Objections to biodynamics

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Objections to biodynamics

Post by Mark »


While acknowledging the quality of many biodynamic wines, Jesús Barquín and Douglass Smith dismiss the movement as a mix of good intentions, quasi-religious hocus-pocus, good salesmanship, and scientific illiteracy

Biodynamics has been kicking around the vineyards for
several years now and is a subject ever more present in
popular wine publications. The practice is suggested as
an innovative, arguably superior alternative to simple
organic agriculture. And in fact, biodynamics is, by its very nature,
organic. But we miss a more critical treatment of the pseudoscience
that makes up the balance of the biodynamic doctrine. In this article
we will investigate some of the issues that, from a more sober
perspective, force us to reject the theory and methodology that
differentiate biodynamic from organic agriculture.

Stephen Jay Gould distinguished two basic ways we may
approach the natural world: the Franciscan, charmed by the
beauty and complexity of natural phenomena; and the Galilean,
impassioned by the ability of human intelligence to comprehend
the hidden mechanisms working behind the appearances. There
is a similar spiritual duality in the more prosaic world of wine:
those who approach wine as something literally alive, which is the
direct result of some force of nature, and those of us who consider
it “the fruit of the vine,” yes; but also, and above all, “the work of
man.” The followers of biodynamics, in their cosmogony of vitiand
viniculture, are of the former type. Each vine, each harvest,
even each barrel, is an organ or aspect of a universal living thing,
constituted first by the vineyard and, at its most grand, by the
planets, stars, and indeed the entire cosmos.

In approaching this material, one is moving through faithinfused
terrain: of people who, against all evidence, believe in the
memory of water; in the disequilibrium of bodily humors as a
cause of cancer; in scattering the ashes of weeds and insects to
frighten such pests off the land. They, or at least some of their more
conspicuous spokesmen, believe that it was the Greeks’ desire to
reason about natural things that broke the harmony between man
and the stars. These believers will not agree with those of us who,
to put it in Virgilian terms, think that the happiest moments are
those where we understand the true causes of things.

Some benefits …
Nowadays it seems as if there is no such thing as a nuanced
opinion, as though it were only an excuse for weakness. This is
“with us or against us” time. If you are not a teetotaler, one supposes
you are a drunk. If you delight in full-bodied Australian Shiraz, you
can’t also be passionate about delicate Burgundy. If you believe that
numerical scales are useful in ranking wine, you are considered to
be in the thrall of some nefarious guru. There are dozens of such
imaginary demons, even in the small world of wine.
Biodynamics presents us with a number of agricultural
practices that are organic in nature, sustainable, and respectful of
the environment. All of this is quite reasonable, and we happily
concede it. Forthwith, some benefits:
1. Modern agriculture is in a spiral of problematic chemical
treatments from which it will be difficult to escape. This also
leads to problems of overproduction. Public funds in
developed countries are sometimes used to destroy harvests or
create artificial demand in order to raise prices. Biodynamics
exists, in part, as an answer to all this, and it could have an
indirectly favorable effect on a global scale. Since biodynamic
practices are, inter alia, organic, they will contribute to
reducing demand for artificial fertilizers, pesticides,
herbicides, and so on. They will reduce crop yields and hence
problems of overproduction. It remains to be seen what limits
nature puts on the ecological practices of agriculture—an issue
about which we are not entirely optimistic—but be that as it
may, biodynamics should be looked on with sympathy for
tackling such problems where they exist.
2 Biodynamic practices are famously labor-intensive. They force
a more hands-on presence in the vineyard and avoid the use of
mechanical methods or treatments. In doing so, they may lead
an otherwise absent or careless viticulturalist to become more
physically and mentally present among the vines. And a
motivated caretaker may become aware of the existence, or
extent, of problems well before one who is not so particularly
in tune. So, although the particular belief systems and practices
espoused by the followers of biodynamics may not
in themselves hold up to scrutiny, they may add value
by motivating and inculcating a philosophical closeness to
soil and vine that otherwise would be overlooked or
3.Many wines made by biodynamic wineries are of high quality.
We drink wines from such producers frequently, and with some
pleasure. Knowing that a producer of a certain wine is a follower
of biodynamic agriculture is no motive for skepticism about
what we are going to find in the bottle. This is no surprise, since
although the cosmo-dynamic techniques may in themselves be
worthless, they have the evident virtue of doing no harm and, at
any rate, go along with a tendency toward special care and
coddling in all phases of winemaking. And we expect that it will
remain so—at least until the notion becomes popularized and
wily bargain-priced biodynamics entrepreneurs proliferate.
These points alone, however, are not sufficient to justify a
decision in favor of this doctrine. From here on we will focus on
the criticism of those aspects of biodynamics that appear to us
wrong, and even dreadfully wrong. The objections we will put
forward are methodological, and they spring from our attempt to
confront nature through the filter of reason.
… and tall tales
Organic practices may all be well and good, but the defenders of
biodynamic viticulture do not take themselves to be practicing
merely what amounts to another version of ecological or organic
agriculture. Instead, they distinguish themselves by a belief
system that goes beyond treatment of the field and vine; it is a
cosmogony—a vitalist vision of the interstellar universe as an
enormous living thing. The religious, or quasi-religious, character
of such a belief system is obvious. It also puts forward treatments
of an esoteric character. These have nothing to do with the
methods of organic agriculture, and there are grave doubts about
their effectiveness; to be charitable, they remain to be proven,
since we will not take them on faith and good salesmanship. It is
not sufficient that such techniques appear generally innocuous,
even though this may be of some relief.
Biodynamics began with a series of eight lectures on
agriculture in June 1924 by the Austrian occult philosopher
Rudolf Steiner. Space prevents a detailed résumé of Steiner’s odd
foundational beliefs and fruitless attempts at founding a crank
“Spiritual Science,” however it is at least worth mentioning his
antipathy for scientific investigations of the “orthodox” variety. In
their place, he put faith in a homegrown investigative technique
that appears to have involved little more than intuitive meditation
and guesswork. In his agricultural lectures, these methods
provided him startling revelations such as that “the ethereal
moves with the help of sulphur along paths of oxygen.” And
that “the spirituality which—once again with the help of
sulphur—is working thus in nitrogen, is that which we are wont to
describe as the astral.”1 And so on. We can only suggest firsthand
acquaintance with the founding document of biodynamics to
get the unadulterated flavor of the thing.
Since the terrain of spiritual belief is particularly slippery
and tends to change character with the winds, it will be best
to focus on the key esoteric methods that recur in presentday
1. The influence of the moon
Many biodynamic treatments are supposed to be done in
accordance with lunar phases or positions. This appears to be an
issue in which biodynamics can be helped by scientific results.
For example, we know the effect that the moon has on ocean
tides, as explained by the force of gravity. However, physical
models of the forces involved do not show any significant effect
upon living things from the position of the moon relative to earth
and sun. The force of the moon’s gravity on an adult human is less
than a hundredth of a gram distributed across the whole body,
and is overwhelmed by the normal gravitational stresses of
motion and orientation.
Just as importantly, statistical analyses show no conclusive
lunar effects. Every so often we hear of some article documenting
a supposed effect of lunar phases on humans—for example, with
respect to traffic accidents, the prices on stock markets, or crises
with the mentally ill. At times these appear to be studies done with
some rigor, to the extent that we cannot reject them out of hand.
However, it is more probative to consider meta-analyses of
such data, which are analyses based on the aggregation and
combination of data published in a wide range of separately

conducted studies. They work to overwhelm any statistical
anomalies that may randomly skew a study carried out over a
smaller sample size. It is quite clear that such meta-analyses rule
out any influence of lunar phases on living things, beyond the
gross effects of ocean tides and somewhat brighter nights. Further
(for this is an issue that tends to come up frequently), a number of
long-term studies have failed to turn up any correlation between
birth rates and lunar phase.2
2. Terrestrial homeopathy
Biodynamics makes use of dilutions of different prepared
ingredients: silica, manure, ash, etc. These are introduced into
water, often diluted into nonexistence, and then “dynamized” by
stirring for long periods of time. The practice is based on the hoary
old homeopathic notion that water has a memory of what has been
put into it. Dynamization involves stirring the water-filled vessel so
as to produce a vortex in the solution. In this way, it is supposed that
the water molecules acquire some occult properties, and memory,
of the infinitesimally present ingredient. This odd idea that water
can have a memory, and that certain ingredients have quasimagical
hidden properties, is one of the bases of homeopathy.
Needless to say, from the point of view of scientific chemistry, such
theories have no basis in fact and are little more than the sort of
alchemy thoroughly discredited ages ago.
Homeopathy was founded in a series of papers by Samuel
Hahnemann in early 19th-century Germany as a proposed
treatment for human disease. However, results of meta-analysis
done on homeopathic treatments of human disease are
conclusive, and they permit us to discount any effect of these
methods beyond that of a mere placebo.3 Given that the practices
are ineffective for humans, what real likelihood is there that they
would be effective for plants?
3. Other alchemical preparations
In addition to the diluted and dynamized homeopathic
preparations discussed above, biodynamics counsels the use of
myriad other special preparations that are meant to be added to
the soil or sprayed on plants. These involve the burial of a cow’s
intestine filled with chamomile, of a sheep’s skull filled with oak
bark, of a cow’s horn filled with manure (ideally on the autumnal
equinox), and the burning of insect or weed pests into ash in order
to “warn away” other insects or weeds. Such practices could
perhaps best be described as “viticultural voodoo” (to put Matt
Kramer’s famous phrase to other use).
To repeat, these preparations are not based on any sort of
scientific research or careful trial and error. Instead, they stem
from the singular meditations of Rudolf Steiner. For example,
Horn Manure (or Preparation 500) originates directly from
Steiner’s lecture number 4. But a search for any serious
justification for the practice comes up wanting. At the crucial
point where he discusses the importance of the cow’s horn, we
find passages such as the following:
The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astralethereal
formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to
penetrate right into the digestive organism. […] Thus in the horn
you have something well adapted by its inherent nature, to ray back
the living and astral properties into the inner life.4
Needless to say, this sort of talk does not inspire confidence,
and it is perhaps worth mentioning a certain irony in passing. The
use of animal horns as manure was one of the materials outlawed
by Duke Philip the Bold in 1395, when he famously attacked
Gamay as a substitute for the more distinguished Pinot Noir.5
In any event, to the Demeter certification bodies, these
and the homeopathic preparations are central to biodynamic
practice: A farm can be labeled biodynamic simply by virtue
of being organic and using the required preparations in
sufficient quantity.6
4. Astrology
In his book Wine from Sky to Earth (1999), Nicolas Joly spends
nearly a score of pages on astrological topics. Monty Waldin, in his
thorough treatment of biodynamic viticulture, also lends support
to such practices on a number of occasions. He even suggests
tasting wines during different astrological periods, “to see if it
tastes floral during a flower period, and more earthy during an
earth moon.”7
Joly, Chapoutier, and other biodynamic winemakers also
claim to make use of “astronomy,” so-called, rather than
“astrology.”8 They distinguish the two by noting that astrology has
not revised the positions of the constellations relative to the Earth
and planets for two millennia, which means that the dates usually
correlated with zodiacal signs are inaccurate by approximately a
month. The true astral influences upon terrestrial phenomena
respond, according to them, to the revised positions of the
zodiacal constellations. This revision may be astronomically
correct; however, the astrological effects they claim are hardly
creditable to the practice of scientific astronomy, and there are no
other proposed forces that could produce such effects. In any
event, the revisions serve only to put lipstick on the theoretical
pig. The issue for any honest theory of astrology is not simply one
of digging out the right star-charts—those have been available for
centuries. The issue, instead, must be one of overcoming the
overwhelming weight of evidence, both theoretical and
empirical, contradicting the supposed astrological effects.
Problems with astrology are as deep, extensive, and long-standing
as anywhere in pseudoscience.9

5. Cosmic energy and standing stones
According to some of the followers of biodynamics, there are
esoteric rhythms, cosmic forces, and mysterious energy
meridians that influence living things, even plants. Biodynamic
methods of cultivation, the products they employ, the stones in
the fields, and so on, work to channel this cosmic energy so that
the vine and earth “vibrate in harmony with the universe,” as we
are told. It’s quite an expressive image, but we need to know
what cosmic energy we are talking about. Is it based on any
reality that goes beyond poetic wordplay? There is no evidence
that such esoteric forces exist; and those who defend them as
real should be responsible for coming up with the evidence.
Until such is forthcoming, we must assume that there exist no
sorts of energy different from those already well studied in
physics; hence, that careful placement of “standing stones” in
locations “determined by a specialist with the aid of a
pendulum” in order to practice a form of “geo-acupuncture” are
simply agriculturally worthless.10
The results of research
A quick glance through the research literature provides a small
stack of papers published on biodynamic farming. Indeed, Monty
Waldin, Jamie Goode, and other contemporary supporters of
biodynamics spend time discussing the research.11 They seem
satisfied that biodynamics has come out well in these studies.
More care, however, needs to be taken to see precisely what it is
that the research reveals.
To start with, what are we looking to measure? There is
agreement that the aim is to achieve healthier soils, and thereby
healthier plants. It is uncontroversial, for example, that organic
farming practices provide greater soil biodiversity and fertility
than do conventional farming practices. To repeat, farms certified
biodynamic must at least be organic. Therefore, the Holy Grail
for biodynamics supporters would be to establish that the
additional biodynamic methods produced soils even healthier
than those found in farms that were simply organic. But a
thorough search through the cream of this research crop yields
little. We can enumerate the problems.
First, there are studies that have not been published in peerreviewed
journals.12 Any non–peer-reviewed study lacks
credibility and should not be cited as scientifically defensible.
Second, there are studies that blithely contrast biodynamic
agriculture with conventional. Repeating again, biodynamic
agriculture is organic; hence, for that reason alone, we would
expect it to do better than conventional. The issue is whether the
biodynamic practices add anything. And this is a question not
settled by these studies. Nevertheless, many studies, particularly
those by John Reganold, are exhumed with some frequency,
apparently to help establish the effectiveness of biodynamic
practices.13 Of course, they do nothing of the sort.
Third, there are studies that exhibit poor experimental
design. One of the most famous and cited papers is by a Swiss
group, published in the journal Science. It deals with a 21-year
study of biodynamic, organic, and conventional farms.14 This
appears to be the sort of detailed, long-baseline work we are after.
But buried in the supporting material, only available online, is the
methodology behind the study. There we find that the biodynamic
and organic farms began with composts prepared differently.
Certain chemicals were added to the organic fields that were not
added to the biodynamic ones. And these were only the “main
differences.” What were the others? We aren’t told.
In order to do a proper comparison of biodynamics and
organic agriculture, all the background conditions, including
such things as the state of the compost, would have to be identical
in every controllable way except for the addition of the
biodynamic “preparations.” Where they are not, no principled
answer is possible as to the precise effects of the biodynamic
methods at issue, since the results discovered in the experiment
may simply be due to differences in the original composts or in
the chemical additions to the organic plots.
Fourth, there are studies that tell us there are chemical
differences between biodynamically and organically treated
composts—but without any supporting argument for why the
former is of any higher quality than the latter.15 Indeed, since
biodynamically treated compost does contain the additional
“preparations,” we should expect that it would be at least
somewhat chemically different from its organic counterpart.
But so what?
Fifth, there are studies that establish that the biodynamically
treated composts have, in fact, no advantage over their
organically treated counterparts.16 These experiments give the lie
to any claim that biodynamically produced chemical changes in
compost must be of some benefit. Indeed, the lead author of
these studies, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, apparently a believer in
biodynamics herself, put it thus: “No differences were found
between soils fertilized with biodynamic vs nonbiodynamic
compost.” It could hardly be clearer.
Professor John Reganold is Carpenter-Boggs’s thesis adviser
at Washington State University and arguably one of the leading
researchers into biodynamics. He is also apparently a believer in
the practice and a sometime biodynamics consultant to the
California wine industry. But he himself has recently said that
studies done on biodynamics “didn’t distinguish biodynamic
from organic.”17
The year 2005 was important for viticulture. It saw
publication from Reganold’s lab of the first peer-reviewed
comparison of biodynamic and organic practices with wine
grapes in particular. The results were conclusive. No differences
were found in soil quality “for any of the physical, chemical, or
biological parameters tested.” For the vines, “Analysis of leaves
showed no differences […] There were no differences in yield,
cluster count, cluster weight, and berry weight.” Although,
unsurprisingly, the team was able to discover some differences,
“there is little evidence the biodynamic preparations contribute to
grape quality. The differences observed were small and of
doubtful practical significance.”18 One has a certain feeling that
this is not the result they were looking for.
And sixth, none of the peer-reviewed published work we
find on biodynamics has tested what may be its most
controversial aspects: the lunar and astrological methodology
and the use of esoterica such as “geo-acupuncture.” One
supposes that this is so because even its sometime academic
believers are aware that planetary or lunar alignments and the
locations of “standing stones” are irrelevant to whatever
function the “preparations” may have.
So a review of the supporting literature establishes that,
insofar as it has been tested, biodynamics per se is simply
ineffective at aiding soil—and, thereby, plant—health. Much of

what passes for research supporting the practice, at least in the
popular press, is nothing of the sort; instead, it is either irrelevant
to the issue or demonstrates poor experimental design.
A further caveat is in order. Much of the biodynamic
literature, as with many sorts of proto- or pseudoscience, appears
in obscure publications, where standards of evidence and the
capability to do thorough peer review may be quite low or even
nonexistent.19 Although we have attempted to focus on the cream
of the research crop, it is always good to keep in mind the quality
of the source publication. Going forward, one should also always
be concerned with any controversial issue that is supported by
only a small handful of studies, or studies all out of one laboratory
or university. Any scientifically valid result will be repeatable, and
ideally it should be repeated in different, unaffiliated laboratories
before acceptance is warranted. Hard experience with such
“discoveries” as cold fusion establishes the precedent.
What testimonials tell us
There are some who will claim there is evidence in favor of
biodynamics in front of us already. Namely, there are testimonials
of success from farms and wineries that employ such practices.
We pick up the latest magazine articles and read of capable
winemakers employing the practice with success. We hear of
supposedly poor land made better, biodynamically, and we are led
to suppose, perhaps, that we have all the evidence we need.
But there is a long road from anecdotal evidence and
testimony to anything approaching conclusive proof. This is, after
all, the same road down which myriad quack remedies went in
the past several centuries. In the words of one FDA commissioner
in 1941, “Our experience of more than 30 years in the enforcement
of the Food and Drugs Act has demonstrated that testimonials may
be obtained for practically any article labeled as a treatment for
practically any disease.”20 Why should this be? There are at least a
couple of reasons relevant to our discussion of biodynamics.
First, living organisms are naturally good fighters of illness.
Let us assume we are sick and given an ineffective cure, a red pill.
In such a case we can expect most of the time that the body will
guide us to health of its own accord. It is human nature to assume
that the red pill was at least partly responsible. Similarly,
biodynamic treatments may be heralded for “curing” or
“bettering” plants that are simply bettering themselves naturally.
Or, perhaps just as likely, the viticulturalist is comparing a
conventionally farmed vineyard with a biodynamic alternative
and is impressed by what he does not realize is simply the result of
better soil biodiversity through organic farming.
Second, there is an element of randomness involved. Diseases
fluctuate unpredictably; if a putative drug is taken when disease is
most manifest, it is likely to be lauded for an improvement that is
simply random in character. Similarly, if we take 20 plots of land
and put ten under biodynamic treatment and ten under organic,
we would expect, on average, for five of the biodynamic ones (50
percent) to appear marginally better than their counterparts
simply by virtue of blind luck, even assuming biodynamics to be
entirely ineffective. But for those five farmers, the “evidence” for
the worth of biodynamic agriculture might well appear genuine
enough to solicit testimonials on its behalf.
It is perhaps indisputable that many of the practitioners
of viticultural biodynamics, like Alvaro Espinoza, Lalou
Bize-Leroy, and Stéphane Derenoncourt, are extremely
talented winemakers in their own right. Their effectiveness as
winemakers, however, goes nowhere toward proving the
effectiveness of the biodynamic esoterica that they claim to
practice so assiduously.
While it may appear child’s play to divine causal processes in
the natural world, in fact more rigorous techniques are necessary.
Anecdote and testimony are not always credible. Often what
appears causal may be a mere phantom in the spectator’s mind.
Teasing out these threads is hard work, often involving complex
statistics and careful controls, designed to clarify the case, isolate
the relevant variables, and make it repeatedly testable. So far, all
credible evidence provided by those who have done such work on
biodynamics points ineluctably to the conclusion that biodynamic
esoterica are causally ineffective. As Carl Sagan once said,
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But the
spokesmen of biodynamics have not provided us even reasonable
evidence of their claims.
Concluding thoughts
What we see when looking over the biodynamic landscape is a
vista of starry eyes and good intentions mixed with quasi-religious
hocus-pocus, good salesmanship, and plain scientific illiteracy. It
is true, biodynamic practice does not appear to involve anything
that would be agriculturally harmful; and, indeed, it counsels
methods of organic farming that are, in themselves, beneficial. It
may give lackadaisical viticulturalists a kind of quasi-religious
motivation or inspiration to spend more time at work, using
treatments that amount to mulching and sparse irrigation. Taken
as such, it might seem the practice is worth perhaps muted
applause or a disinterested shrug. In fact, however, it is the
esoteric, occult aspects that give biodynamics its originality and
raison d’être. Get rid of the esoterica, and it is not clear that any
point remains for the small industry of consultants, conferences,
press articles, books, or fanciful homeopathic dilutions.
There are other questionable details of biodynamics that we
will leave aside, such as its passion for the arcana of ancient
Egypt and its naive insistence that there are four primary forces
that control everything: earth, air, fire, and water. Much of this
nonsense originates from the occultist Rudolf Steiner, the
aforementioned founder of biodynamics. Steiner wrote with the
pretensions of being an expert on art, medicine, economy,
psychology, architecture, science, philosophy, religion, history,
pedagogy, and, at the end of his life, agriculture as well. He was,
however, a man who had no real interest in testing his agrocosmic
theories—or in holding them up to any clear standards
of evidence.
It requires profound scientific blindness to follow practices
such as astrology and homeopathy, dynamizations and esoteric
fields of cosmic energy many years after such practices have
been shown to be scientifically barren. Such darkness calls for
exposure to the open light of day. If, as perhaps will be claimed,
there remains any argument in favor of these occult theories,
then we should expect to see evidence for them accumulated in
a rigorous and repeatable fashion. Failing that, what truly
appears new and different about biodynamic practice is only so
much hot air. It should be allowed to rise naturally and dissipate
on the vineyard breeze.