Is biodynamic agriculture a modern innovation, or a throwback to the Dark Ages?
by Brian Dunning
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 website, 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.
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Biodynamic Agriculture." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
10 Feb 2007. Web.
16 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4026>
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.
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