Biodynamics: the Santeria of viticulture
In the children’s book James and the Giant Peach, a man offers James glowing green crocodile tongues “…brewed in the skull of a dead witch…” that will magically grant his greatest wish should he but swallow them all down. It’s pure fantasy, and we all know it. Panaceas don’t really exist, and as adults we’ve all come to recognize that.
Biodynamic agriculture, for those unaware, is a type of organic farming in which great attention is paid to the cycles of the moon, stars, and the state of your livestock. If it had only stopped there it would have more adherents and would have been of much more use to the world. Unfortunately, it also focuses on rather obscure ritualistic formulae to ensure the fertility of the soil and animals. Though there are many erroneous points in the biodynamic theory, I'll specifically target the "preparations" that are used. Some of the Biodynamic “preparations” sound equally absurd & naïve as that passage from James & the Giant Peach:
- Preparation 502 is the flower heads of yarrow, fermented (composted?) in a stag’s bladder
- Preparation 505 is oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal
(see here for an article with the entire list)
Proponents of Biodynamic farming would have you believe that unseen, un-measurable planetary & cosmic forces are at the heart of all agriculture. We are informed that all that is necessary to tap into these forces and improve farming is to follow the directions of Rudolf Steiner from lectures he gave in the 1920’s…and to suspend your disbelief. (Walking counter-clockwise three times around your vines while breathing through your right nostril also has shown the same breathtaking benefits to agriculture that biodynamics has…)
Let’s talk about Steiner for a moment. Born in 1861, in what is now Slovenia, during the rush of what we now call the “Industrial Revolution”. Is it outrageous to submit that his quasi-astro-metaphysical-agronomy was a reaction to the swift changes that he witnessed during his lifetime? Isn’t it reasonable to think that he was a victim of what we called “culture shock” in the 1980’s? Perhaps he was a visionary man - ahead of his time - as his views were more counter-culture 1960’s in their nature than mainstream 1920’s.
Let me state that I am wholeheartedly behind organic viticulture & agriculture, and I would applaud the eventual disuse of ALL pesticides, should that - God willing - ever come to pass. But let’s be real, beyond those portions of the Biodynamic movement based on organic farming – the balance is pure manure (or more accurately “bullshit”).
The HeathWatch-UK reported the following:
Sunday Times, 28 April, 2002
Organic farmers are receiving government grants to adopt a mystical approach which includes planting crops according to the moon's movement through the signs of the zodiac and burying a cow's horn in the earth twice yearly, says the Sunday Times. The number of farms in the country (meaning the UK /huge) following the biodynamic creed-a holistic approach championed by the Austrian-born philosopher Joseph Steiner-has doubled in the past four years. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which aims to triple the amount of land devoted to organic cultivation by 2006, now helps support many of our estimated 80 biodynamic farms.
Doesn’t really sound like the Brits differentiate biodynamic from organic, other than to state it’s “a mystical approach”. And their number of farms devoted to biodynamic methods went from 40 to 80 that year…I guess the word got out that it was a useful marketing tool. Perhaps it was the grant money available that converted people, eh?
There are some wineries in the US which have adopted this strange “ritualistic” agriculture. (See Alder’s posts on the Vinography website here, and his follow-up here for a list of producers. My hat’s off to Alder also for taking the time this last year to compile that same info for us all.) While the adoption of this system allows the winery to advertise itself as “Biodynamic”, or “Demeter Certified Biodynamic”, it in effect, does nothing beyond that done by organic farming.
In essence it’s only a marketing tool used to make a winery appear more “committed” or “hardcore organic” in the eye of the potential consumers.
To this date, I have been unable to find any studies done by any traditional agricultural institutions that can provide support for any of their theory or results.
Surely UC Davis would’ve jumped on this bandwagon – if it was going anywhere…
Demeter – Biodynamic certification (man…everyone’s got an angle to make some dough on this!)
Jamie Good on biodynamic farming (8 part article)
Oregon Biodynamic – website with some history, theory, implausible physics, voodoo, etc… (some rather interesting – if laughable – theory on why antlers channel external energy into stags’, thereby making them a nervous animal, as opposed to the “placid” cow… I think it’s called “domestication” you dipwads! Cows don’t have to worry about hunters… /huge)
New Zealand Skeptics – the name says it all, baby!
I’ll finish by suggesting that people who think that biodynamic farming is so great, should return to the Roman tradition of wandering through their fields with suckling animals while praying to Mars Silvanus, only to finally sacrifice the animal on the ground where the god’s help was needed.