologist and epistemologist, Craig Holdredge, ended the Agriculture Conference with a call that showed ways towards a qualitative approach to nature. If the human being re-establishes contact with nature, the alienation that has led to the degradation of our planet can be overcome.
The next Agriculture Conference will take place at the beginning of February 2023 on this topic: Evolving agriculture – 100 years of biodynamics: looking back to look forwards.
Jasmin Peschke and Jean-Michel Florin
Section for Agriculture