22 Jan 2013

Biodynamics and wine: marketing meets voodoo

It is a fact that wine is being increasingly produced (and sold) using the label "biodynamic". This trend is still very marginal on a wide scale, but it is getting increasing  coverage in some specialist media channels and wine outlets, ever since a few high-profile producers have adopted this approach to farming. Yet very few people have much idea about what this neologism means, despite the strong inference in contemporary wine marketing that it means "good", and at any rate "better" than simply organic. This is usually backed up by higher prices too, as the majority of biodynamic wine producers sell their wines at the top end of the price scale for their respective origins and types of wines. Labelling (and certifying) your wine as "biodynamic" seems to be a marketing trend that is rising. Of course there is more to this than a marketing tool, but it also just that. While most wine producers involved in this trend are perfectly sincere in their approach, I am a little suspicious that others have jumped on a bandwagon that gains them considerable adavantages here and there. But, above all, I feel that they, particularly the "believers" are misguided and suffering from illusions at various levels.

I am becoming increasingly sceptical of the postulate that "biodynamic" farming actually produces measurably better results than organic, of which it is anyway a subdivision. I have a number of reasons for my scepticism. Putting things bluntly, I would hold that the only difference between organic and biodynamic is a hefty dose of mumbo-jumbo derived from some quasi-religious form of blind faith in a few things that were said almost 100 years ago by a very dodgy esoteric philosopher named Rudoph Steiner (photo below).

It is also a fact that Steiner (1861-1925) never practiced agriculture himself, disapproved of alcoholic beverages, and held some very strange views, some of which would probably be condemned by current law in many countries. This is why I find it so odd that many practitioners, and, unhappily, a number of my journalist colleagues, flaunt his name around as if he were a reliable reference for anything. How can one take seriously someone who believed that children should not be taught foreign languages until the age of 12 or when they have "integrated their astral bodies", or that white women would have mulatto children if they read "negro litterature", or that the Aryan race is the superior one, or that certain insect pests are spontaneously created by “cosmic influences”, or that eating potatoes “is one of the factors that have made men and animals materialistic”? And the list of Steiner's loony ideas on all kinds of subjects just goes on and on!

A very well documented article by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin, called Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle was published in December 2007 on CSI, the web site of the Committee for Skeptical Enquiry. It does its best to be fair in its approach, and is very well documented and well worth reading. And I am somewhat appalled by the fact that so few of those who talk so freely about biodynamics have taken the trouble to read it or indeed any other critical looks at this quasi-religious and ritualized set of procedures that were laid down by an obvious nutcase who never actually farmed.

The only significant difference between organic farming and biodynamic farming is the use of various "preparations" that are sprayed on the vines having been diluted so much (and "dynamized", which simply means well-stirred) as to have any active substances reduced in intensity to below the level of a single molecule. One can think what one wants about homeopathy, but it has been shown many times that belief in its beneficial effects is the key element in any effectiveness it may have on some people, as otherwise a placebo obtains equally good (or poor) results.

Below I have quoted, in italics, a small part of the article from CSI, to illustrate the incredible (the word is inadequate) strangeness of some aspects of the biodynamic approach:

Steiner proposes his “preparations” in lectures four and five: various small constructions to be added to the field or compost at various times of the year, such as the burial of a cow’s horn filled with manure (now called Preparation 500) or filled with powdered quartz (Preparation 501), burial of yarrow flowers in a stag’s bladder (502), chamomile in a cow’s intestine (503), oak bark in the skull of a domestic animal (505), or dandelions in a “bovine mesentery” (506) (Steiner 2004, pp. 72-99).

Adding the preparations can be a labor-intensive process, especially since some preparations must be done in quantity, depending on the size of one’s fields. Farmers may well wonder: why go to all the effort? What sort of justification does Steiner provide? Let us take the case of Preparation 502. Yarrow is used because, “Its homeopathic sulphur-content . . . enables the yarrow to ray out its influences to a greater distance and through large masses.” As for why we should put it in a stag’s bladder, Steiner gets to the heart of his discussion here:

The bladder of the stag is connected . . . with the forces of the Cosmos. Nay, it is almost the image of the Cosmos. We thereby give the yarrow the power quite essentially to enhance the forces it already possesses, to combine the sulphur with the other substances. (Steiner 2004, p.93)
Why the concern about sulphur in particular? We are expected to remember that “the ethereal moves with the help of sulphur along paths of oxygen” and the like. In other words, sulphur is a key ingredient for receipt of ethereal forces. Or so the story goes. But, at any rate, we don't need to test the reader’s patience with a complete exegesis to make clear that Steiner has given no justification whatever for this practice. Indeed, Preparation 502 is actually one of the better examples, since many of his others are simply stated without the slightest attempt at explication or justification. But it is all of a piece: in the preface to the book of agricultural lectures, written by one of Steiner’s pupils, we find the surprising claim that “In 1923 Rudolf Steiner described for the first time how to make the bio-dynamic compost preparations, simply giving the recipe without any sort of explanation-just 'do this and then that'” (p. 5). Apparently the explanations, such as they were, came later.

Putting aside the massive doses of mumbo-jumbo which makes all this seem suspiciously like voodoo, the main problem with the assertion that biodynamics improve either plant or soil health is that there have hardly been any scientific tests done, at least with a totally valid protocol, to compare the results on a single plot of land, with the same grape and viticultural techniques used, between part of the plot farmed organically and part biodynamically. A Swiss test (Steiner's legacy is in Switzerland) published in 2002 was seriously flawed as to its scientific protocol. Washington State University conducted a scientific study that was published in 2000. This was conducted by John Reganold (who is also a biodynamic consultant, so presumably a "believer") and Lynne Carpenter-Biggs, and they said this "no differences were found between soils fertilized with biodynamic vs non-biodynamic compost". Another six-year study was published by the Washington State Laboratory in 2005 in a peer-review journal. The object was to compare organic to biodynamic farming of wine grapes: "No consistent significant differences were found between the biodynamically treated and untreated plots for any of the physical, chemical or biological parameters tested....analysis of yields showed no differences between treatments....there were no differences in yield, cluster count, cluster weight and berry weight." This would seem to show that the sole difference between organic and biodynamic treatment of a vineyard, namely the spraying of these "preparations", has no measurable effect on the vines. As to testing the differences in wines themselves, that is virtually impossible as there are so many other variables that come into play.

What also bothers me about the whole biodynamic attitide, apart from its very dubious green/brown origins, is its effective negation of science and any form of objective, experimental validation. The usual answer that I get from a biodynamist who manages to avoids too much mystification is "it works". What they have never really done properly is to explain why and how, and prove that there is any appreciable difference from normal organic farming that takes cares of the soil. I can fully understand how abandoning weedkillers and other heavy chemical treatments will, together with careful husbandry and time spent observing plant and soil life, gradually improve the vitality of both, bar any major catastrophe. But practices that include believing that a cow breathes in cosmic influences through its horns (and that this unusual performance can be in any way beneficial to the vine) should surely be given what they deserve at best: a good laugh.