Category Archives: Agriculture

Is farming finished?

Bad things are usually done by people who think they are doing good things. Bad things are almost everywhere done by people who imagine that they are acting for the benefit of humanity. I was reminded of this recently by the apparent convergence of views about the future of farming from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. 

First, let’s take a look at the perspective from the left. The vegan environmentalist and campaigning journalist, George Monbiot, has been very much in the public eye recently, using a TV programme on the UK’s Channel 4 together with an appearance at the Oxford Real Farming Conference and an article in The Guardian to set out his views on the future of farming and food production.

In his TV programme, Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet, Monbiot argues the biggest problem driving us towards global disaster is how we feed ourselves, particularly on meat. He instances the ways in which agriculture, particularly the rearing of animals for meat and milk, has rid the UK of the trees and shrubs vital for a thriving ecosystem. Grazing sheep prevent tree saplings from growing, cattle emit greenhouse gases and take up land that otherwise could be re-wilded for the benefit of nature and animals, as has been demonstrated at Knepp Castle in West Sussex. Monbiot also says that English cows in conventional farming systems are fed on imported food based on palm oil kernels and soya; and thus our consumption of meat is an indirect contributor to the devastation of rainforests in other parts of the world. What is more, fertiliser, excrement and pesticides leach into rivers causing toxic algae blooms, the planet faces a soil fertility crisis, and we do not have enough space to feed a growing population. 

Monbiot believes that the existential threat posed by runaway global warming necessitates a radical reimagining of food production, as part of which we must get away from the idea of ‘farming with the grain of nature’. He argues that, to save humanity, we must stop raising animals in fields and instead, produce protein and other nutrients in laboratories. He visited a lab in Helsinki in which a company called Solar Foods grows a flour-like substance from water, air and bacteria alone. The process does require electricity, but with the rise of renewable energy, this could also be sustainable. Currently, the resulting product is ready to be used as a flour-substitute.  The programme showed Monbiot eating a pancake made from the stuff, and saying that it tasted no different from one made with conventional flour and eggs. The scientists say that, in the future, bacteria will be modified so as to produce the proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs.

This is of course a step further even than current lab-grown meat experiments, which Monbiot says are less than ideal because they still require crops to be grown and valuable land utilised in order to ‘feed’ the proteins. Monbiot argues that the subsidies currently provided to farms by the government should continue, but be directed into re-wilding and tree-planting projects instead. 

On the morning of 8th January, the day that Apocalypse Cow was to be broadcast, I listened to an interview that Monbiot gave to Charlotte Smith for BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. She asked him why he thought the future was going to be about synthetic food. He replied that farming had served humanity well for the past 12,000 years but that the Agricultural Age was coming to an end, because factory food was going to be much cheaper. Casein, whey and milk proteins (which constitute only 3% of the contents of milk) are now starting to be made at very low cost in factories and as a result dairy farming won’t be profitable any more. By the middle of this century, most farming in the world will have gone the same way.  People like cheap food and what he called “farm-free food” will be much cheaper than farmed; meat, for example, will be made in factories on what he called “collagen frameworks” from fermented water and soil microbia. For farmers, this will be like the closure of coal mines was for miners and his advice to them was “Get Out Now.” 

Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference later on the same day, Monbiot said:

“I don’t think I’m going to make many friends here today. We are on the cusp of seeing one of the greatest technological advancements for years.  We’re about to see a shift of food production from farm to factories. Farming to fermentation. Farming as we practice it today is not resilient. The shift from the farm to factory, much as you may hate it, comes in the nick of time. The only sector to be unaffected will be fruit and veg. The environment will be absolutely minimal. The best news humanity has had for a long time. I want there to be a way out for farmers, and a massive restoration of nature”.

And it’s here where we begin to see a convergence of views between Left and Right. Both sides believe that technology will save us from ourselves. Here, for example, is Dr Madsen Pirie, a founder and current president of the neo-liberal think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, in an article written for Free Market Conservatives:

“One of the most promising (technological innovations) is the move to create farm-free foods, ones that promise to greatly reduce the massive environmental footprint that farming makes. A paper I co-authored 17 months ago explored the development of cultured (“lab-grown”) meats, pointing out that the price reduction since its inception means it is poised to compete commercially with animal-grown meat, but using only 1% of the land, and leaching no fertilisers or pesticides into the environment, nor releasing methane into the atmosphere.The meat is cultured from a few animal cells that are fed with nutrients to produce what could be tons of meat. Scientists have managed to give it the texture and taste of animal meat. 

This year the Finnish firm, Solar Foods, revealed it has created protein “from thin air,” combining hydrogen split from water with atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen to enable soil bacteria to produce a protein flour they call “solein.” This is done more efficiently than plants grown with photosynthesis, and could within a decade compete with soya on price, without requiring land cleared from forests to grow on.

These developments raise the prospect of using only a fraction of current farmland to meet future food demands, leaving the way clear to reforest and “rewild” much of the land currently needed for agriculture. They herald an agriculture revolution as profound as that which happened 12,000 years ago, when humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to using crops and animal husbandry as their main food sources.

There will be a massive impact on the agricultural industry, as there are with many technological innovations, but the development will generate the wealth that can deal with this. The biggest impact, however, will not be upon the industry, but upon the planet, as we vastly reduce the footprint that agriculture makes upon it. As so often, it is the unlimited resource, that of human creativity and ingenuity, that is solving the problems.”

One irony in all of this is that many advocates of sustainable farming largely agree with Monbiot’s diagnosis of what ails conventional farming. Here, for example, is Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust: 

“The SFT agrees with almost all of George’s genuine concerns about the impact of intensive agriculture and the serious threat from global warming. But strongly disagrees with him about grazing animals, which we see as central to the development of sustainable food systems, especially in countries like the UK where grass grows exceptionally well and over half our farmland is unsuitable for cropping”.

Young also pointed out that Monbiot has built his position on exaggerated claims, occasional misquoting of a source and global statistics not relevant to the UK.  

Nir Halfon, from Plaw Hatch Farm in Forest Row, has written an excellent account of his experiences at the ORFC, including listening to the debate in which George Monbiot took part. Nir concludes his piece as follows:

“In Biodynamics, we stand by the important role which livestock has to the farm organism. We recognise the importance for them to live in alignment with their essence and character. For them to be able to experience their true nature. Imagine the landscape without cows or sheep grazing in fields or pigs rooting in woodlands. How would that look like? The land needs these animals to maintain itself and keep it fertile.

Clean air, water, shelter and food are the most important human needs. Over the years farms have become solely food production systems. This industrial food producing has had a big part to play in causing the social and environmental issues we face today. In my opinion, local, small, mixed (biodynamic) farms offer all the solutions for these issues; this needs to be highlighted in the media and the British public.”

As I indicated at the beginning of this piece, the adversarial spiritual forces work through the good intentions of human beings. Scientists, technologists – and, yes, environmentalists – are particularly vulnerable.

What both Monbiot and Pirie appear to be blind to is that food is much more than just fodder for our bodies. I have written more about this here. To quote from that piece:

“ Today we still think of food as primarily a kind of fuel for our engines; and therefore we are still without a science that can distinguish the innate qualities of foods beyond their value as fuel. Conventional medicine recognises only the physical aspect of food, which mainly amounts to counting calories and identifying the material nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates etc. But are foods a mere assembly of matter – or is there something more, such as an invisible life-energy, and a coherent, ordered template conveying essential information? (…)

…when we first put food into our mouths, what happens is that the subtle energy of the food enters into our subtle body. The food first gives us its life, its wealth of information, its capacities, its knowledge, its order force (life design principle), its memories and experiences. All these are stored in the subtle body of the food. Foods are in fact highly developed information systems that sustain life. Foods are, of course, also fuels for our engine but only at the very end of the digestive process, and after our organism has first used the food in many other ways.”

Does anyone imagine that the orange froth turned into a flour substitute in Helsinki has any subtle energy or life force left within it?

Of course, health problems won’t become apparent until people have been eating such stuff for some time. What I suspect is that richer people will continue to eat real food which nourishes body, soul and spirit and keeps alive the possibility of accessing the non-physical side of human nature; while the poor will be strongly encouraged and incentivised to eat this new factory ‘food’ which will gradually deprive them of the ability to perceive anything other than the material. We shall then see what Rudolf Steiner foresaw in this blackboard drawing:

It depicts the bifurcation of the human race into those who have the potential to know, and those who will no longer have access to knowing, what it truly means to be a human being. If farming is finished, this will be our future.


Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Farming, Organic vs Non-Organic Foods

Is biodynamics coming closer to mainstream acceptance?

I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating: if biodynamic agriculture and horticulture are ever to become mainstream, then the first signs of this are going to be in the world of fine wines.  We are already seeing evidence of this: Monty Waldin, a wine writer and biodynamic specialist, estimates that in 2017 about 5 per cent of the world’s vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic. In 1999 it was less than 1 per cent.

Something is clearly going on, because biodynamic viticulture has just been the subject of an entire column by the eminent wine writer and Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson, in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine of September 29/30th 2018. If the FT is sitting up and taking notice of biodynamic wines, then this is an indication of a significant shift in culture among the monied classes; and where they go, mainstream culture will surely follow.

True, Robinson shows no real understanding of biodynamics in her column and a sarcastic sub-editor gave it the headline “Hogwarts school of viticulture.” But she does appreciate some of the reasons why people might be wary of conventional viticulture: “Anyone who has visited a wine region and seen vineyard workers spraying chemicals so potent that they are clad as if they were investigating a Novichok incident is likely to find organically grown grapes an attractive proposition”. She goes on to say:

“The principles of biodynamics were outlined by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Many of them seem barmy. The emphasis on soil health, as in organics, is surely sensible. The postwar period of technological revolution coupled with the imperative of quantity over quality left a legacy of heavily compacted soils deprived of nutrients, organic matter and microbes. Healthy soil encourages healthy plants and I have often found extra vitality in wines that turned out to be biodynamic.

Steiner’s insistence that a farm should be a holistic ecosystem rather than a commercially efficient monoculture is a much further step away from conventional science, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in fauna to be found on the land of biodynamic practitioners.

But it is the third tenet of biodynamics that is most controversial and the reason why many rationalists dismiss it as ‘pseudoscience’. Full embrace of biodynamism involves the application of homeopathic doses of preparations based on the likes of quartz powder, camomile and nettles. Some are supposed to be buried in cow horns or other animal parts. All are supposed to be applied, and vineyard operations conducted, according to the celestial calendar.

This is the part only the most devoted biodynamic practitioners adhere to, but they assure non-believers that these can transmit energy and health to the soil, vines and grapes. Sceptical scientists point to the weakness of lunar forces. But even non-biodynamic wine producers have long been careful to time their bottling with the phases of the moon to ensure their wines are star-bright”.

Well, you can tell from all of this that Jancis Robinson is some way from any real appreciation of or insights into biodynamics – but it’s a start and it should be applauded. She goes on to list some of the starry vineyards that have adopted  biodynamic viticulture – too many to list here, I’m glad to say – but they include the very best of French producers, including chateaux in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Champagne and Alsace, as well as wine growers in Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. (There are also at least three biodynamic vineyards in the UK.)

But her column got me thinking: if the world is starting to wake up to biodynamics, is the biodynamic movement in a position to respond to meet increasing demand for knowledge, techniques and the supply of BD preparations?

This question has recently taken on a personal dimension for me. When we moved into our house in Forest Row in 2015, one of the things that attracted me to it was the garden and the possibility it gave of planting a small orchard, which is something I have wanted all my life. When I say a small orchard, I mean it: there are just fourteen fruit trees. But although it’s small, each variety was chosen very carefully, for flavour rather than yield and with pollination compatibility in mind where appropriate. There are four apple trees, three of them varieties from Sussex; three pears; one plum, one gage and one damson; one quince; one mulberry, a morello cherry and a fig. We’ve also got a soft fruit bed, with blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and blueberries (the last in large pots, so I can give them the acidic soil conditions they need).

It’s a sad fact but once you have planted your trees, you cannot just let them get on with growing. They are subject to attack from birds, animals and insects, plus all sorts of diseases and ailments – they still need your care and regular attention. Given all these problems and predations, I’m impressed that farmers and growers manage to provide us with anything to eat at all; and it’s no wonder that conventional horticulture has come up with many kinds of chemical cocktails to be sprayed at regular intervals to save some of our food and fruit from wildlife and diseases. But I’m one of those who likes to think that there is a better way of dealing with these issues and for me, organic and biodynamic are my preferred methods.

So when the gage tree, a 19thcentury variety called Early Transparent Gage and planted with loving care as a one-year old tree in our garden in December 2016, developed signs of bacterial canker on the trunk, I was devastated. There is no chemical remedy for this disease and all you can do is to cut out the signs of canker and put wound paint on the area – and since the canker is on a large area of the trunk of what is a young tree, the prognosis isn’t good.  Following advice from the excellent Briony Young, who makes the biodynamic preparations at Tablehurst Farm, I decided to cut out what I could of the canker and apply biodynamic tree paste to the wounds.

It was at this point where my question occurred about the availability of biodynamic remedies. There is no possibility of going to a garden centre to buy a tin of tree paste. Anyone seeking to use this remedy needs to assemble some ingredients, not all of which are easy to source, and then go through a fairly elaborate and lengthy preparation process.

To describe it as briefly as possible, here’s what you do. First of all, source the ingredients:

  • 1 part clay, mixed with a little rainwater and chopped up to achieve a smooth texture with no lumps
  • 1 part fine sand (or diatomaceous earth)
  • 1 part fresh cow manure
  • 1 unit of horn manure 500
  • Equisetum tea 508 made with rainwater
  • A generous handful of cow pat pit preparation (CPP)

I was fortunate in being able to get all of these ingredients from Tablehurst Farm.  Then you:

Make the equisetum tea with rainwater:


Use the tea to dissolve the horn manure and dynamise the liquid by stirring for 1 hour, creating and breaking vortices in the water:


Add the CPP for the last 20 minutes of stirring:


Pour the dynamised liquid into the bucket with the clay and then gradually stir in the fresh cow manure:


Gradually stir in the sand:


The finished tree paste should have the consistency of pancake mixture, sloppy enough to apply to tree trunks with a paintbrush. (Here it is being applied to an olive tree in a pot):


Well, quite apart from the difficulty of finding the ingredients, you can tell that all of this is a great deal of trouble and work, unlikely to be done by the average gardener. So why did my wife and I do it? It’s because as far as I know only biodynamic tree paste has the capacity to work on the bacterial canker and to heal the disease so that the tree can survive. The commercial tree wound paints are effective only if you can remove all of the canker and cut back to clean wood, which in the case of a young tree like our gage was not possible because of the extent and location of the canker.

I’ll let you know in a year or two whether the tree paste has done what we hoped for; and if it does, then I think there is a commercial opportunity for someone to make pre-prepared biodynamic tree paste widely available in garden centres for the general gardening public.  If biodynamics is to become mainstream, then ways need to be found in which these wonderful preparations and the philosophy behind them can be made less “barmy” and more widely available to amateur gardeners and professional growers alike.


Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamics

“This is a problem of nutrition.”

Mention of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer in recent posts has reminded me of the account he gives of a significant conversation with Rudolf Steiner. This was concerning the frustration experienced by Pfeiffer and others regarding their general “lack of spiritual experience in spite of all their efforts.” Dr Steiner’s reply was: “This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.”

If that was the situation a century ago, how much worse must our situation be today? Nearly one hundred years on, the combination of depleted soils, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and now GMOs are providing even less support for the growth of truly nutritious food than was the case in Steiner’s time. Today we still think of food as primarily a kind of fuel for our engines; and therefore we are still without a science that can distinguish the innate qualities of foods beyond their value as fuel. Conventional medicine recognises only the physical aspect of food, which mainly amounts to counting calories and identifying the material nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates etc. But are foods a mere assembly of matter -or is there something more, such as an invisible life-energy, and a coherent, ordered template conveying essential information?

As regular readers of this blog will know, the anthropopper is fortunate enough to work for part of the week at Tablehurst Farm, a biodynamic and organic farm in Forest Row, East Sussex in the UK. A friend and colleague, the chiropractor David Thomas, called into the farm recently to present us with a copy of an extraordinary book by the founder and leader of a small Swiss food company, A.W (Walter) Danzer, who has investigated over 50 foods, both organic and non-organic, in his own specially designed laboratory.

Walter Danzer

Walter Danzer

The book is called The Invisible Power Within Foods and is published by Verlag Bewusstes Dasein in Switzerland (ISBN 978-3-905158-17-5). In it, the author says: “I have discovered that organic foods possess an amazingly beautiful life-energy or order force (life design principle), whereas the life-energy of non-organic foods is generally weakened, disrupted or destroyed. Since I find this important I wanted to share it with you, so that you can make informed decisions.”

So far, so underwhelming, you might think – we are used to such arguments from advocates for organic and biodynamic food – but where is the scientifically credible proof of such assertions that could convince professionals in the fields of food, nutrition, health and disease? This is where Walter Danzer has made a great breakthrough. He has developed a method of researching the life-energy in water, food and other substances so as to provide images that arise solely from the water or food-substance itself, and can be understood immediately by anyone.

Danzer pays tribute to the results of pioneering predecessors: he mentions specifically the image-generating methods inspired by Rudolf Steiner, such as crystallising drops of food on a metallic matrix of copper chloride, as well as Masaru Emoto’s experiments with frozen water, and the work of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and various naturopaths. But what Danzer was looking for was a process by which a suitable image would arise solely from the water or food substance itself, rather than from a metallic matrix that yields images that can only be interpreted by those with expert knowledge.

He appears to have triumphed. His method uses a precise standardised protocol to extract a test liquid from a particular food item, which brings to the fore the life-energy or “order force” of that food. Droplets of this liquid extract are then placed into a test tube, and dried and crystallised under specified, unchanging conditions. These dried drops are then studied and photographed under a microscope. The photos show not only the life design principle or order force of the minerals inside the food item but also in a form which can immediately be interpreted by anyone, expert and non-expert alike.

Danzer’s book contains photos resulting from his work with both organic and non-organic foods and some drinks, such as green tea and wines. He has not as yet published any photos looking at organic versus biodynamic foods, or organic versus natural Japanese cultivation, etc., but may do so in the future. He has, however, looked at the influence of a microwave oven on a herb and the effect of genetic modification on the life force of soy beans.


Walter Danzer’s photos – an organic apple is on the left, non-organic on the right

What do these photos reveal? The image of an organic apple seems to contain the figure of the entire apple tree, as well as the apple blossoms, seeds and even entire orchards of apple trees. In the non-organic apple, this natural essence is hardly visible anymore. It is blurred, lost and diffused into fragments. Startlingly, even in processed foods there are great differences between organic and non-organic ones. The structural arrangement of non-organic drinks and foods are shown to be amorphous, unorganised and without signs of life. The image of a soya drink made from GM soybeans looks like a lifeless, abandoned planet. By contrast, a drink made from organic soybeans shows what appear to be branches and even six-petalled blossoms.


An organically-grown orange on the left, a non-organic orange on the right.

Danzer suggests that when we first put food into our mouths, what happens is that the subtle energy of the food enters into our subtle body. The food first gives us its life, its wealth of information, its capacities, its knowledge, its order force (life design principle), its memories and experiences. All these are stored in the subtle body of the food. Foods are in fact highly developed information systems that sustain life. Foods are, of course, also fuels for our engine but only at the very end of the digestive process, and after our organism has first used the food in many other ways.


The droplet from a grain of rice, magnified x 400 – organic on the left, non-organic on the right.

What is more, the way in which food is grown and prepared can create foods that go far beyond the power of their organic ingredients. Most of us can sense that a meal prepared lovingly by a family member is more nourishing for us than a factory-made ready meal; the life inside us also needs subtle nourishment. Humans, farm animals and pets need naturally grown foods that are both materially and subtly wholesome, and thus able to support life. Danzer’s photos show that there are foods that fulfill this need on a fundamental level – and these are organic foods.

For many consumers, of course, organic foods cost more than they are able or prepared to pay. Yet it is a fact that conventional agriculture incurs costs that the consumer is paying for in other ways but which do not affect the prices in the supermarkets. Water pollution, toxic residues in the entire food chain, antibiotic resistance, soil erosion, soil nutrient loss, desertification, poisoning of the honey bee, etc., are just some of the consequences of our current model of industrial agriculture – all of which the consumer will have to pay for, in one way or another – not to mention the health-weakening effects of eating non-organic foods.

In a just society, the ‘polluter pays’ principle would operate here – companies such as Monsanto and Bayer and non-organic farmers would be required to meet the full external costs of industrial farming. There is an excellent organisation in the UK (the Sustainable Food Trust) that has set out the case for True Cost Accounting here.

When true cost-pricing is finally brought about, in the face of huge resistance from all the vested interests, it is likely that organic foods will have lower prices than non-organic foods. There is already one nation, Bhutan, which has decided to allow only organic agriculture within its borders by the year 2020. If Bhutan can do this, there is no reason why other countries cannot set out on a similar path.


Filed under Agriculture, Organic vs Non-Organic Foods

Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.



Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism

The Milk of Human Kindness

When the anthropopper was a boy growing up in north London, milk was delivered in pint bottles to our doorstep by the milkman from either the London Co-operative Society or the rival United Dairies. You had a choice of Gold Top, ie milk from Jersey cows with an inch or two of cream at the top of the bottle, ideal for pouring out onto desserts or fruit salads; Silver Top, which was whole milk with less cream than Jersey milk; Red Top, which was homogenised milk. By special request, you could occasionally get Green Top, which was raw (unpasteurised) milk. There was also sterilised milk, a kind of precursor of UHT milk, which came in a different pint bottle with a metal crown cap instead of a foil top and you needed a beer bottle opener to get at it.

UD milkman

A United Dairies milkman in the 1950s. (photo via

It was considered anti-social not to wash out the bottles before returning them. I can remember being outraged by the snobbishness of a comment, from the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, that when she was out canvassing for the Conservatives, she could always tell if a household voted Labour because those were the houses where the people didn’t wash their milk bottles before putting them out on the step.

Following legislation from the Attlee–led Labour government after the Second World War, each child at school was entitled to one-third of a pint of milk (one bottle per pupil), which you either drank with a straw from a big box of Sweetheart brand straws, or if you were a boy and wanted to show off, you drank straight from the bottle. School milk was stopped by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, and she was promptly dubbed “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for this mean-spirited edict.

Autre temps, autre moeurs. Decades later there are few, if any daily doorstep deliveries and instead people get their milk once or twice a week in cartons or plastic bottles from the supermarkets. All milk is pasteurised and most of it is heavily processed, homogenised and either semi-skimmed or skimmed. Raw milk is unavailable in shops. As milk has become more and more processed to ensure longer shelf life, milk allergies are becoming more frequent and many doctors are having to advise their patients to avoid milk products altogether. What is more, supermarkets which use milk as a ‘loss leader’ are said to be placing intolerable pricing pressures on dairy farmers to provide cheaper and cheaper milk. These farmers are warning that the price of milk, which has fallen to just 22p a pint in the likes of Asda, Aldi and Iceland, and is now cheaper than some bottled water, could force many of them out of business unless drastic action is taken. The number of dairy farms in Britain has halved since 2002, to fewer than 10,000, and a further reduction is expected, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

The results of all this on animal welfare can be imagined. When more and more cattle are penned together, they are likely to become stressed and consequently to do one another and the cowman harm. In such a situation, horns are seen as an impediment to easy management and even as a danger, so the cows are routinely de-horned. Horns, however, are far more than just two things that sit on top of the cow’s head. To quote from a leaflet issued by my local biodynamic farm:

Horns are sense organs and have a very real function within the whole metabolism of the organism. This function is often difficult to describe because it concerns organic processes which go beyond what is immediately sense-perceptible. Cattle with horns are more awake and discerning of their fodder. Horns are made of hard siliceous substances and through their unique form have the capacity to prevent the dissipation of vital forces released through the animal’s metabolism. They are instead reflected back, ‘digested’ once again and incorporated within the animal’s excretion products. It is this function of the horn within the organism of the cow which is later made use of in the preparation of biodynamic horn manure. It is, however, not only the quality of manure which is affected, but also that of …the milk.

I don’t understand why it is that animal welfare groups, who campaign for humane conditions for farm animals and the right of these animals to express their true nature, have not taken up the issue of de-horning cattle. De-horned cattle are animals which have been deprived of a vital part of their anatomy mainly for economic reasons.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The anthropopper is fortunate enough to live near a biodynamic farm, where he can buy raw milk in glass bottles, at a cost of 90p per pint plus 50p returnable deposit on the bottle. The milk comes from the farm’s own herd of beautiful Meuse Rhine Issel (MRI) cattle, each of which has its horns. You can read more about them here.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

The farm also has its own dairy, which produces cream, yoghurt, kefir and wonderful cheeses, all made from raw milk. Raw milk has more nutrients than its pasteurised equivalent, tastes better and it’s said that many people with milk allergies can drink it without ill effects. All I know is that the dairy products are excellent, the cows are happy and so are the customers.

Is raw milk safe? Pasteurisation, after all, was introduced to protect people from the danger of catching tuberculosis, listeria and brucellosis via milk – and milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth. There is a useful discussion of the issues here:

At my local biodynamic farm, the milk is tested routinely by the Food Standards Agency (as is standard procedure for all dairy farms) for different bacterial types, TB and brucellosis and other harmful organisms. The farm also undergoes a programme of voluntary testing for all dairy produce. The dairy is an ‘assured premises’ which means that it has been passed by the Environmental Health Office and to show this carries the health mark We005UK. I’m convinced that not only is the milk safe to drink, it’s actually an outstanding source of nutrients including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus, vitamins, enzymes and calcium.

I realise that most people are not able to buy raw milk because they are nowhere near an outlet. But here’s a very useful map of all those farms in the UK that provide raw milk.


Please support these farms, because they are making a stand against the bullying of producers by supermarkets. They are also farms where you will find higher animal welfare standards and more sustainable agricultural methods. Bear in mind, though, that in most cases it’s only the biodynamic farms that will produce their raw milk from cattle with horns – and it’s these biodynamic practices that lead to the highest animal welfare and the very best raw milk and dairy products available anywhere.

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Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, De-horning cattle, Raw Milk