Why biodynamic wine can never be vegan

Early vegan pioneer, Leslie J Cross, defined veganism as seeking ‘an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man‘. Today, The Vegan Society defines veganism as a ‘philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose‘. Alex J. O’Connor has noted that ‘veganism is not about food‘ while Jacy Reese Anthis argues there to be ‘strong practical reasons to oppose any commodification of animals, not just that which is cruel or egregious‘. For the layman, veganism is an ethical framework that objects to any practice or product necessitating the slaughter and/or commodification of animals. Presented in 1924 by occultist, Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics is a form of esoteric alternative agriculture rooted in anthroposophy and mysticism. Today advocates present biodynamics simply as a framework that considers the farm as belonging to an ecologically interrelated system. Hardly revolutionary. Often negated though, is that Steiner asserted the health of this system relies upon the harvesting of cosmic energy. This energy, he claimed, is harnessed in part through the use of nine preparations. Each component of these preparations is said to possess a unique characteristic fundamental to the flourishing of cosmic forces, including an array of animal organs. In this essay, I make two distinct arguments. The first, that wine made according to biodynamic practice can never be considered vegan. The second, that biodynamic agriculture is philosophically opposed to veganism. Such that, any product of biodynamic agriculture must by definition be considered non-vegan.

Understanding veganism

While vegetarianism is concerned primarily with abstaining from the consumption of meat, veganism is a philosophical concern opposed to the commodification of animals in any form. Where practicable, vegans refuse to purchase products that require or have involved, the conscious slaughter or suffering of animals. Further, vegans object to products and services that create direct demand for animal agriculture, the slaughter or suffering of animals, or both. Importantly, a product need not contain any animal products to be non-vegan. Make-up products tested on animals, palm oil derived from extensive deforestation, and wine filtered using animal products are all considered non-vegan.

Vegans do, however, observe sensible practical limitations. One could argue, albeit somewhat petulant, that no product is vegan for almost all involve at least the indirect death of an animal. Growing crops displaces native wildlife, insecticides kill bugs, automobile use contributes to pollution, and so forth. In the context of wine, some argue that ‘for a vegan vineyard to exist in a wholly clean state … it has to exist inside a protective bubble … because by absolutist vegan standards, no animal can come into contact with the soil, the grapes or in fact any part of the vineyard‘. However, this false equivalence is fallacious, failing to accurately represent the broad consensus on the practical limitations of veganism.

As I discussed with Loui Blake, London-based vegan restauranteur, entrepreneur, speaker and angel investor in the plant-based hospitality sector, what veganism rejects is the intentional and conscious suffering and slaughter of animals. Where a product, practice or activity does not necessitate either, this is to say that any animal death (bugs crushed in grape presses etc.) is wholly unintentional and not intrinsic of the product itself, it can be considered to be within the bounds of practical vegan limitations. That is to say, intent matters. For example, though some animals and bugs may die as a result of conventional plant agriculture, the very nature of conventional plant agriculture does not mandate the slaughter of animals. And so, it is not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where little to no animals die, even by accident. In contrast, if a product or practice relies upon the slaughter and or suffering of animals, such that it creates direct demand for animal slaughter, it is safe to consider it outside the bounds of practical vegan limitations.

The biodynamic preparations

The Rudolf Steiner Archives & e.Lib notes that Steiner’s agricultural recommendations are ‘much more than organic, and involve working with the cosmos, earth, and spiritual entities‘, as well as making clear that to achieve this ‘Steiner prescribes specific ‘preparations’ for the soil, as well as other distinct methods born from his profound understanding of the material as well as spiritual worlds‘. Biodynamics in this sense can be considered anthroposophy’s praxis.

Beginning in lecture 1, Steiner told listeners how his agriculture lectures would outline ‘what is most important for agriculture in the life of the Earth‘. Throughout the series, Steiner asserts that plants alone do not possess the cosmic connection required to bring about flourishing soils. With this in mind, Steiner goes on to instruct that agriculturalists ‘tap into the animal kingdom‘ to facilitate this relationship with astral influences. Steiner is clear, without the animal organ acting as a cosmic facilitator, his preparations are devoid of function.

The use of animal organs in Steiner’s biodynamic preparations is as follows; BD500 is stuffed inside a cows horn, as is BD501, BD502 into the urinary bladders of a red deer, BD503 into the small intestines of cattle, BD505 into the skull of a domesticated animal, and BD506 into the mesentery of a cow. Why these specific organs were chosen and their contribution to the realisation of cosmic forces is as follows.

Preparation 501, Steiner notes, is intended to release cosmic energies as the earth ‘exhales‘ in Spring. For this reason, he instructs the use of cow horns, believing the cow to be an earthly animal. During lecture 4, Steiner noted that ‘the cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers‘. Further, he believed the horn was ‘radiating astrality‘ and that ‘if you could crawl about inside the living body of a cow … you, would smell how the astral life and the living vitality pours inward from the horns‘. Specifically, Steiner advises using only the horn of a cow. This, he proposed, was to optimise ‘female, mothering and fertile energies‘. BD500 utilises cow horns for the same purpose.

For BD502, Steiner instructed the use of a stag’s bladder due to the function of the bladder within the animal, one of purification, specifically in excreting concentrated forces. In lecture 5, Steiner remarks that in the stag’s bladder ‘we have the necessary forces‘ and that ‘the bladder of the stag is connected rather with the forces of the Cosmos. Nay, it is almost an image of the Cosmos‘. In the case of BD503, Steiner’s prescription is not entirely clear; however, during lecture 5 he does propose that ‘the indications of Spiritual Science invariably consider the great and wide circles of life and that ‘the substance of the intestinal walls is far more important‘. Steiner recommends filling the bovine intestine with camomile flowers as if one were ‘making a sausage’.

BD505 is said to regulate and balance calcium levels. Oak bark is collected and stuffed into the skull of a domestic animal. The skull was recommended based on it being a ‘vessel’ made from calcium-rich bone. Furthermore, Steiner viewed the skull as a ‘moon vessel’. Steiner notes that if one observes the development of an embryo the first thing to develop is the skull and the sensory system. What this has to do with agriculture one can only guess. Steiner preferred the skull of a domesticated animal given that these animals have been ‘influenced by humans and are open to connection with human intelligence‘.

For BD506, Steiners instructs agriculturalists to ‘gather the little yellow heads of the dandelion‘, let them fade a little, press them together, and sew them up into bovine mesentery. The mesentery (the sheath or “skin” that supports and contains the animal’s organs) is said to have ‘a very sensitive influence on life forces’.

To the rational observer, these are clearly the ramblings of a pseudoscientific quack. Steiner himself recognised that his lectures ‘may seem utterly mad‘, pleading with listeners to ‘remember how many things have seemed utterly mad, which have nonetheless been introduced a few years later‘, comparing his mysticism to the construction of mountain railways. Absurdity notwithstanding, far from an added extra, Steiner is clear, animal organs are paramount to his preparations functionality, they can essentially be considered the mechanism by which the preparations ‘become effective’. It follows that, the use of these preparations thereby necessitates the slaughter of animals, either directly or indirectly. This is to say that, in the absence of a complete departure from Steiner’s preparations, it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which the slaughter of animals is not a prerequisite to biodynamic agriculture, and thus biodynamic wine.

The conflict is clear

And so, the conflict is clear. By design, biodynamic agriculture requires agriculturalists to support the slaughter and or commodification of animals. If the entire world were to cease eating meat, the demand for animal byproducts in biodynamic agriculture remains as it does today. Whether certified or not, the use of these preparations is ubiquitous among biodynamic producers. And so, just as wines fined using animal products are considered non-vegan, so too should biodynamic wine.

Objections to this argument are few and far between, for the most part, the elephant is blissfully ignored. New Zealand-based biodynamic winemaker, Seresin, has argued that because they offer their cows ‘a beautiful, chemical-free life, with no demands except their poo‘ that they are not, in their opinion, exploiting them. Further, they argue that following the end of their luxurious life, they simply don’t want to ‘waste’ the cows horns etc.

While non-vegans can debate whether or not animal agriculture qualifies as exploitation or not, for vegans it’s clear cut. Animal agriculture (Demeter mandates this) constitutes the commodification of animals and as such is diametrically opposed to veganism. As to the use of horns etc., this too falls outside the realm of being considered vegan. Just as a leather jacket, which may, or may not, have been the sole reason an animal was slaughtered is not considered vegan, neither is an agricultural practice demanding the use of a horn. In the case of biodynamic agriculture, the cow is kept solely to yield product, the horn is not a fortunate byproduct, it is desired. By definition this constitutes commodification. Biodynamic agriculture does not simply utilise animal organs by happenchance, it creates direct demand for both the animal and its byproduct.

Further, Seresin proposes that ‘you could also argue that if our staff eat meat and we are fueled by meat in order to produce our wines, does that also mean the wines can’t be considered vegan?‘. Whether the person making a product is vegan or not is not considered by any reasonable vegan to be a marker of whether a product is vegan or not. As noted above, practicality and necessity are reasonable markers to appraise a product. It is both reasonable and practicable to purchase non-biodynamic wine, it would be neither to first determine the dietary choices of vineyard workers.

Finally, they propose that ‘if you separate the wine from the grapes, the wine itself is vegan‘. This argument makes the least sense. Vegans do not separate the product from the production. This is the most poignant difference separating veganism and vegetarianism. Just as wine made using egg whites, make-up and domestic cleaning products tested on animals, and white sugar processed using bone char are all non-vegan owing to the production process, so too is biodynamic wine. The wine is not vegan, even when considered in isolation.

There is the interesting case of Querciabella, a Tuscan estate purporting to practice plant-based biodynamics. Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni cherrypicks Steiner’s writing, noting that in his view ‘biodynamics is a validation of the interconnectedness of everything’. Numinous though it may be, this approach constitutes denouncing the ten commandments yet claiming to practise Christianity. At the heart of biodynamics is the preparations, the preparations harness cosmic energy, without them biodynamics serves no purpose as per Steiner’s instructions. Querciabella may market their wines as biodynamic; however, they certainly don’t practise biodynamics.

Conclusion

Biodynamics is an inflexible, quasi-spiritual mandate, instructing relatively stringent adherence to its preparations, usually at least two of these as a minimum expectation whether certified or not. Official certification mandates all nine as well as animal agriculture and commodification. What biodynamics is to the individual remains irrelevant as to whether or not it is vegan. By all accepted measures, as well as already accepted product standards, the production of biodynamic wine directly conflicts with vegan values, creating direct demand for animal slaughter, falling well outside practical limitations and practicability. Short of a complete revolution, biodynamics can never be vegan. Just as capitalism requires access to capital accumulation, biodynamics requires the preparations as they were prescribed by Steiner. The lectures are clear, without animal organs the preparations are useless and with no alternative mechanism established, the animal slaughter of biodynamics is grounded solely in mysticism. In essence, these preparations amount to sacrificial rituals. Considering the exponential growth of veganism globally, a trend set to continue, producers may want to consider carefully whether excluding a growing portion of the market in pursuit of pseudoscientific mysticism is a productive economic decision.

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