in a coffee cup
The Indian experience
in biodynamic coffee
By Aparna Datta
This coffee is rare. So rare, in fact, that it is cultivated
in fewer than a dozen farms around the world. Its personality
type is 'deep green', even spiritual, and its got a "wellness"
glow. It's so far beyond organic that it requires its own
moniker: biodynamic. And it's from India.
Coffee from India? Biodynamic? Be pleasantly surprised.
Over the past decade, the latest chapter in the biodynamic
saga has been scripted on a couple of coffee estates in the
Western Ghats of South India. The Indian version of biodynamic
agriculture is unique, blending age-old Vedic agricultural
practices with European science to supplant the chemical dependency
that has marked the so-called Green Revolution, and establish
a paradigm for coffee growing that is environmentally sustainable
and economically feasible. It's as if Dr. Rudolf Steiner's
revolutionary mantra has finally come home.
A Holistic Approach
The origins of biodynamic agriculture date back to a series
of lectures delivered in 1924, by Austrian scientist and philosopher
Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), on the initiative of German
farmers. In the early years of the 20th century, Europe was
already witnessing degeneration in grain and other crops,
and farmers sought to deal with the difficult issues of the
production-oriented approach to agriculture that required
constant and ever-increasing chemical inputs to sustain output.
The series of eight lectures, known as "The Agriculture
Course," became the basis of a holistic approach that
is now recognized as a variant of organic farming. Yet in
evolutionary terms it is light years ahead. Key to the method
is the fusion of the concepts in anthroposophy, Steiner's
spiritual doctrine that focuses on the nature of mankind and
human development, with agricultural practice. This elevated
farming from the material level and gave it a mystical dimension.
An ideal biodynamic farm is a self-sufficient unit, a closed
ecosystem that produces its own compost, seeds and livestock.
It operates within the larger context of the local community
and the rhythms and relationship of nature and the cosmos.
Biodynamic coffee farming thrives around the world. The
original biodynamic plantation is Finca Irlanda, situated
on the rugged slopes of the Sierra Madre in Chiapas, Mexico.
Rodolfo and Walter Peters started this farm in 1928, when
the Demeter logo was introduced, and when Demeter initially
formulated the standards for quality control. Café
Altura was the first to introduce biodynamically grown Finca
Irlanda coffees into the United States in 1993. Dragon Roast
Coffee offers 100-percent biodynamic Kona coffee grown on
the Demeter-certified Dragon Farm of Honaunau, Hawaii. Freeze-dried
biodynamic coffee from Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, is said
to be the first certified organic instant. And Café
Luna offers biodynamic coffee sourced from the Indigenous
Peoples of Sierra Madres of Motozintla (ISMAM), a native Mayan
farmer cooperative in Mexico.
While the movement is new to India, its principles have
been part of agricultural practice throughout the Vedic period,
which reaches back to 1500 B.C. As A.L Basham writes in The
Wonder That Was India (1954), "[ancient] Greek travelers
were very impressed by the fertility of India's soil and the
energy and ability of her cultivators...Ancient India knew
the use of manure, and the Arthasastra lays down several rules...which
indicate a well-developed agricultural technique."
Even today, Indian farmers respond instinctively to the
concept of the "planting calendar". This ancient
almanac, known variously as Panchanga or Panjika amongst Hindu
communities in different regions, is still used to identify
auspicious days for the sowing of seeds, business endeavors
and religious ceremonies. Knowledge of planetary and cosmic
rhythms, and their influence on plants, is used to plan agricultural
activities. The Hindu reverence for the cow, viewed in the
context of the pivotal role it plays in a biodynamic farm,
is yet another link.
Rooted In Science
Biodynamic agriculture has strong scientific foundations,
with proven results, widely acknowledged by a devoted band
of practitioners all over the world. Interestingly, internationally
renowned biodynamic experts have joined hands with Indian
consultants and planters in developing biodynamic agriculture
in India. Tadeu Caldas of Ecotropic, UK initiated the movement
at Ambootia Tea Estate in Darjeeling in 1994. Tea in fact
set the stage for the adoption of biodynamic agriculture in
plantations: early converts included Makaibari and Selimbong,
both Darjeeling estates, and Singampatti and Korakundah tea
estates in South India.
Dr. Peter Proctor of Biodynamic Outreach, a New Zealand
company, has worked on several projects across India over
the past 10 years. "The call now all over the world is
for organic agriculture, because people are increasingly aware
of the impact of chemicals on the soil, water and air, and
of course, our food," Proctor says. "The role of
biodynamic preparations is to act as catalysts to improve
the soil. In a nutshell, the biodynamic management system
actually makes organic farming work. In India these processes
work very well because of the warmth of Indian soils, with
results and improvement in soil structure and plant growth
seen in four to five months, as compared to temperate zones
where the change takes somewhat longer due to the climate."
Currently, several South Asian consultants are active in
the field, including New Delhi-based Natura Agrotechnologies,
a company using techniques that bridge biodynamic and Vedic
agricultural processes. Besides coffee and tea, wheat, rice,
sugarcane, a wide variety of spices, fruits and vegetables,
and cotton are now being cultivated using biodynamic processes.
Today, India has its own Biodynamic Association, known as
BDAI. Since 1994, it has regularly conducted basic and advanced
courses in biodynamic agriculture at Kodaikanal.
A pioneer in developing biodynamic coffee in India is David
Hogg, resident manager at Nandanvan Estate, situated in the
Palani Hills near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu state. A New Zealander
by birth, David has made India his home, and in 1997 started
the first full-scale experiment with biodynamically cultivated
arabica coffee. Nandanvan is essentially a coffee garden attached
to a bungalow with a glorious view of the Ghats. The estate
comprises 28 acres of coffee planted at an elevation of 4500
feet along a steep hillside. It is picked, processed, roasted,
ground, and packed entirely on the farm.
Biodynamic activities complement other estate routines such
as coffee processing, utilizing innovative racks for coffee
drying, and attention to cup quality. Nandanvan organic coffee
has been developed into a brand – Moca Café,
an up-scale coffee bar in Chennai run by Spaniard Marc Tormo,
exclusively serves and retails 'Nandan Royale' as a single-origin,
single-estate specialty coffee, certified by the Swiss Institute
for Marketecology (IMO). For this niche estate brand, selling
into the domestic market in value-added form is working out
to be more profitable, as international marketing entails
Nourishing The Body
Steiner called the soil an organ of the agricultural body.
Maintaining soil fertility and vitality requires compost,
made from farmyard manure and plant material, as fertilizer.
The ideal approach is to produce the compost on site, which
is why at Poabs Organic Estates, situated in the Nelliyampathy
Hills in Kerala state, so far the only Demeter-certified coffee
estate outside of Central America, there are fully integrated
systems to support biodynamic agriculture.
The 500-hectare Poabs Organic Estate, said to be the largest
perennial multi-crop organic estate in the world, has an average
elevation of 3500 feet, and grows coffee and tea along with
inter-crops of pepper, cardamom, orange, and vanilla. Arabica
and robusta coffees are planted over 280 hectares in two estate
units. Certified by Demeter, the oldest organic certification
label for biodynamic products, since April 2003, the estate
is a veritable demonstration farm for biodynamic processes.
Intrinsic to the system is the infrastructure for the arcane
"preparations", which in the lexicon of biodynamic
agriculture are coded BD 500 through BD 507, comprising cow
manure and herbal formulations.
Poabs maintains 350 cows on the estate that supply the essential
ingredient for what is known as cow horn manure. In this procedure,
the dung of a lactating cow is stuffed into the hollow of
cow horns, which are then buried in a pit in early autumn,
and taken out in the following spring, by which time the contents
have matured into manure rich in humus, resembling forest
soil in the high ranges. The Poabs estate also maintains a
nursery to grow the various herbs such as yarrow, chamomile,
stinging nettle, dandelion and valerian, which are used in
homeopathic doses as soil conditioners.
"We started the conversion to biodynamic agriculture
in 2000, and after three years of regeneration, the estate
is thriving," says Thomas Jacob, director of Poabs Group.
"But getting to this point has required a lot of commitment,
in terms of finance and will power. This estate dates back
to 1889, and before the Poabs Group took over in 1989, it
had lain abandoned for 16 years. We first worked on the infrastructure,
such as putting in check dams, brought in tea as an additional
crop, and enhanced the social welfare for the workers who
had been neglected earlier. Compared to conventional farming,
biodynamic agriculture requires practically double the effort.
Fortunately, we have seen a significant drop in the incidence
of pest and disease attacks ever since we converted our farm
to biodynamic processes."
On such a scale, biodynamic agriculture turns into a corporate
venture, primarily geared for green coffee exports. At Poabs,
the motive is value creation: the improvement of farm property
via sustainable and ethical choices. In today's market, that
means amassing the relevant certifications. Besides receiving
a certification through Demeter, Poabs is also farm certified
by organic certifiers Naturland and Skal International, so
that the estate conforms to requirements under NOP of USDA
and JAS. BVQI of UK has awarded Poabs an ISO 9001:2000 rating
for quality management systems at the farm, and HACCP norms
are in place.
The Certification Loop
Varying national standards for organic foods in importing
countries, and the recent U.S.-specific FDA bio-terrorism
regulations, has Indian exporters worried. The multiple certifications
required, (there are at least six major transnational organic
certification agencies operating in India) are further hurdles
for producers. Certification is expensive relative to the
economies and currencies of developing countries, and also
includes direct costs for inspection fees and farm infrastructure,
to the extent that the sheer magnitude of the "organic
bureaucracy" as Rainer Bächi of IMO states, is threatening
to inhibit organic conversion. Indeed, Indian examples in
tea and coffee prove that true blue biodynamic certification
is restricted to large plantation companies. As the coffee
industry is small-grower oriented, that perhaps also explains
the rarity of biodynamic coffee projects worldwide, despite
all the positive outcomes.
And there are plenty. Biodynamic agriculture has changed
the face of every estate where these techniques have been
adopted. The effects are visible in the richer soil and vegetation,
increased bird-life and the better health of farm workers.
Arguably, biodynamic estates epitomize sustainable agriculture
in the most pristine form. Fears of a drop in yields, generally
associated with organic conversion, prove to be unfounded,
provided that the prescribed methods are followed judiciously.
In fact, controlled experiments across different crops, including
coffee, show an increase in output and plant growth. In India
particularly, farm workers appear to be the most enthusiastic
participants in the biodynamic adventure. They celebrate the
values, and appreciate the tangible improvement in their working
conditions, as they don't have to handle chemical fertilizers
and pesticides. Visitors often remark on the palpable aura,
the radiance of biodynamic estates.
The sub-text of the Indian experience with biodynamic agriculture
reveals more than just the success of the practice. There
is also the tension due to regulatory systems that morph into
trade barriers, some cognitive dissonance with certifications
presumed to facilitate market access and premiums but which
don't quite pay off, and the fine balance between the traditional
knowledge of the East and the intellectual capital of the
The Karma Bean
Biodynamic agriculture is not a panacea. It is essentially
an evolved farming methodology. The coffee must stand up to
quality evaluation at the cupping table of the specialty coffee
roaster to reach the marketplace. But here's the definitive
test: chromatography, which is used to visualize the quality
of food, can be used to compare the attributes of conventional
and biodynamic coffees. The vitality (in Sanskrit, the prana)
in the biodynamic bean is unmistakable, and proves beyond
doubt the efficacy of biodynamic agriculture.
According to Dr. Peter Proctor, the current biodynamic renaissance
in India provides a showcase for the world, an inspirational
model for agricultural transformation toward a healthier planet.
Biodynamic agriculture in India is yielding some of the most
distinctive single origin specialty coffees. For roasters
and consumers, there's the comfort of being able to source
and imbibe authentic plantation-grade socially and environmentally
cultivated coffees. Good karma assured.
© Aparna Datta, 2004
Published in Fresh Cup
magazine, Coffee Almanac June 2004