biodynamic-wine

The problem with biodynamics: myths, quacks and pseudoscience

Earlier this year, I appeared as a panel member on the Real Business of Wine webinar ‘Getting the Horn’. Throughout this webinar, the panel explored biodynamics with Monty Waldin, one of the world’s leading expert on biodynamic agriculture. Whilst several of my peers did indeed challenge the notion of biodynamics, I was hesitant to do so, feeling the forum was not the most appropriate of places in which to voice my somewhat fierce opposition to Steiner and this quackery. Shortly after the webinar I released an Instagram video briefly summarising my position, admittedly it wasn’t terribly succinct, it was instead a little provocative and did little to convince others that they should take a more proactive stance against many aspects of biodynamics. Here I hope to lay out my position more clearly, explaining why I so vehemently oppose individuals who profiteer from pseudoscience.

Rudolf Steiner

Born 1861, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner was a social reformer, architect, esotericist, claimed clairvoyant and most notably the founder of anthroposophy, biodynamic agriculture and Steiner education. Steiner believed that there existed an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible through human experience. When he was nine years old, he believed he had seen the spirit of an aunt who had died in a far-off town asking him to help her. By age 15 he claimed to have gained a complete understanding of the concept of time, which he considered to be the precondition of spiritual clairvoyance. His work therein was rooted in mysticism, esotericism and quackery.

Whilst he may have been sophisticated in his speech and convincing of his ideas, adherents of biodynamics tend to brush over much of Steiner’s ideology, particularly those aspects which trouble them ethically.

Steiner was an anti-vaxxer and a pernicious racist.

In 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner was able to confer immunity to a patient suffering from smallpox using the relatively mild cowpox. In 1869 Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the Periodic table, in 1877 Ludwig Boltzmann established a statistical definition of entropy, in 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the x-rays, and in 1905 Albert Einstein discovered his theory of special relativity. At a time when the greatest of thinkers, embracing the scientific method, were contributing in vast swaths toward the security, prosperity, health and wellbeing of society, Steiner was amongst those retarding the nature of understanding and propagating bad ideas in more than one field.

Steiner believed vaccination interfered with karmic development and the cycles of reincarnation, both tenets which were central to his school of thoughts. At a time when the scientific community had its lens focussed on ridding the world of the most deadly diseases, thus preserving the lives of millions, Steiner was pedalling pseudoscience and propaganda, seemingly more concerned with establishing own subjective beliefs and assertions than scientific consensus and human progress.

rudolf-steiner

In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln formally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, calling on the Union army to liberate all slaves in states still in rebellion. For many years there had been a growing philosophical and religious opposition to slavery, the constitution declared all men equal and progressive thinkers globally had begun to challenge the morality of slavery. It became increasingly obvious, at least in the West, that the slave trade no longer had a place in any self-respecting, democratic society. Attitudes amongst leading intellectuals begun to shift toward a more learned appreciation and consideration of equality, whilst it is true that many pursued ill-informed solutions, it is difficult to argue that the mood had not begun to change, particularly amongst distinguished intellects.

However, this was not true for Steiner who, despite the emergence of a steadily progressive narrative amongst peers, refused to embrace any such notion. Steiner claimed that black people were distinguished by an “instinctual life”, as opposed to Caucasians who were to be distinguished by an “intellectual life”. Furthermore, he believed each race had a geographical location where they should live and considered black people in Europe to be “a nuisance”. As if this were not enough, Steiner also suggested that there were a hierarchy in races and that a soul with good karma could hope to be reincarnated into a race which is higher up in the hierarchy No surprises which he thought were the inferior races. These racist beliefs have not added into obscurity, claims of racism in Steiner schools are rife even now.

Of course, I am not arguing that the mere fact that a person holds pernicious beliefs automatically discredits, empirically or scientifically, any work they have at any time produced. This kind of thinking would mean discrediting almost all of the work of many of the greatest thinkers of the past few centuries, who were arguably products of their time, holding views which today would repulse the majority. However, it is worth reflecting upon the fact that Steiner’s views were not at all the consensus, amongst many intellectuals they would have been seen as somewhat nefarious and outdated, this may suggest that Steiner’s beliefs were particularly pernicious and his refusal to heed progressive learnings may be indicative of his pseudoscientific, mystical take on the world.

This being said it surprises me that so many people, most often those who would be vehemently opposed to beliefs of this nature, hold Steiner and his work in such high regard. Both his personal nature and public beliefs ought to at least encourage a healthy level of scepticism in his work. It seems unlikely to suggest that a man with little to no experience in viticulture, who was so juxtaposed to the great thinkers of the time and has failed to postulate any other serious, robust and practical academic contributions, would postulate in his classroom a method of farming which would be more effective than that of those working the fields on a daily basis. It seems even more unlikely that held static and unchanged that the proposed process would continue to offer the most effective form of agriculture for many decades to come.

Pseudoscience

The word pseudoscience is derived from the Greek root pseudo meaning false and from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge”. It is a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on the scientific method. A fundamental characteristic of pseudoscience, one which it is particularly problematic, is that it does not change as scientific understanding advances, nor does it revisit and test its method for efficacy in an attempt to revise doctrine. An example being the use of animal byproducts in biodynamics; why is the use of the horn insisted upon? Would a synthetic product be better? Why is this is not tested?

Pseudoscience is not a victimless crime, the spread of pseudoscience can and does kill. This is precisely why those who are scientifically literate ought to be doing as much practicable to increase understanding of the scientific method, to encourage others to confidently apply scepticism in the face of extraordinary claims.

The most common objection I encounter when denouncing pseudoscience, particularly biodynamics (perhaps because of its ‘harmless’ nature) is one which encourages pacifism for the sake of entertaining the wants and desires of those involved. As if the intentions, however, one may judge them, of proponents discounts the dangerous nature of pseudoscience. In the case of biodynamics, the practice has been effectively shrouded in romantic terminology of connectivity, health and wellbeing. It is sold by its advocates as a panacea, a one-size-fits-all solution to almost any obstacle one may face in growing vines. Building this kind of narrative helps build a defence against the opposition, masks the lack of truth, and in more extreme cases hides nefarious intent.

To be very clear, I’m not advocating the abolition of biodynamics, far from it. I’m a supporter of individual liberty, particularly freedom of expression; however, where actions infringe on the wellbeing (whether materially or physically) of others those actions ought to be appropriately challenged. To elaborate further, I’ve no issue whatsoever with those opting to pursue biodynamics for themselves, instead, I’m concerned only with those who profiteer, the quacks and modern-day snake oil salesman, from the advocacy of pseudoscience based on nothing more than anecdote, bad science and personal bias.

One may think that the advocation of biodynamics, harmless though it may seem, is justifiable for some greater good (such as eradicating pesticides); however, the advocation of pseudoscience erodes public understanding and appreciation for good science, discredits the work of serious scientists and makes it harder to encourage critical thinking. A recent article in Psychology Today explored how seemingly harmless pseudoscience such as TCM may well have contributed to a global pandemic and how the spread of numerous other pseudoscientific beliefs has almost certainly deepened its impact. I would like to briefly explore several examples of how seemingly harmless pseudoscience has cost human life.

In a large study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, patients with nonmetastatic breast, lung, or colorectal cancer who chose alternative therapies had a substantially worse survival rate than patients who received conventional cancer treatments. After a median of 5 years, patients with breast or colorectal cancer were nearly five times as likely to die if they had used an alternative therapy

Global Paediatric Health links anti-vaccine decision-making with the resurgence of measles in the United States. Samoa’s health ministry recently arrested an anti-vaccination campaigner in a crackdown on the spread of misinformation following an outbreak on the South Pacific island. Vaccination rates are extremely low in Steiner schools, in 2008 there was a pertussis outbreak in a Californian Waldorf school, causing its temporary closure.

vaccine-pseudoscience

One particularly troubling form of pseudoscience is climate change denial, 16.4m Americans believe that the climate is not changing. Climate pseudoscience has harmed the scientific community, appeals to scientific uncertainty is often used to forestall action on climate change. Ask anyone even remotely associated with the wine industry about climate change and their concern will ooze forth uncontrollably. They speak of action in this area as an imperative, not only for the sake of viticulture but for the planet. Yet there is significant logical incoherency amongst many advocates of biodynamics who are often those most passionate about sustainability and the climate.

I am not sure these people have appropriately recognised the hypocrisy of their clear disdain for climate change deniers and their own support for pseudoscience in biodynamics. You can’t have your pie and eat it. Both biodynamics and climate change -denial go some way toward eroding or at least negating, a proper understanding of the scientific method and thus degrade its efforts in attempting to encourage a more effective resolution to climate change.

I have already demonstrated how even cases of pseudoscience which may seem innocent have a much larger, lasting and costly, in the case of TCM, reach. Stamping out pseudoscience wherever it may be found, however big or small, undoubtedly contributes to the strength of scientific values and public support.

Biodynamic agriculture

Whilst I won’t bore you with every nonsensical detail of the lengthy 140-page Demeter certification document in all its absurdity I will outline broadly the requirements and dogma of biodynamics.

At the centre of biodynamic farming is a set of specific compost and field preparations such as 502, 504 and 507. Preparation 500 consists of cow horns stuffed with manure compost which are then buried in the ground through winter. Preparation 503 is a concoction of chamomile flowers encased in a cow’s intestine which is also buried through the winter and later excavated.

Animal organs are chosen for the supposed properties they possess as a result of their former function within the animal. For example, chamomile flowers are used in alternative medicine to treat disturbances of the digestive tract and so a section of bovine intestine is used as a ‘catalyst’ in the fermentation.

biodynamics-wine

Demeter’s website even provides instructions on how to stir and spray preparations. It is advised that particular preparations are stirred for an hour in order to not only dissolves the substances but ‘more importantly, release the dynamic forces they contain and transform them into a rhythmic activity which can then stimulate a corresponding activity in the growth and development of the plants in the soil’

The certification dictates everything from the origin of mushroom spores to the husbandry of animals present on the land. It’s difficult to find reliable estimates of the financial costs of converting to biodynamic, even trickier is establishing the cost variation between working organic and biodynamic. What I can say with some level of confidence is that the addition of these many additional steps in any process adds huge complexity and complexity costs money, time and resource, all of which may well be put to better use given that there is no evidence of statistically significant differences between working organically and biodynamically.

Reviewing the science

Linda Chalker-Scott has completed an excellent literature review on biodynamics which I will summarise below. In summary, peer-reviewed research provides little evidence that biodynamic preparations improve soils, enhance microbes, increase crop quality or yields, or control pests or pathogens. There has been observed a general lack of efficacy over the benefits provided by organic methods. The review also establishes that the additional costs associated with formulating and applying the preparations represent an economic loss when compared to organic farming.

There are relatively few easily accessible articles on biodynamics. The earliest studies were published in numerous European countries and had limited international distribution, early research found many of these to be of questionable scientific quality. 

Much of the published research on biodynamics has arisen from the DOK trials, where biodynamic, organic, and conventional agricultural practices could be compared. This study did provide a trove of information delineating the differences between conventional and organic methodologies. Unfortunately, flawed experimental design makes comparisons between biodynamic and organic methods in the DOK trials untenable. 

Nevertheless, several insights can be taken from the DOK studies. Although significant differences were generally found when comparing conventional treatments to organic and biodynamic methods, few differences have been reported between the latter two. The DOK trials represent a systems approach to biodynamic research, which has not lent itself well to traditional scientific experimentation where variability is controlled.

Studies found no significant differences between soils fertilized with preparations 500–508 vs non-biodynamic compost. Other studies confirm a lack of efficacy on soil fertility from preparations 500–507 and quality, though the combined application of preparations 500–507 and other biodynamic field sprays were found to be “moderately effective” in increasing soil pH.

Organic matter in organically treated soils has been shown to be higher than that in unmanured soils treated with biodynamic preparations 500–504. Similarly, studies reported enhanced soil life in organically managed fields compared with those under biodynamic management, which he attributed to the quality and quantity of organic matter in the former plots.

Only a few studies have looked at the effect of biodynamic preparations 502–507, specifically meant for use on the compost. Studies reported a consistently higher pile temperature and more nitrate in the finished compost using these preparations. However, there were no differences in several other variables measured, including pH, cation exchange capacity, moisture content, and ammonium, potassium, and phosphate levels. In contrast, researchers found that biodynamic preparations reduced both compost pile temperature and nitrate concentration.

Researchers have consistently found no differences in microbial activity, biomass, or fungal colonization in biodynamically treated soils compared with organically managed soils. Nor have differences been seen in microbial efficiencies. A single report of greater dehydrogenase activity in biodynamically treated compost linked to greater microbial activity was the only significant difference among several tested parameters and whose potential significance was unexplained.

When added to organically grown crops, biodynamic preparations have been uniformly ineffective. Compared with organically managed systems, additions of biodynamic preparations did not affect yields of cover crops, forage grasses, lentil, rice, spelt, sunflower, or wheat.

Researchers have provided some insight into the effectiveness of the preparations in viticulture. In a thorough analysis, no difference in leaf nutrients or cluster numbers, weights, or yield of California-grown cultivar Merlot. Though some small differences were found in grape chemistry, they were of “doubtful practical significance” according to the authors, leading them to conclude that “there is little evidence the biodynamic preparations contribute to grape quality.” In fact, the finished product may be negatively affected; in one trial organically grown California merlot was notably more preferred by tasters than the biodynamically grown product.

No differences were found in weed control using preparations 500–508 or in cover, species richness, diversity, and evenness of weed species. In one long-term study, biodynamic preparations 501 and, especially, 502 increased disease intensity in organically grown wheat. This discredits the red herring repeated by proponents who justify biodynamics based on it being ‘better than nasty pesticides‘ as if the only options available are pesticides or biodynamics. We should not advocate for pseudoscience to avoid pesticides, particularly where more effective options are available.

Addition of biodynamic preparations did not increase economic return or improve yield over organic methods. In fact, organically produced soybeans and rice were more profitable than those produced using biodynamic methods, both in terms of yield and production costs. Addition of biodynamic preparations not only increases labour and materials costs but also widens the ecological footprint of the practice because of higher machinery use for applying the preparations.

In my experience, many proponents of biodynamics are victims of single study syndrome and confirmation bias, they clutch at convenient and confirming information opposed to taking note of the overwhelming case, both scientifically and rationally, against the efficacy of biodynamics. Ask yourself how likely an expert in biodynamics is to discredit the underlying principle of their own income.

During the Real Business of Wine seminar, I briefly made reference to the astrological components of biodynamic, Monty was quick to rebut this, stating ‘astrology is not really part of biodynamics at all‘. Interestingly he made a jovial reference to the popular British newspaper columnist Mystic Meg, perhaps not seeing the hypocrisy in mocking one quack whilst simultaneously supporting the work of another. Felicity Carter, once an astrologer, was tuned in to the webinar and was quick to point out that this was in fact inaccurate and that a form of the Zodiac did in fact play a part in Steiner’s thinking.

On a total of 8 pages in Demeter’s biodynamic certification document, the regulator makes reference to cosmic influence and rhythm, Steiner himself insinuated that these cosmic influences shaped both the plant and the human, such that he believed the manure produced by an animal in a particular vineyard would produce the ‘right thing‘ for the soil, solely based on a shared cosmic influence between plant and animal. Steiner also referred directly to the Zodiac in a number of lectures. It is clear that Steiner did accept a form of the Zodiac (likely relating to the sidereal Zodiac), it did influence his work and it did open the door for The Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar which falls into much of the narrative surrounding biodynamic agriculture.

I can quickly dispel the myth surrounding the impact of the moon on viticulture as any high-school graduate ought to be able to. The misconception is built on the fallacy that because the moon’s gravitational pull generates something tidal force on huge oceans, therefore, it must affect sap, water and various other fluids associated with viticulture. This is entirely the opposite of what is true. Newton states that force of Gravitational attraction is directly proportional to the product of the masses of two interacting bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The mass of the ocean is massive compared even to that of the largest great lakes, which themselves are classed as non-tidal. Therefore to postulate that the moon’s gravity has a notable impact on plant sap such that tasks should be dictated around this influence is entirely contrary to established physics.

biodynamics-wine

Although I have touched on much of what I consider important, I am sure someone will respond with what I call the ‘DRC Fallacy‘. It is often asserted that because DRC and a number of other top producers are biodynamic this is somehow a validation of the methods efficacy, it is not, correlation does not equal causation, there are many other variables more likely to be the cause of these wineries successes. Additionally in this case there is in fact not even correlation, let alone causation, to support this fallacy as it ignores the many dozens of great producers NOT farming biodynamically.

The bigger picture

No established benefits to biodynamics over organic farming have been successfully established in the available literature. To make erroneous claims based on conjecture, bias and anecdote and to profiteer (regardless of whether demand exists) from a dogmatic process which adds additional complexity, time and cost to an individual (all opportunity cost which could mean success or liquidation) whilst offering no established qualitative or economic benefit is immoral, unethical and severely problematic.

Whilst some forms of pseudoscience may seem harmless, they undoubtedly erode scientific understanding and confidence which in turn can encourage the spread of notably harmful trends. Whilst I advocate freedom of expression, and believe individuals should be able to practise on themselves whatever they wish, those who profiteer from pseudoscience ought to be challenged wherever they are found. The more these challenges are made, the pervasive anti-scientific narrative will become and the more progress is made overall.

25 comments

  1. Very well argued. I have met monty waldin, and did own his book on biodynamic wines, but never ‘took to it’. My fundamental reason for not following Steiner on viticulture is that he was tee-total.

    1. Yeah, I found him to be a pleasant enough guy, relatively smart too, so I’m almost certain he’s aware of the science, or lack thereof. Many like Monty take to shunning arbitrarily what they consider to be ‘silly’ elements whilst not recognising the whole thing is silly. They offer a diluted version which on the surface may seem more plausible, in a sense they appear to remove the embarrassing aspects and try to rationalise the concept, which often fails simply by virtue that the whole thing is rather foolish to begin with.

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  2. Fantastic article, I was completely unaware of any of Steiners other viewpoints. However, your point to his ‘only contribution’ makes total sense. I too often find vineyard managers or winemakers dismissing all of the tenets of Biodynamics and instead incorporating what they can market. It seems many are more interested in saying what it is not, instead of what it is.

  3. Yes. Time and again I have read interviews with biodynamic producers who express the same idea, perhaps in different ways – namely, that since they converted to biodynamics they have become much more attentive farmers, paying more attention to the vines. I expect that’s your answer for any improvements…

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