Michael Rist was one of seven individuals who established the Swiss Foundation for the Promotion of Organic Agriculture on 1 February, 1973, the foundation which supports the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). He also managed to bring Hartmut Vogtmann on board as FiBL’s first director.
As a civil engineer and with a PhD in agricultural sciences, Michael Rist established and advanced the Livestock Husbandry and Agricultural Civil Engineering Section at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. His focus was on “species-appropriate livestock husbandry”, a topic rarely discussed in academia at the time. He managed to fill many students with enthusiasm for this “rational love of animals” and thus inspired dozens of diploma theses and dissertations which contributed much detail to the body of knowledge on species-appropriate cattle, pig and chicken husbandry.
In his 1988 book entitled Artgemässe Nutztierhaltung (species-appropriate livestock husbandry), Michael Rist compiled these results for both researchers and practitioners involved in keeping livestock. The book was enthusiastically received and often quoted at the time. What was special about both this book and Michael Rist’s lectures was that the methodological principles always incorporated both scientific and epistemological aspects. In the book’s introduction, which exemplifies his approach to his work, he writes:
In the absence of a science of knowledge free of all presuppositions, as described a century ago by R. Steiner (1886) in his book on “The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception”, scientists increasingly lost the criterion of truth and sense of responsibility which relate adequately to nature’s creative autonomy, resulting in both these being replaced almost entirely in today’s world with so-called “successful application”. In farming, this declining culture of thinking has led to the focus being placed firmly on maximizing economic yield while losing sight of the needs of farm animals and the conditions under which crop plants thrive. This pursuit of short-term, purely economic objectives has created something of a compulsion to act in environmentally damaging ways, a notion normally abhorrent to farmers. […] The following contributions will present examples of cattle, pig and chicken husbandry which demonstrate that the customary systems of livestock keeping often fall well short of being species-appropriate and will outline how new and more species-appropriate systems can be achieved. In the design of such systems, economic considerations take second place, as they should. The first consideration in livestock husbandry will thus once again be the question as to what is right for the animals, i.e. what meets their intrinsic needs. The most economic implementation of that which is right must only follow on from this first consideration […] .”
To students interested in these matters Michael Rist offered evening courses on the basics of epistemology and biodynamic agriculture as taught by Rudolf Steiner. He also initiated the Swiss summer school and winter school where students from German-speaking Europe could further their education in this and other fields during the university semester breaks. These inspiring academic weeks were at times attended by more than 100 people.
In addition to his professional work, Michael Rist served for almost 50 years as president of the Konsumentenverein Zürich zur Förderung der biologisch-dynamischen Landwirtschaft, the Zurich consumer association for the promotion of biodynamic farming. Moreover he was a member of the editorial circle of “Contributions” and a member of the research working group for biodynamic agriculture AGF. The latter gave rise to the roundtables on biodynamic cattle breeding which are still held three times a year and in which Michael Rist still very actively participated until two years ago.
In 1991, close to his retirement, he founded the Johannes Kreyenbühl-Akademie zur Synergie von Natur- und Geisteswissenschaft (Academy for synergy between the natural and spiritual sciences) which held numerous courses and seminars and published a range of writings. Michael Rist’s tireless work for the welfare of farm animals and for appropriate conceptions will live on in many barns and stables, in academic courses taught by his former students, and in new projects.
Anet Spengler Neff, FiBL
Translation: Christopher Hay, Übersetzungsbüro für Umweltwissenschaften
fibl.org: 40 years of organic farming research