Biodynamics versus Permaculture

We had a lovely outing on a recent Sunday to Stanmer Park near Brighton, where the Brighton Permaculture Trust  had organised their 2016 Apple Day. Apple Day celebrates all things to do with the apple, including the revival of old Sussex varieties of apple, some of which the Trust has brought back from the brink of extinction. I’ve bought two of these Sussex varieties (Forge and Saltcote Pippin) for our garden and can’t wait to collect them for planting in December.


Delicious Sussex apple varieties on display at Apple Day

It was a wonderful autumn day with lots of sunshine and the fine weather brought out families in their thousands. Apart from the focus on apples (including cider-tasting), there were stalls from many local organisations and food producers, as well as morris dancers, a Brazilian salsa band and dancers, a ukulele band, a choir, talks about bees, scything demos, tours of the orchards, permaculture taster activities etc. It was all very good-humoured, well organised and a truly impressive example of a community-based activity that also put across a serious message about sustainability and caring for the earth.

The Apple Day came just a few days after news of the death in Tasmania on September 24th of Bill Mollison, one of the two founders of permaculture.


Bill Mollison – photo via

Bill Mollison was quite a character and the source of many pithy quotations. Here are some of my favourites:

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”

“If and when the whole world is secure, we have won a right to explore space, and the oceans. Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcome elsewhere.”


If you’ve not come across permaculture before (the name comes from “permanent agriculture” but is also coming to mean “permanent culture”), it is both a philosophy and a farming and living method that grew out of the books and permaculture courses of Bill Mollison and his fellow Australian farmer and researcher, David Holmgren. Permaculture systems or gardens are modelled on patterns observed in nature. Structures, access and water systems are also designed to be energy efficient and placed with a focus on the relationships between elements of a system rather than on individual components themselves.



Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – photo via Dr Benjamin Habib’s blog.

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.” As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

Clearly the work of the Brighton Permaculture Trust is having an excellent effect in the locality – they have for example helped to establish about one hundred community orchards, revived interest in local food production and sustainable methods of agriculture, and they specialise in working with schools and community groups. They have made enough of an impact to attract sponsorship for Apple Day from Infinity Foods, one of the UK’s leading wholesalers for organic and natural foods.

The impression I got was that those attending the Apple Day are exactly the sorts of people who are concerned that our society has become estranged and alienated from nature, and that this increasing alienation has been to the detriment of both our health and the natural environment. My guess is that these are people who believe that there are effects of food beyond nutrition and that there are aspects of what constitutes a good life which go beyond the modern ideas of health and wealth. As such points of view become more widespread, they are gradually building a foundation for real change and for moves towards a more sustainable future. How many of these people know about permaculture in any kind of detail I can’t say (only a few, I suspect) but clearly they all know the name of the Brighton Permaculture Trust and associate it with the kind of things that they wish to support.



Thousands of people attended Brighton Permaculture Trust’s Apple Day.


I couldn’t help but ask myself whether biodynamics would get a similar level of name-recognition from these people – my sense is that probably it would not. Biodynamics and permaculture, however, clearly have a great many of the same attitudes and aspirations. What are the differences and similarities between the two systems?

Permaculture would claim to be an applied science, as its focus is on the application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain practical aims. It’s not about gathering information just for the sake of research but for the purpose of putting its scientific findings into practice. Observation and experience as tools in permaculture suggest that it is not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality and everyday reality.

I would say that biodynamics shares all of these characteristics with permaculture, although some might argue that, as the origin of biodynamics lies with Steiner’s supersensible perceptions and observations, it is not a science in the same sense. But these perceptions and observations by Steiner have been followed up, tested and proved on farms around the world now for more than ninety years. So I think we can argue that biodynamics is also both an applied and an empirical science.

Another shared feature is that, unlike other sciences, both permaculture and biodynamics are holistic and not reductionist. Both of them describe the connections and relationships between natural systems, the multitude of living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself. Both share strong philosophical and visionary ideas about sustainable patterns of living and social and ecological ethics.

Similarly, both permaculture and biodynamics share the goal of creating an almost perfectly closed system, in which all the inputs come from your own resources and as little as possible is brought in from outside. Permaculture does, however, imply that your system grows towards a natural maturity and then sustains itself there, while biodynamics works with fewer permanent plantings and has crop rotation cycles over several years.

Biodynamics, of course, also takes into account the connections with the cosmos, which permaculture does not, except inasmuch as it involves planting by the phases of the moon.

But I think there is a fundamental difference between the two: permaculture deliberately does not have an underlying spiritual system, whereas biodynamics arises out of a particular philosophy and spiritual system – anthroposophy. It’s relevant to quote Bill Mollison here: “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”. What I think he meant by this is that one’s personal philosophy should arise from one’s experience of caring for the Earth and the plants and one’s life experience – and not from reading about it. Not (of course) that this is how most people come to biodynamics – it is often because of the totally delicious food, or the sense that a biodynamic farm is a place where the wellbeing of the earth, plants and animals is tangible – but biodynamics may be seen as carrying a certain amount of historical and intellectual baggage from anthroposophy that is not always easy for people to get past.



A display of French apple varieties – photo via Brighton & Hove Camera Club


And here I think is the reason why those people attending the Brighton Apple Day might find themselves feeling more at ease with permaculture than they would with biodynamics. It is because permaculture, with its claims to being a science with its own values and ethics, can co-exist harmoniously with most religious and spiritual systems (or indeed with none) without offering a challenge to them or anyone’s pre-existing spiritual outlook. Biodynamics, on the other hand, is all too often tarred with the “all muck and magic” brush – instead of what it really is, which is a super-advanced science that scientists may catch up with one day – or with some other straw man set up by skeptics in their attempts to attack Steiner and anthroposophy.

It is of course perfectly possible for a permaculture farmer to be biodynamic and for a biodynamic farmer to farm using permaculture techniques. My own view is that biodynamics is greater and more all-encompassing than Bill Mollison would ever have acknowledged; I suspect he would have said: “Permaculture is the wardrobe and biodynamics is one of the hangers inside,” which is probably the reverse of the actual situation.

But I also suspect that Bill Mollison’s approach is the one that is more likely to find favour with the kinds of people who attended the Apple Day. In one of the obituaries for Bill Mollison, some words from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu were quoted: “True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it.”

That surely is how the change that we all so desperately need is coming – like a thief in the night, without governments or media being aware of it, but happening in the hearts and minds of people everywhere – until the necessary changes just seem right and natural and commonplace.  Biodynamics, permaculture, organics and good conventional agriculture will all have their parts to play in making this happen.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Rudolf Steiner

36 responses to “Biodynamics versus Permaculture

  1. Really liked this post. I kind of think the same way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Steve Hale

      This is an excellent article. Jeremy always writes essays which beg for comments. My first thought is that Rudolf Steiner only gave one fundamental course on agriculture here:

      So, his rather meager indications have grown into a profound movement which has garnered the name, “biodynamics”, and it is a growing enterprise, as seen with today’s indications.

      Yet, four years before, Steiner also revealed the power of spiritual-scientific medicine, which sought to re-advent the original aims of Galen and Hippocrates, from the Greek epoch. As such, his course in the Spring of 1920 was designed to effectuate a continuous stream of conscious development in the young physicians who acquainted with the anthroposophical movement.

      In 1924, Steiner was a veritable plethora of beholding in the various aims:

      1) Education

      2) Medicine

      3) Agriculture

      4) Priest work

      5) Karma

      What a ride of life, indeed.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank You, Jeremy. I find this post heart-warming. It seems to me that in Biodynamics the healing impulse of anthroposophy is blossoming and that Permaculture is a companion on the way to a better way of growing food.

    You quote Bill, ‘“We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”. I find this to be a bit silly. Philosophy is one of the hardest disciplines to follow, because it involves deeply questioning assumptions which may seem obvious and it makes some people very uncomfortable when their assumptions are questioned.
    Philosophy cannot be learnt by doing gardening, though gardening will involve some philosophy in as much as practices and principles are at work for which there is a rational justification.
    I can’t imagine philosophies such as the powerful idealism of Plato, or the tortuous reasoning of Kant or the obscurity of Heidegger, (to give just three examples), being taught by doing gardening. And I am not in any way underestimating the subtlety and complexity of gardening. It is just foolish to put the two things together in the way that Bill Mollison has.
    There will be a history and there are values and assumptions at work in Permaculture which would be revealed by a proper analysis of the sort of statements made by its proponents.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Truth Seeker

    Thank you for the article Jeremy, Permaculture I had not come across before. My impression is that Permaculture seems to be grounded in some logical thought and scientific reasoning, though it is not without its critics also. Biodynamic’s on the other hand is just something Steiner made-up, based upon his own views and prejudices – not practical experience.

    You claim about biodynamic agriculture that “perceptions and observations by Steiner have been followed up, tested and proved on farms around the world now for more than ninety years. So I think we can argue that biodynamics is also both an applied and an empirical science.” Oh dear!

    As far as I am aware there is zero evidence showing that biodynamic farming performs better than regular organic/bio farming. I agree that 90 years is more than enough time to prove its effectiveness, alas it has failed to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “…based upon his own views and prejudices – not practical experience.”

      Are you familiar with the term “projection”, TS? You are, I suspect, describing your own ignorance and lack of practical experience of biodynamics. If I’m mistaken about this, please set out your own track record in respect of biodynamic farming and growing and/or other forms of agriculture, so that we can get some idea of your relevant expertise.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Truth Seeker

        Hello Jeremy, I am unsure why you mention “projection”?
        With regard to my own agricultural experience, it is true I am not a farmer or indeed an active gardener, but so what. If I was a biodynamic farmer and said how great my results were, what would that prove? Nothing, it would be just an anecdote. I have visited biodynamic farms and read about them, so I am not completely ignorant about biodynamics.

        In the agricultural lectures Steiner states, what he said was only a starting point and that further research would be carried out and published. Well where is this research from Dornach or even Demeter (who have a good business certifying biodynamic farms)? I haven’t spotted it.

        If biodynamic practices turn out to be beneficial, then great, but the evidence does not suggest this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Steve Hale

        Steiner gave a great deal in this one concentrated course. It left volumes for those that have since entertained the movement for biodynamical renewal.

        Maybe TS just feels the need to oppose any kind of spirituality working in the world as a kind of influence behind the scenes. Yet, even modern-day organic farming methods owe their heritage to Steiner’s own efforts in this very unique course of lectures. He never had the chance to replicate it toward advancement, but his followers made it so, and this is what we have today.

        The same goes for spiritual-scientific medicine, which gets duly ridiculed. They are both from the same crop. What works has been proven to work, and so why all the opposition, even from here? Why allow an abject skeptic to write nonsense when he can’t, or won’t even defend his position?

        I suspect it has to do with being a good cosmopolitan spirit within the good rationale of the world spirit that anthroposophy espouses, and tries to make known today.


  4. TS, why don’t you introduce biodynamic food into your diet and see for yourself if it has any benefits. Top chefs Michel Roux Jr and Anthony Worrel Thompson have been singing its praises for years and biodynamics has featured on Masterchef and other mainstream programmes. You don’t need a slip of paper from a so called ‘scientific authority’ to inform you whether something is good or not!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truth Seeker

      Gcpa I am not saying that biodynamic food isnt good, my point is that biodynamic farming makes claims for itself that are not substantiated. Now I am having a delicious apple from my own tree which has never been treated with chemicals or fertilisers, nor has it been anywhere near a cow horn!


    • Chalker-Scott has written a lot on horticultural myths. Unfortunately, in her 2013 review on preparations she calls Steiner ‘a philosopher by training’ who ‘rejected scientific inquiry’, which seems to be a half-truth since Steiner (she misspells ‘Rudolph’) was foremost trained as a mathematician and natural scientist in Vienna.
      One of her more open conclusions is: ‘Without a robust body of knowledge to consider, it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of biodynamics as an alternative agricultural practice.’ e.g. ‘nutritional quality’ and taste.


  5. Caryn Louise

    Congratulations to the new President of the USA Donald Trump.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Otto

    HRH Prince Charles
    Prince Charles will give the opening message (video message) for the annual agricultural conference of the biodynamic farming in Dornach
    I wonder whether he would be able to do so if he was king. What do you think, Jeremy?


    • I’m guessing that Prince Charles has been advised by his media consultants not to speak about his BD enthusiasm in the UK, given the likelihood that the press and the anti-Steiner skeptics will tear him to pieces if he does. Whether he would feel able to do so when he becomes King, I don’t know – presumably his consultants would continue to advise against it.


      • Steve Hale

        I would love to see Charles and Camilla become King and Queen of England. Do you see that happening any time soon? According to the Globe, Charles has put his mother away in Balmoral Castle, and told William and Kate to stay silent about it.

        Relative to BD, it comes down to those nine compounds that Steiner prescribed as having the power to rejuvenate the soil, and how earnest he was in saying it needed to be applied worldwide, as soon as possible. The preface to GA327, authored by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, is worth the price of the whole course. Pfeiffer, who was one of the major sponsors of the course in Koberwitz, did not attend because of Steiner’s need for him to care for someone critically ill at the time.

        Are you going to attend the North America BD Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, starting on the 16th? You mentioned earlier that you might.



        • I think that the Queen is going to stay on the throne until she dies – she considers that the vows she took on ascending to the throne do not allow her to retire. The story in the Globe is pure nonsense. It is, of course, a strange situation that Charles will not come into the job he was born to do until he is way past most people’s retirement age. The Queen’s own mother lived until she was over 100 years old, so it is entirely possible that the Queen herself will be around for a few more years yet, and Charles could be in his 70s before he becomes King.

          I won’t now be coming to Santa Fe for the BD conference, unfortunately – too much to do here!




  7. Otto

    There was a film The Prince and his farmer about Prince Charles and his organic farms. Is it true that this film was not shown or even “forbidden” in the UK?


    • I’ve not seen this film, although I would like to; I believe it has been refused distribution in the UK. How this came about I don’t know, but I suspect that it would be the Prince’s media consultants trying to protect him from the onslaughts of our tabloid press and scientism generally.


      • Steve Hale


        Steiner made ten trips to Britain between 1902 and 1924, and this 1268 page book documents it in detail:

        So, why does England today oppose the findings of Rudolf Steiner, as you more than suggest? If Prince Charles espouses BD, as indicated, than that is a major item of news. Thanks to Otto for this film. I had heard before that Charles was into the biodynamic method. As for his media consultants, what difference does it make at this point.


        • I wouldn’t say that “England” opposes BD, as most people don’t know anything about it. But for years, Charles has been pilloried in the press and elsewhere as an oddball, as someone who talks to plants and is flaky on a number of topics. Many people like his views but there are many others, particularly those who regard themselves as having an evidence-based scientific and materialist outlook, who think that because of his views he is unfitted to become the next King – and it is these people who, sounding off in the press and on social media, make Charles’ life so difficult. No doubt this is why his media consultants are not keen for his BD enthusiasm to become more widely known in the UK.


  8. Otto

    The biodynamic gardening and farming has been at the head of organic methods and research for over 90 years now.

    It doesnt only want to be a closed ecolocigal system but it even wants to heal and give back something to nature, the elementals and the cosmos. (I m not deep enough in it to give a short „waterproof“ explanation of it.)

    Today there are some biodyn institutes in the field of seed research. There are a number of institutes, doing this research, also developing special seeds for the organic movement as a whole. I dont know about biodyn seed research in the English speaking world.
    One important aspect here is the difference between hybrid seeds and seed saving plants (in German samenfeste Sorten). There is a difference in quality in the fruits of these different systems. Non hybrid plants are closer or more connected to the „spiritual being“ of its kind. In organic food shops they begin to write hybrid and non hybrid species.

    Then there is the attempt to breed a new kind of chicken where you can „use“ the eggs and the meat. So even the males can live and need not be shreddered or killed otherwise a chicks.

    Then there is the quality research. Taste and shelf life are well known aspects. (In a French magazine I once read: Anthroposophy in France is best known for the good biodyn vine ;-))
    For some years now there is resaerch in the etheric quality, especially the light ether. Biophoton content (a method best liked by ahriman, because ahriman s best beloved child are numbers), then round filter chromatographie which was developed by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, with an objective side to it, the filters, papers and the person who must interpret the filter, the result and then the newest by trained persons who are sensitive enough to sense the quality.
    Then the research on the light ether which was important to Rudolf Steiner.

    Dozends and hundreds of highly motivated, highly experienced, idealistic people, doing research than can rival research in the most advanced institues, do a great job in slowing down the degeneration of the whole biosphere of the Earth.

    And I think in general: the organic movement as a whole owes much to the bd farmers, gardeners who uphold this idea for 90 years now. Where would the worldwide movement stand today without these pioneers?!


  9. Otto

    Charles is into organic farming, but it seems he doesnt use the bd method. In the film you can see that the cows on his farm are without horns, which is against bd and the nature of the cow.
    In Switzerland there was an intitiative to leave the horns for all cows but the people voted against it, but only by a small margin if I remember correstly.


  10. Otto

    Hi Jeremy
    here s a little comment on an old entry. If I post it on the proper entry of March 2016 no one will read it. You decide what to do with it.
    Thank you

    I discovered this blog only recently, in fact I wrote my first entry on the day I found it. So meanwhile I scrolled though it a bit and found interesting topics and comments. I think the older ones are „forgotten“, no one will look for new comments.
    In March this year you wrote about one of the last verses Rudolf Steiner wrote:
    Ich möchte jeden Menschen …
    I want with cosmic spirit To enthuse each human being
    I know this verse quite well, because it was one of Gerhard von Beckerath s favourite verses (I had joined his work group/reading group). And I remember that we once had a discussion about the line:
    O Bitternis, wenn das Menschending
    Gebunden wird, da wo es regsam sein möchte.
    O bitter pain, when the human thing
    Is put in bonds, when it wants to stir.
    To be precise we talked about the word Menschending, which is a word that Rudolf Steiner created, which is not found in the dictionaries.
    The different interpretations were: -Menschending means what man/the human being wants to do, what he aims for, what his cause is -another interpretation was Menschending = man s inner being, man s (inner) nature – still another: just man or human being
    It is clear that IT wants to stir refers to Menschending
    I d like to see the original handwriting, perhaps this might give a clue.
    Anyway, in our workgroup we more or less agreed on: Menschending – what man wants to do, struggle for this makes the best sense I think, but as often in Rudolf Steiner s verses there is a open space for us readers, meditants to fill which is great


  11. What a killer post! And ALL the follow up info in the comments!


    • Thank you for your very kind comment! I entirely agree with you about vin rosé, by the way – when you find a good bottle, it’s more refreshing and delicious than any other wine. It’s strange how it never seems to taste as good when you bring bottles back to your home country, though. There are also some rosés that just don’t seem to hit the spot, either, even on their native soil. Anjou rosé is always a disappointment, I find. My favourites are the “peau d’oignon” coloured roses from Provence, particularly a really good Bandol.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. rtj1211

    Permaculture is probably easier to associate with as it doesn’t have quite as much hocus-pocus as its central core.

    Biodynamics has quite a lot of ‘make xxx like this’ (BD500 and the other compost preps) and ‘apply xxx like this at certain times’. It has the feel of a religion without a bible explaining things in an enlightened way. This does not mean it does not work! The planetary gardening is part of it, but much of that was developed separately over centuries before Steiner appeared.

    As a scientist by training, I tend to assume that BD500 and the compost preps work through modifying soil ecology in positive ways (either via compost maturation or surface spraying), but I cannot find any easily obtainable reading material where anyone is exploring such hypotheses. Having tried out BD500 for a few years, I have certainly noticed it benefit fruit trees, whether it is improving my soil as opposed to my no-dig, compost-applying strategies, I do not know. But for three hours a year work, I use BD500 twice a year in late autumn and early spring.

    Horn silica spraying is apparently about ensuring optimal uptake of silica by growing plants. It should be fairly easy to test such a hypothesis scientifically and to correlate with plant performance up to harvest. But again, little science is readily available through net searches.

    Permaculture focusses more on easily accessible concepts like water management, building up water tables as a starting point. This is basic common sense really, so how you achieve it is more basic engineering and remoulding rather than witchcraft. Permaculture zoning is just basic good design principles, nothing out of the ordinary. Mulching and composting is key in permaculture and this is basic activity to any organic gardener. Systems design is also really accessible as the design basically seeks to achieve whatever the designer wishes it to achieve. It is rather like gardening but incorporating trees and animals too.

    I happen to think that biodynamics and permaculture can actually join forces, though what you might call an amalgam is anybody’s guess. Relativistic quantum mechanics was hardly original as a name for marrying quantum mechanics with special-and general relativity (marrying subatomic physics with high speed light waves in the universe), but ‘biodynamic permaculture’ would be the analogous term?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s