A sceptical voice

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A sceptical voice

Post by Cuttings »

Biodynamics; a very strange concept.

By Jean-Charles Estoppey - 13.04.2018

These days biodynamic agriculture is often assumed to be a standard of excellence in agriculture or viticulture, although it widely misunderstood by the general public, who presume it to be a category of organic farming. However, while the aims may be similar, the differences on a theoretical level are fundamental, and surprising to say the least!

Biodynamics, derived from anthroposophy, is a kind of occultism, supposed to harness “cosmic” and “terrestrial” forces that can be activated or controlled by herbal preparations, and which are meant to have an impact on the composition of the soil and soil organisms.

These “forces” supposedly can influence biological matter based on the constellations or the movements of the planets, according to theories similar to those of astrology. Another central tenet of biodynamics is the concept of the “unity of the farm organism”, which includes humans, wild and domesticated animals, soil, plants, agricultural practices, and the effects of nature, all working towards some kind of total “autonomy”

This is a long way from classic organic farming which has nothing esoteric about it but relies on ideas about agriculture which are scientifically validated and reproducible.

The founder of this theory, known as biodynamics since the 1930s, was Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian occult philosopher, who, in 1924, shortly before his death, invented it out of thin air in his study, without ever having contact with the business of agriculture and with no training in the field. In a “Course for Farmers”, he gave a series of lectures, presenting an agricultural version of his anthroposophical principles. The theory that became biodynamics was written up from notes taken during these meetings.

The idea of herbal preparations that could influence terrestrial and cosmic “forces” were born out of R. Seiner’s pure intuition, without any factual justification ever being claimed or produced by him or anyone else. They are supposed to be activated by “dynamisation”, which means rotating them in a certain direction once they are diluted in water to convey on them the powers attributed to them. This so-called methodology is reminiscent of Benveniste’s famous “Memory of Water” which caused a sensation in scientific circles many years ago, before its pseudo-scientific trickery was exposed. There are eight of these herbal preparations (six to add to spread compost, two to spray on the crops, the latter two prepared in a cow’s horn, one of which has to be buried over the winter – and which is supposed to improve the “vital force” – the other buried over the summer, which is supposed to add “light”) Their base ingredients have to be derived from fermentation in animal organs (intestines, bladder, skull) They are diluted in a similar way to homeopathy, up to 1 mg / 10 kg (= 1 / 0.0000001), another theory which has failed to produce proof of efficacy. Naturally these preparations have been and continue to be controversial, due to their lack of scientific rigour, which can clearly be illustrated by this quote from R. Steiner “The deer’s bladder is connected to cosmic forces. Even better than that, it’s almost a replica of the cosmos. So, we can significantly enhance the inherent ability of yarrow (one of the substances -ed.) to combine sulphur with other substances” 1 Furthermore, according to Steiner, these preparations can be imbued with “feelings” and “cosmic forces”

Biodynamic theory also involves the supposed influence of the moon on the growth of plants, which has never been scientifically validated. The proven impact of the moon on the earth is basically related to gravitational forces (the tides being the best-known example), which bears no relation to Steiner’s theories.

The main criticism of the philosophy of anthroposophy which biodynamics springs from is that the theory is based only on the “intuition” of its founder: maintaining a position opposed to scientific rationality, he always avoided having to prove his claims, which thus boiled down to certitudes which have to be taken on faith alone.

Given the questionable nature of this theory, it’s somewhat surprising that these days organic vine cultivation and biodynamics are often considered in the same light. The former aims to improve the balance of soil and plants without using artificially synthesised products, chemical fertilisers or herbicides and is based on scientific agricultural principles, which are rational and reproducible. The latter is founded on esoteric dogmas, the brainchild of the intuition of an occultist philosopher, who requires a pure act of faith from his followers.

For some years, a number of often excellent viticulturists have claimed to be followers of biodynamics, for many only in part, in parallel with traditional or organic viticulture. They probably see it as a kind of “super” organics, while in fact it is a totally different approach and to say the least questionable given its theoretical foundations. It’s hard to imagine that they give credence to those kinds of ideas. The confusion is maintained even by the organisations promoting it, who consider biodynamics as a complementary approach to organic farming, which makes it much more acceptable than the odd principles it is based on. Just as with organic farming, organisations promoting biodynamic agriculture have established very strict protocols for gaining certification, which require several years of transition (the word “conversion” is usual, which says a lot about the nature of the approach)

Although biodynamic viticulture is in a very small minority in Switzerland and across Europe, it’s very “trendy” and gets a lot of media coverage, because the winemakers who are adepts of the practice often produce very good wines – as they did before the advent of biodynamics… Perhaps this modest contribution to the literature will promote understanding of what it really involves.

The undersigned, an incorrigible rationalist and pragmatist, prefers to stick to the concept of “adaptable organic viticulture”, which he explained in a previous post