Biodynamic Agriculture

Is biodynamic agriculture a modern innovation, or a throwback to the Dark Ages?

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs

Skeptoid #26
February 10, 2007
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Today we're going to pull a cork and pour ourselves a glass of the latest fashion in winemaking: biodynamic agriculture.

If you're not familiar with biodynamics, the best way to think of it would be as a magic spell cast over an entire farm. Biodynamics sees an entire farm as a single organism, with something that they call a life force. Believers say that this life force can be increased, thus improving crop quality and health, by following conventional organic methods plus the application of a special magical potion. The potion is not intended to have any direct physical effect — its intent is to charge up the life force of the farm. The word biodynamic literally means life force, according to its Greek roots bio and dyn.

Rudolf Steiner was a philosopher, a multi-faceted artist, a playwright, and a self-described clairvoyant. He gave a series of eight lectures in Germany in 1924, which became the essential bible of biodynamics. To Steiner's credit, he always insisted that his students test everything he said and not take it at face value; but to his detriment, he did no testing of his own, but rather described the methods to be followed based only on his own inspiration. Steiner's eight lectures are available on the Internet, and if you're curious you should look them up and read them. They start with some conventional sounding discussion of soil chemistry and nutrients, but then devolve into a progressively more vague lecture about non-physical beings and elemental forces.

Now you probably think I'm coming across as overly cynical or that I'm deliberately painting biodynamics in a negative or irrational light. I don't want you to feel that I'm coloring this in any way, or at least in any undeserved way, so please draw your own conclusions from what I'm about to read. This comes directly from a prominent biodynamics web site, so this is their description, not mine. The potion consists of nine ingredients (or preparations, as Steiner described them), numbered 500 through 508. Here are their descriptions and the instructions:

500: A humus mixture prepared by stuffing cow manure into the horn of a cow and buried into the ground, 40-60 cm below the surface, in the autumn and left to decompose during the winter.
501: Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It can be mixed with 500 but usually prepared on its own (mixture of 1 tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 litres of water) The mixture is sprayed under very low pressure over the crop during the wet season. It should be sprayed on an overcast day.

Both 500 and 501 are used on fields by stirring the contents of a horn in 40-60 litres of water for an hour and whirling it in different directions every second minute.

502: Yarrow blossoms stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer, placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
503: Chamomile blossoms stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
504: Stinging nettle plants in full bloom stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
505: Oak bark chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs by.
506: Dandelion flowers stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
507: Valerian flowers extracted into water.
508: Horsetail.

One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other, except for the 507 preparation, which is stirred into 5 litres of water and sprayed over the entire compost surface. All preparations are thus used in homeopathic quantities, and the only intent is to strengthen the life forces of the farm.

It doesn't say so but I think you're supposed to chant "Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble" while preparing it.

Notice that the potion is applied to the compost in the ratio of one sixteenth of an ounce per ten tons of compost. Biodynamicists describe this as a homeopathic amount, which means diluted to virtually undetectable levels, which certainly applies in this case. But again, the potion is not intended to have any direct physical effect. It's there to stimulate the life force. I was not able to find any proposals describing what the mechanism for this effect is alleged to be, or exactly what the effect is, other than the vague phrase "strengthen the life force."

If you're wondering why cows' horns figure so prominently in the potion, this explanation comes from one of Steiner's lectures:

The cow has horns in order to reflect inwards the astral and etheric formative forces, which then penetrate right into the metabolic system so that increased activity in the digestive organism arises by reason of this radiation from horns and hoofs.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Remember, Steiner encourages you to test this scientifically. All you'll need is an astral and etheric formative force gauge. I think they have them at Radio Shack.

Frankly, I'm shocked to see adults in industrialized nations mixing magic potions in the twenty first century. If they were doing it for ceremonial reasons, or to honor some folk tradition, fine; but doing it earnestly in a sincere effort to improve a harvest is alarming. Essentially, we're talking about witchcraft and sorcery being employed as a modern farming tool, today, in the United States. Go to your local liquor store and you'll find wines from biodynamic farms. Pick up a wine magazine and you'll find reviews of biodynamic wines. This phenomenon has already infiltrated our daily lives. Is this a commentary on the state of our educational system? Does it reflect a change in what parents are teaching children?

I'm not persuaded by the anecdotal evidence either. What you'll usually hear from biodynamicists is something like "I know it sounds weird, but the fact is the wines are actually better, and that's an undeniable difference that you can taste." I'm sure there actually is a difference that you can taste. No two wines ever taste alike. Grapes from every vineyard in the world taste different, and grapes from the same vineyard taste different each successive year. That's why there are good vintages and bad vintages. Any experienced vintner making the same wine from the same grapes in the same vineyard will easily be able to tell you which vintage a given bottle is from. Whether the growing method changed from conventional to organic to biodynamic or to anything else, the next batch of wine must taste different. That's a fact of winemaking. If ever there was a science where a valid controlled trial was absolutely impossible, it's winemaking. Anecdotal reports that wine quality improved after the farm became biodynamic can't be given any credence. Not only is "improved" a completely subjective matter of opinion that will differ among all wine drinkers, but any chromatographic analysis of the chemical content of the wine must be different year after year, whether the vineyard cast a magic spell over their compost or not. Neither any actual effect nor any causal relationship can be evidenced.

No doubt there are valid marketing reasons for making and selling biodynamic wines or other crops — there are always going to be customers who want it. And that's fine. But please don't teach your children that magic potions and non-physical beings are the way to achieve success in agriculture or anything else.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Barquín, Jesús, Smith, Douglass. "On Fertile Ground? Objections to Biodynamics." The World of Fine Wine. Quarto Magazines Ltd, 9 Jun. 2006. Web. 10 Jan. 2007. <http://www.finewinemag.com/docs/BIODYN~1.PDF>

Goode, Jamie. The Science of Wine: from Vine to Glass. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2005. 68-79.

Kirchmann, Holger. "Biological dynamic farming — An occult form of alternative agriculture?" Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. 1 Sep. 1994, Volume 7, Number 2: 173-187.

Reeve, Jennifer R., Carpenter-Boggs, L., Reganold, J., York, A., McGourty, G., McCloskey, L. "Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards." American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 1 Dec. 2005, Volume 56, Number 4: 367-376.

Schwarcz, Joe. The Genie in the Bottle. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 2001. 278-282.

Steiner, Rudolf. Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004. 17-151.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Biodynamic Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 10 Feb 2007. Web. 20 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4026>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 39 comments

@ Nik, Ontario, thanks for the heads up regarding the Moon and plants. I always wondered why some days my plants were only 2 foot tall and on others 20 foot, after reading your post I checked the tidal tables and found that the maximum and minimum heights of my plants coincide with high and low tides, amazing.

Of course, like you, I have not put any links up to prove it but I know that the word of an anonymous poster on the Internet, like me, is of more value than any scientific research paper.

There's me thinking that it was the mass of the water in the oceans and its mutual gravitational affects with the Moon.

What does science know, huh?

True Believer, Belief not reason
December 09, 2012 11:59am

Be careful when dealing with Biodynamics, Waldorf Schools, or anything springing from Anthroposophy. Do your research.

Anthroposophy is Steiner's philosophy/religion and it means "to worship man". It takes ideas from almost all Theosophic religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, etc, etc) and it also takes ideas from Gnostic religions and Magickal practices (aka Alchemy, Witchcraft, etc.)

If you practice Biodynamics you are settling into the religion of Anthroposophy, and yes, it IS a religion. I've done my homework.

Steiner expressly believed that gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), undines (water), and salamanders (fire) help plants grow. He believed in a system of transfer of "cosmic knowledge" flowing through these creatures, the plants, and to the humans that ate them.

Steiner was also pretty racist. He believed that white European people were of the highest "evolution" and blacks, asians, etc were of lower calibers. He also believed that "some" people were not really people, but demons in disguise.

Steiner also believed we are descendants from a jelly-like race of Lemurians who were able to use telekinesis.

Most importantly, biodynamic "preparations" are MAGICK RITUALS. They are NOT "good magick". Nothing good can come of rituals that use ANIMAL BODY PARTS. I know a witch personally, it makes him absolutely CRINGE to even THINK of the implications of these rituals and potions. Think to yourself, do you really want to eat food grown by magick you don't know? I don't.

Clara, Underground
January 14, 2013 5:42am

Clara, did you know that Steiner also invented the etheric to be copied and pasted 100 years later?

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 17, 2013 8:36pm

@Mud, you are a source of joy forever.

@Clara, while I don't believe in magick, or magic, my sister does, and I allow her to. And you're right, this is indeed a religion. I doubt that the people who use the pseudo-science aspects described above think of it the same way that Steiner's followers do, however.

But you do make a point. This is a religion. Whether you follow Steiner or not, this is a religion. It's something based upon "I can't explain it, and nobody else can either, but I know it works." And while there are things in this world that work that way, they tend to happen to everybody. Aspirin, for example, has almost the same effect on everybody who takes it. We know what it does. We know how it affects most people. We know the dangers and side-effects of it in adults and children (for the most part, there are always going to be people who's bodies do really interesting things). But we have no clue why it works the way it does. That isn't a matter of faith. That's just one of those mysteries that science hasn't yet figured out.

But this stuff, whether Steiner or not, relies upon effects that can't be duplicated. And after all these years of agriculture, if this stuff worked, you'd know about it.

@Mud...is it terrible that I giggled? I fell all bad now. Well. Ok. Not really.

Sara, Salt Lake City
February 12, 2013 4:16pm

@Nik, he mentioned Rudolf Steiner because biodynamic agriculture was Steiner's creations, and these were the methods he set out. As you said, there is nothing scientific about it. Brian does not only write about science, but pseudoscience. Nor do your contentions stand up scientifically.

Michael, Denver, CO USA
February 12, 2013 6:22pm

Yes, you'd wonder where Steiner's good and bad are ever analysed these days.

Mind you, the etheric is a little "out of focus" nowadays.

Its absolutely true that a lot was unashamedly "unscientific".

The reality in that is called "fiction".

Mud, Sin City, Oz
March 20, 2013 2:14am

Steiner's 500 is nothing more than microbial innoculation of the soil using a particular group of microorganisms that have been bred in the cowhorns buried in fertile soils. It is only since the 1980s that the full role of microbes in the soils have been researched and documented and the key role their symbiotic role plays in making available a broader range of minerals. Prepn 501 inputs silica into the soil in colloidal form and hence readily available to plants - silica give strength to plants and resistance to insect attack. Nettle is a powerful concentrator of a range of trace and other minerals from the soil and is a very effective low cost natural fertiliser.
What Steiner proposed 90 years ago and the scientific community has still not appreciated was a program to revitalise the soil with microorganisms and a much broader range of minerals.

As a skeptic, I am always amazed at the prejudices of skeptics.

The Cosmic influences referred to by Steiner may refer to the constant shower that the Earth receives from space - the mineral composition and quantum of which has only recently been ab
le to be identified and measured.

The fact that farmers have been able to build soils 1-1.5m deep in Australia's ancient shit soils over a 20 year period is proof of concept with added bonus of having soils and crops that weather draughts.

As for homeopathy, try thinking outside the square and use Quantum Entanglement as a likely explanation.

Charles, Australia
July 21, 2013 10:00pm

Steiner proposed a lot of "sophistry" regarding cows soils and horns but no science (non science and nonsense) and was fully appreciated to be garbled nonsense then as it is now by the scientific community.

Some of the alty community may think that sophistry can increase silica in soil. The second last paragraph, Charles, I fear is repeated myth. Steiner had nothing to do with our better agronomy.

Homeopathy is profound "in the box" thinking.. Quantum entanglement WRT homeopathy is associative sophistry (three wrongs still dont make a right) for even the most profound ignorance based argument even if its pious sophistry based fraud (as its practiced).

A person called J. K. Rowling wrote many fantasy books. This does not mean an association elsewhere.

Matinee Digress, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 19, 2013 5:31pm

May I add..

Steiner was not a philosopher or a scientist, his career was in sophistry. He was proud to be a sophist and named and/or partook in a number of variants of sophistry.

His mental meanderings would be considered fraud if anyone paid for it as philosophical discourse or scientific/technological import.

Its a different world and our memories are selective just to remain "nice".

Steiner actually built part of his sophistry career on something he or anyone else has never seen; auras and etherics. Great sophistry, lousy nonsense.

Yes, George Bush was right, fool you once..

Multerlingerar Dailama, sin city, Oz
August 19, 2013 8:21pm

It must be all that orgone energy and those "chemtrail" eating sylphs. LOL

Joffbaum, New York, NY
October 24, 2013 4:58am

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