Biodynamics in India – and a Greater Human Destiny

Sundeep Kamath is the General Secretary of the All India Organic Network Association. He’s the former secretary of the Biodynamic Association of India and is currently advising the federal government of Bhutan on certifications, the state government of Nagaland and several municipalities and provinces in the Philippines on their plans to fully convert to organic. He was on the Executive Committee of the Anthroposophical Society in India and is a founder parent of the Bangalore Waldorf School, the Bangalore Steiner School. Questions asked by Will Bratton on the Biodynamic Guild Podcast. 

How and when did you find Biodynamics?

Yeah, that’s a very, very interesting story. About 13, 14 years ago, I was a regular guy, having a leadership position at America Online, if you would believe it. I was watching TV one day where a guy was riding a horse on a stage, talking about the relationship of the cosmos to the soil, and it touched my heart. Somehow something in me said that this is what I have to do. The only two things I got from that program was the two words actually, Biodynamics and Steiner. And of course, I was on the treadmill of work. But one of the gifts which I received from the pursuit of Anthroposophy is finding my destiny. Just watching that program, something in my inner core knew what I had to do – and before that, I had nothing to do with farming. I was heading a charter for a big corporate office. After that, we had an Anthroposophy training here, a medical training very close to the office. I went to that basically to find out more about Biodynamics. There I met my first mentor in Anthroposophy, Dr. Michaela Glöckler. She was heading the Medical Section at that time. And I told her, Doctor Michaela, I want to I want to do something with Biodynamics. And she told me that Bangalore needed a Waldorf School and that I should start a Waldorf School instead. I told her I knew nothing about education – not that I knew anything about farming. I said, «How would I start a school?» This went on each day through the seven-day training program, this back and forth – I would say agriculture, and she would say education. On the last day, she told me, «Why don’t you start the school on a farm?» 

And that’s what happened a couple of years after that – she came in 2010 and inaugurated the first Waldorf School in Bangalore, the Bangalore Steiner School, where I was a founding parent, alongside seven other parents and 11 children. We started at my friend’s farm. So, I did that for a couple of years. I quit my job, and in two years’ time, the school really grew. We crossed 100 kids, I think, in our third year of operation. Then Michaela supported me to attend my first agriculture conference in Dornach. Before that, I met my first teacher in Biodynamics here, Jayakaran ‘Jakes’ Chelladurai, and along with him, we started a college. He created that whole idea. I was handling the teaching and fundraising. And it was really exciting for me to work with young people and ensure that they don’t go into the cities and become almost like refugees in the cities, because when they come here they have very low-paying jobs like security guards or cab drivers and live in slums – they can really have a good life if they can be professional farmers. The college still continues. They shortened the program to a year, and my teacher and I are no more involved in that, but I was on the board for a term and then I was secretary for two terms. And I call myself now a ‹Biodynamic Evangelist›, you know, going everywhere. I also make a part of my income from giving advice to large projects converting to Biodynamic. More than that, Biodynamic Evangelist really describes what I do the most.

Can you tell us some about the history of Biodynamics in India?

That’s a very, very interesting history. About a couple of years ago, a friend of mine gave me a newspaper, a small newspaper magazine, Biodynamics USA, from 1957, I think it was. There was a lady called Evelyn Speiden Gregg, a student of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who had come to India in 1956, or something like this, bringing a set of preparations, the 500 preparations, your compost starters. That’s what we know – at least documented the first documented use of the preparations for compost making in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. After that, there are two projects in India in the mid-80s. One is Makaibari Tea which decided to go Demeter and the second project was in the South again, called Kurinji, which works with mangoes. And these two projects are the first two projects to go Demeter in India. They had advisors coming from Germany. 

You know, in the 80s there was no organic standard, so to say, because you didn’t have your American National Organic Program, you didn’t have your Indian and European programs, and even the EU was ten years coming. So even before these national organic standards came into being, Demeter was one of the major industry projects. In 1993, there were a bunch of Gandhians who were very interested in organic agriculture in a place called Indore in southern India. This moment gives me goosebumps – they had gone to New Zealand for a study trip on organic agriculture, and there they met a man called Peter Proctor who was talking about Biodynamics, and they became very interested and invited him over. So, in 1993 we had the first Biodynamic training on how to make the BD 500 preparations and about the planting calendar in this place called Indore, which used to be the capital of the central state Madhya Pradesh in India. And very interestingly, Indore was the place where 70 years before, Sir Albert Howard made the indoor type of composting.

So organic agriculture really had a first kind of awakening through ‹The Agricultural Testament›, the book written by Sir Albert Howard, who was in India and discovered their traditional methods of agriculture and compost there, and not so far away from that site, in the same agriculture college, BD 500 preparations were taught. So, it’s a very, very special place. And like I told you, Evelyn came and gave the preparations in a place called the Fellowship Ashram. In 1995, Peter and my teacher started the longest-running Biodynamic training program, which happens every year. So, these two places where the trainings have been going on have a history of Biodynamics in the South and are really the centers where organic agriculture was born. And after that, it’s grown by leaps and bounds because the Indian farmers were really ready to take to Biodynamics for a couple of reasons. Number one is that the cow is very central to Indian agriculture, so nearly every farmer in India has a cow. And having a cow as a central part of agriculture is very, very favorable. They also remember the planting calendar from their grandfathers. I do a lot of Biodynamic training across the country, and I don’t really encounter any barriers. They just accept it so easily and they feel that it’s a part of them. 

When I was the secretary, we did a study, and we estimate that there are about 100,000 farmers who practice some kind of Biodynamics. The typical method of measuring organic farmers or Biodynamic farmers is by certification, but in this part of the world, certification is not that common. We may have a few thousand certified farmers, but uncertified farmers who use some part of Biodynamics is, we estimate, to be more than 100,000, which we arrive at because of the number of preparations sold. So, it’s very exciting to be there now. It’s growing tremendously. We have Biodynamics already in our government policy, for example. As a Biodynamic farmer, you can receive some subsidies for compost making and as a company that is promoting Biodynamics and doing Biodynamic training, you can get some subsidies from the government. 

I was also in the Philippines a couple of weeks ago and found out then that Biodynamic preparations are approved and put in the Philippine organic standard. It’s much easier in this part of the world because there is not so much of an intellectual jump needed, I think because once the farmers use it, they see the magic of Biodynamics. I’m working now on a rice project, for example, which has been organic for many years, and the minute they went Biodynamic, they saw a darker shade of green in the paddy fields compared to the organic. They see all the rice stalks really standing upright, almost like soldiers. And because they see these changes, they take to it quite fast.

Can you tell us more about the culture of preparation-making in India?

Like I said, many small farmers who take up Biodynamics and make the field preparations to find it is easy to do. The final one, though, is a bit challenging to do – the compost preparations take a lot of work. When Peter was here, he set up a couple of centers in India. One was in 91 in the Himalayas and another in the south, where the training happens with my teacher Jakes. These two were the primary preparation suppliers for most of the farming in India. It’s not like you have in America where each farmer is making his own preparations because first of all, for the compost preparation, it’s not easy to get all the flowers everywhere. And also, while the 500 is easy to do, the final one, getting the parts and grinding it, is quite difficult for many small farmers, for such a small quantity. The average farmer in India is less than a hectare and all farmers have a cow – so they have milking and dairy operation already built in and there’s much work to do.

So they would have to spend a few hours making a preparation which they would only need one gram of. It’s really not time effective. So most projects and most farmers actually buy the preparations. We also have a couple of large projects, you know, which are about a thousand-acre coffee estate and a 14-strong estate. They make large quantities of preparations for themselves, and many other large projects also make their own 500 and 501, but the compost preparation is always bought from outside, and I estimate we would be using something like 15 to 20 kilos of the compost preparations and in the number of horns being buried, I think it would be close to 150,000, 170,000 horns are being buried by these operations nationwide. You know, we don’t have very large horns. Mostly we have medium-sized horns, and you get a harvest of 80 grams to under 100 grams. So if you have one horn per acre as a standard, that comes out to approximately 150-170,000 horns.

Can you share with us some of the nuance and challenges of working with the bovine parts in a largely Hindu nation?

This a very interesting question and very, very relevant to our current time, because a few years ago, six, seven years ago, we had no problem. The preparations could be made everywhere. We have such a large cattle population – 300 million – that even if you take 10% of them dying every year, it’s still quite a lot. And there was an ecosystem where we had kind of slaughterhouses or cow shelters where they could go. Then a few years back, we got a right-wing party coming in and they started this cow slaughter ban – not in all states, but in the majority in the north. This caused an immediate stop of trade even in meat in some areas. And if there is no slaughter of cattle happening – even not being able to take the horns from dead cattle – it’s very difficult to get the parts. And because of this restriction, people are very hesitant to touch anything which is made with cow parts. Having said that, that’s not all over the country. In the South, for example, we are much more liberal and in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we can freely make them. But in certain parts, it is getting to be a problem. Instead, people use goats. But because of the huge amount of cattle we have, cow horns should not be a problem. 

I’m in a rice project right now, which is going to double their farmers, and they do about 10-12,000 horns now. And we will have to take that up to 25,000 horns. So, we have to source another 12-13,000 horns. And in a state where this is very strict, we aren’t able to get that. Similarly in the Philippines, where I’m doing a project with the municipality and we need that 10,000 horns, and that’s almost impossible to get because the municipality just slaughters four cattle a week. We still work out a way, but the other part of compost-making is a challenge in certain parts of India.

Can you speak to kind of the cultural implications?

When we talk about other indigenous forms, there is this past that is glorified, which is not really relevant or true. You could say the past is being kind of altered. If you look at Indian agriculture, we never were in agriculture, it didn’t start here. Real agriculture started in Mesopotamia, where cattle were domesticated. And then they had these seeds and the seeds started growing. We were primarily hunter-gatherers. Most of our traditional knowledge – I’m not talking about what Albert Howard did, but I’m talking really ancient times and a thousand years ago was more thousands of years ago – was more about plants, trees, about horticulture. And at that time they would use a lot of liquid manure with animal parts. In those days, in India, the cow was not domesticated. So, they would use wild boar, which was found in the forest, to make a liquid combination. There was always a meat-eating part. If you look at the west of India, Kerala, or the northeast, meat-eating is really in the culture. So that has been this political kind of situation where there’s been a kind of polarization.

We are actually one of the largest meat exporters in the world – I think we are number two now. So even though cow slaughter is banned, we export the most beef and buffalo meat in the world. It’s a kind of paradoxical kind of situation. Of course, we also have a vegetarian culture. The cow is very venerated. You know, even Peter Procter when he came here was very surprised to see we consider that the cow has all the gods in her. You know, if you see some pictures from India, you’ll see all the pictures of our gods with the cow. So, the cow has always been venerated. But there was no problem with taking parts from a dead cow. You could go to the graveyard and get the parts. But now with this political matter, even that has become difficult in certain parts of India.

Along those lines, are there any other alternative prep sheaths or otherwise that are being used – botanicals, or anything unique to India that people are trying?

Again, it’s a very big paradox. We use some parts which are not available at all in some parts of the country – for example, the stag bladder or the oak, which is only present in the Himalayas. So why can’t we get alternates? We have a problem with Valerian worldwide. They’re looking for an alternative to Valerian. Likewise, deer hunting is banned in India, so the stag bladder can’t do, so there is a need for alternatives. But the need can be met by only people who first get very familiar with the preparations. Then when you have a kind of familiarity, you can use it in observation models to look for alternatives. We use Jatamansi as an alternative to Valerian in Ayurveda, but it doesn’t flower at all. It’s a totally different kind of Valerian. And the gesture of the plant is very different. So, somebody who works with a Valerian prep, making it, looking at the plant can then look for that. There is a lot of positive news in the Philippines. We found something which is very close to a substitute. There is also work is going on right now, with the cow skull and the goat skull. Steiner also mentions that. The quantity of harvesting is very low, as is the size of the skull. I have done experiments at a project in Thailand with buffalo horns, and we were not happy at all with the quality of the BD 500 which came from the Buffalo horn. So as a project, we, you know, we didn’t continue that. Even though you get large quantities since the buffalo horns are quite big. But having said that, the buffalo horn in certain places like China is allowed by the Demeter standard to use, but when we use them in Thailand, we could really see a clear difference in the 500 between a cow horn and the buffalo horn and the cow horn was just better according to our sensory experience.

Tell us about this project that you’re working on with the Asian Fellowship of Preparation Makers.

Actually, started with you guys – I was very inspired by your fellowship of the American preparation makers that meet once a year. I also heard stories from the French Association where if someone had a bad harvest of camomile, and then you would ask around the network and if somebody had more camomile, they would share ingredients. So, we had a plan, especially now that the Philippines and Thailand is going so much more into Biodynamics and they have such large requirements, and we cannot just carry the preparations across, not only from a legal point of view but also from a sustainable point of view. So, it makes more sense that they start making the preparations locally and for that they need the ingredients. Sometimes they need the dried flowers, but they need knowledge. So, we are planning trainings there every year. The idea of the Asian Fellowship of Preparation Makers is to support every country in being self-sufficient in the quantity of preparation they need as well as in their knowledge. Hopefully in the next couple of years, once people have put in the preparations two or three times, they will be confident to do it themselves. So, I’m very excited that the Federation approved this project and we have a kind of seed funding from them.

I was struck by a statement in the project objective, from a gentleman from Thailand named Sam, that he felt he was going to a wedding in a borrowed suit and that he wanted his own suit. Can you speak to that idea?

You know, there is a school of thought which comes from Australia, that preparation-making is a kind of master craft that can be done by only the chosen few on some mountain somewhere, even though we’re in the tropics. This was the prevailing thought in many parts of Asia. In India, we were lucky because we had Peter Proctor and in Sri Lanka, there was Richard Ponting. So, we learned early that, yes, the flowers grow somewhere and then you can take them to places where it’s impossible for them to grow. Unfortunately, in the rest of Asia, the Australian school of thought was dominating, the thought was that you had to always get these preparations from Australia, that the preparations could never be made by you and me, because we are not exalted souls or have some kind of qualification. Our system of thinking that everybody can make the preparation is very democratic. 

When I go for my projects in Thailand, first we take the preparations, then we take the ingredients for the preparation, and then we start taking the seeds for the flowers and do these trainings. And slowly on their way they come. So what Sam was alluding to was this spirit of, «Maybe we don’t have the best craft right now, but at least it’s mine and I’m learning.» And every year you get a little better. And I see that with this 500 it is. He can now differentiate the very good quality 500 with the cow horn and how it’s coming out with the buffalo horn. And this year, I’m very excited that he’s going to do this compost workshop with Harold, and maybe in two or three years, the compost preparations also will be made, which I think are as good quality as any – and that that is proven by working on the field. You can see the reaction of the plants to it. You can see the aura in the farm. You can feel that the preparations are really, really working there. So that’s what the idea was – to take away this thinking that the preparations can be only made by a special few on some mystical mountain somewhere, but can be made by anybody anywhere.

For example, we have made these in Timbuktu, a very well-known project, which won the Organic World Prize, which is the second hottest and second driest place in India. I mean, the temperatures go there to 45 degrees centigrade. I don’t know how much that’s in Fahrenheit, but it’s really, really hot and it’s very dry – you know, only millimeters of rain. In such a place, by getting flowers and ingredients from outside, we made excellent quality preparations for two years. I’ve worked with preparations now for a decade, and from the sensory experience, they really smell good, they feel good, and they work well. And that’s what the Asian Fellowship is hoping to provide to the people who want to start doing this.

Shifting gears a little bit – what calendar do you use? And are you or do you know of anyone in India doing any interesting Astro-Agricultural research or development?

We initially got the calendar from Peter, in the southern hemisphere in New Zealand, which we would flip to use in the northern system. Our president, who was the head of the Hare Krishna movement, had a very big farm in Mysore, so he took it on during his presidency to make the calendar himself. He used something that we call the Lahiri Ephemeris, which is printed out in India. I think the difference is that we have these two astronomical models. There’s the Sidereal model, which you call the Vedic model, or the Tropical, which is the Western model. The Lahiri follows the Vedic model. Because of that, there’s a slight gap between these two systems. So, our planting calendar is based on the Vedic system. But it works really well. We’ve done some experiments here. You can make out the difference between the root crop, or if you plant a radish during the leaf time, you have a very leafy radish and less root. And we’ve seen misshapen outcomes during the Nodes. So that has worked well for us. 

Unfortunately, in India, this has been acknowledged, but it was always by word of mouth. It was never documented like other systems. We know of many poems written in Kerala and other places where the farmers would sing, which talk about the almanac. Unfortunately, these were never documented. They were just passed by word of mouth. And that’s not a very reliable way of passing information these days. So, there are no planting almanacs even though they were once part of our agriculture. This is why I’m really grateful to Albert Howard, and I think the organic movement should be because he took these Indian methods of agriculture and documented them in his book, ‹The Agriculture Testament›. He documented how our waste products were used for compost, things about crop rotation, and how trees were planted – he brought all these things from the Indian systems which were practiced but not documented.

So, in terms of Astrological systems for Agriculture, I’ve been looking very hard for documents. You know, we have Ayurveda, which is a healing medical system for humans, but many people don’t know there is something called Vrikshayurveda, and Vriksh means plant. This was written by a man called Surupala, but this was found in England because one of them if you want to do research on ancient Indian texts, all of the material is lying in Oxford and Cambridge, and London. You know, it’s well preserved over there. It’s not in India. And there was a man called Dr. Nene who went there and found this text in Oxford, and then he really popularized it a decade ago. And he set up an institute in Hyderabad. They could only follow this text. Now Surupala talked a lot about liquid manures. You know, as I said, even animal parts were used in that. But it was limited to trees. It did not have anything to do with any of our crops. 

But they had very, very interesting connections. They could even change the color of a flower on a tree, for example. So, he has kind of concoction they could make, you know, they could change the color of flowers. And they talked about general health and very, very briefly touched upon the link of certain trees to planets. So, it was not so deeply done. There are still poems, but we have to be very, very careful with this rewriting of history that we don’t corrupt or glorify any of that knowledge. I have attended a few talks with people alluding to it, but there is no text to point to. And that’s why it’s so great that Steiner in the Agricultural Lectures explains these things and these impacts, which are very similar to our knowledge here. But there is no documentation.

Tell us about some of these consulting projects you’re currently working on in Thailand and the Philippines and all over.

In India right now, I’m working on a project for Basmati rice, which is very popular – they want to double their production of Biodynamic rice. We have a lot of projects in India that I’m not advising, but I’m helping source a buyer in Germany with spices, and we are the largest Biodynamic tea producer in the world. We also do a lot of mangoes in India, but mainly spices. 

In Thailand, Sam is a very interesting pioneer because he bought a piece of land that was a disaster zone. It was used for sand mining and it was really, really poor soil – I mean, if there was any soil. He’d been doing organic for 20 years and didn’t have any solutions. But then he found Biodynamics. And you could see in just one year the change in the soil by applying the preparations. That is his vegetable farm. He also has a 350-hectare coconut farm, and his vegetable farm is 12 hectares. And in the vegetable farm, we started doing Biodynamics in 2016. And it’s incredible – the change on the farm and the quality of the products. He makes Thai curry there and coconut milk from his farm and very soon that will be available in Demeter quality. 

In the Philippines, they want to start an association now because they had a history of Biodynamics before and it kind of was done in spots and in small locations. And now they want to come together. The biggest story there is a municipality, Kauswagan led by Mayor Rommel, a very incredible Mayor who brought peace and prosperity to that municipality by starting his Arms to Farms program. You know, this was a war-torn municipality. There were Muslim terrorists who were fighting for land, and there were always bombs and killings. And he brought up this concept of getting all these terrorists to become farmers by saying that if you give up your rifles and drop your guns, I will give you land and you can start farming. And now all of these people are organic farmers. And after doing now organic for ten years, they want to go to the next level and they want to go biodynamic. So that’s a very challenging project, which I will be reaching out to the worldwide BD community because it’s 8000 hectares, nearly 20,000 acres to do with all kinds of crops and to be the first Biodynamic municipality. It’s on the smaller side of a municipality in the Philippines, but it’s a start to do Biodynamics on scale. We can convert a whole municipality, a whole town into Biodynamics. 20,000 acres or 8000 hectares is still quite a lot.

What a meaningful mission. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

I’d just say that I’m very happy you started the Guild. I think we can build more on that – we really need it. It is a craft, you know? It is an art form, making the preparations. So, more power to you. And I hope you will join us in our projects here. As a community, we don’t have to be local. If you look at the climate crisis – it’s something which cannot be done by America alone or India alone. We have to do it together. We really have to join our hands and it has to be done together. Same with the food crisis in many countries. In Sri Lanka, they are having a huge crisis right now. Biodynamic Agriculture is the answer to these problems of food security and climate change. Only by joining hands together, in association can we address these concerns. I’m a father of two kids. One of the main reasons I do what I do is to leave something a little better, to make places which are more meaningful for them. We don’t want to leave deserts for our children. And that’s why I hope that we can all work together and really address these crises in our own small ways.

Exactly – a greater human destiny. Again, thank you, Sundeep. You can find Sundeep listed as a Biodynamic Federation Advisor at Biodynamic Advisors and at Mandala Solutions and of course the Biodynamic Guild. Thank you very much again for joining us, Sundeep.

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