Biodynamic farming

Today I want to address something troubling me. Lately I’ve been seeing the words “vegan” and “biodynamic” paired up more and more often. If you are even familiar with the latter term you probably associate it with fancy wine. It is also becoming a popular growing method for the veggies served in numerous vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but if told the things biodynamics actually involves many vegans would do a spit-take.

Biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner, also founder of the spiritual philosophy Anthroposophy, in a 1924 series of lectures to farmers concerned about soil and crop degradation. While it shares some principles (and controversy) in common with organic farming, Steiner said there were “spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming”, it goes far beyond it. I mean it’s really way out there.

In those lectures Steiner describes a system of agriculture involving potions, rituals, and various spiritual ideas. As described biodynamic farming involves two sets of “preparations” or magical potions composing a total of nine preparations (labeled 500-508), the first two are the “field preparations” to be sprayed in near homeopathic dilutions (one teaspoon to 40–60 liters of water) over the entire field. The method for preparing these concoctions is as follows.

* 500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground (40–60 cm below the surface) in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.
* 501: Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It can be mixed with 500 but usually prepared on its own (mixture of 1 tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 liters of water)

…oh, and when mixing the preparations in water don’t forget whirling it in different directions every second minute. You may as well throw in some eye of newt and wool of bat for good measure.

The next seven are the “compost preparations” with some particularly objectionable ingredients.

* 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
* 503: Chamomile blossoms (Matricaria recutita) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
* 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in full bloom are stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
* 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs past.
* 506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
* 507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) are extracted into water.
* 508: Horsetail (Equisetum)
One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other, except for the 507 preparation, which is stirred into 5 liters of water and sprayed over the entire compost surface.

I’m not making this up. People really do this and really think it makes for a better crop. The justifications are quite vague and magical statements about “life forces” and the whole farm being one organism. Steiner explains the prominence of cow horns in the preparations saying, “The cow has horns in order to reflect inwards the astral and etheric formative forces, which then penetrate right into the metabolic system so that increased activity in the digestive organism arises by reason of this radiation from horns and hoofs.” Maybe it lost something in translation but I don’t know what the heck he is talking about.

Biodynamic farmers also have wonderfully holistic ways to deal with “pests” such as field mice. First you skin some mice and burn the skin, then sprinkle the resulting ash across your land as it contains “the corresponding negative force as against the reproductive power of the field-mouse.” This, of course, must be done when Venus is in Scorpio, but I think that’s just obvious. There exist similar rituals for both weeds and insects too, along with an astrological calendar dictating the best times for sowing and reaping. Some farms even practice what is know as geo-acupuncture. Again, Im not making this up.

Beyond the outright weirdness of it all, there are some strong criticisms of biodynamics in that it does not lead to more efficient or sustainable agriculture, is near impossible to test scientifically, has failed the scientific tests that have been performed, and that it clearly involves animal slaughter for entirely magical reasons. I think Ben, a commenter on a sfist article summed up my feelings in a pithy manner, “Not sure that “biodynamic” is compatible with veganism, involving as it does burying cow heads on alternate Tuesdays while praying to Ishtar or whatever.”
So what do you think?

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22 Responses to “Biodynamic farming”

  1. Gopiballava Says:

    It absolutely would not meet my standards of vegetarianism. Hard to believe people take it seriously.

  2. AmyOh2 Says:

    Interesting. I’ve heard that word biodynamic before but I confess I never bothered to learn about what it means. Aside from the question of whether it is compatible with veganism, it *does* certainly seem like witchcraft. Pretty far out in left field!

    I found an article in the skeptic’s dictionary on Rudolf Steiner, he does seem to be quite a character. I might read up some more on Anthroposophy for pure entertainment purposes. 🙂

    Vegans and vegetarians do need to be aware that many farming practices use animal by-products like bone meal and such. Most of us are doing the best job we can with what we have, I think. I know there are some vegan permaculture farms that have been successful but I confess I don’t know too much about that subject.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      great point, animal inputs like blood, bone & fish meal are actually common to both organic and conventional agriculture. The only way to really avoid them is through “veganic” farming, which isnt that widespread. I like the veganic idea on principle, but just a little less organic. I think we should use the lowest impact chemicals in farming and sometimes thats the synthetic version. But I really like the idea of steering away from animal inputs and focusing more on “pest” repelling than “pest” killing

      unfortunately I dont know of any scientific studies of veganic farming efficiency yet

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I attended a Waldorf school as a youth so I’m very familiar with Steiner’s eccentricities, but there are some positive elements to his teachings. The “preperations” are hocus pocus but the emphasis on companion planting and creating a balanced ecosystem on the farm seem like good ideas. I’ve heard that crop diversity helps preserve soil health and limits insect infestations. But, of course, biodynamic farming has no monopoly on sustainable techniques.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      yeah the guy had some wacky ideas like that the “aryan race” descended from the inhabitants of Atlantis.

      Great point though, that some of his agricultural ideas have merit, his teachings have been a major influence on organic farming. Though I still think his avoidance of all synthetic inputs was misguided.

  4. Jacqueline Says:

    My daughter went to a Waldorf school and it is quite impressive! I can understand you questioning it but I don’t know why it surprises you so much, herbs for gardening is quite common even outside of biodynamic gardening.

    The weather, ocean and so many other changes take place during the different lunar cycles. Plenty of wine makers who don’t believe in hocus pocus find that the taste of the wine is well worth it.

    It’s not that unusual to plant and harvest according to the planets as it’s been done since the beginning of time with excellent results. It’s only recently that we have gotten away from all that. Just look at the Farmer’s Almanac.

    When Steiner was living we did not have all the pollutants in our soil or animals either. As a vegan I believe it can be done since animals die and make compost anyways. His seems like an organized scientific way to make the most of this system.

  5. Timberati Says:

    “When Steiner was living we did not have all the pollutants in our soil or animals either.”

    I would re-examine that one. In Steiner’s day, people were still tossing waste (chemical and organic) products in waterways. The death rate from foodborne illness was in the 140 per 100,000 rate (it’s now around 0.147 per 100,000). These “good old days” were hardly the halcyon drenched period that it seems you’re alluding to.

    To his credit, Steiner said his ideas should be tested scientifically. According to Brian Dunning, “All you’ll need is an astral and etheric formative force gauge.” They probably sell those on Amazon.com

  6. Violet B Eggtooth Says:

    Thanks for this – i attended a biodynamic conference last weekend and was informed the Arc Angel Michael is in charge, star people are guiding higher vibrating humans, Rastafarians are Pleadians of the 7-leaf plant, vibrational levels determine human value, all the worthless ones have been removed, with numerous bibilical language to support this . . . my poor aura got all like weepy and slumpy . . . oh and the farmer recommends we pick bugs off plants and squash them thereby adding composting material – i prefer moving them or letting them have a plant to nibble that’s not in my garden.

  7. Dora Kaplan Says:

    I’m a vegan smallholder. Some of biodynamics is simply good, organic management. I’ve been making ‘biodyamic’ compost for some time – I simply use my own preparations, which are exclusively vegan.
    Good management will result in differential animal death. If you encourage farm biodiversity, you’ll get hedgehogs and frogs, and by implication you’re setting up predators to eliminate slugs and snails. If you don’t provide a habitat for hedgehogs and slugs you’re effectively reducing their population. If you weed, till and turn the soil, you’re exposing slug eggs, earth worms and larvae to birds. If you don’t weed and till, you’re making a decision to reduce the bird population by limiting a food source (birds have adapted to our farming practices and some species depend on traditional, agricultural practices).
    Whatever you do, or don’t do, has an effect on animal life. There’s not a simple formula, moral or practical.

  8. Pico Says:

    I’ve found that those whose do use biodynamic methods don’t know why it works, they just experience it. It’s something that happens to the organic matter, “transubstantiation”, while it is buried in this horn.
    As a vegan I can’t agree with the preperations, but to deny all biodynamic theory is to deny many truths of our existence. Ideas like where conciousness originates, the essence of a plant, regeneration of the planet we live on.
    With organic farming you could be adding nutrients to the soil via compost, worm bin methods, etc. but you may not have a holistic view of the land. With biodynamic theory you can create new soil, or humus, that will be inherently productive. I may be wrong but I find organic farming to have the possibility of being a static system, while biodynamic is always integrated into everything else.
    We can’t look to the ideas of the past and write them off completely. Is there any reason why we can’t look at the information objectively and decide for ourselves, creating a new system that works?

  9. Sachio Ko-yin Says:

    My take so far is, as a vegan….short of out right vegan agriculture ,we may do far better with Biodynamic foods compared to the usual grocery shop. Biodynamics farms are in no way vegan or animal rights oriented, However they may well come as close to animal welfare as we can get, given the very spiritual and relational ideas they bring into animal husbandry. Yes, the preparations are purely magical, and are by no means compatible with an animal rights vs animal welfare philosophy. but compared to how the lettuce I bought at the grocery store is completely tied in with big agriculture cruelty and worker expatiation, as a vegan I’d much rather eat bio dynamic lettuce than nearly anywhere else…if I could afford it…being a whole other discussion.

  10. Robert Wire Says:

    “Linear thinkers” like the author of this article don’t get it. Steiner knew the Universe is one, meaning everything is related. I can’t wait to begin my biodynamic farm. It will produce superior vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In case you don’t know what linear thinkers are, they can’t see outside of the box. Steiner was in my opinion, a mystic. He had access to esoteric/occult knowledge that most of us do not have. Have you ever read the story about what Steiner did about a rabbit infestation? I suggest you google it and you’ll see he was a genius.

  11. Helen Says:

    Reblogged this on Stop Steiner in Stroud and commented:
    Interesting to read how a vegan views Biodynamic farming.

  12. gperra Says:

    Reblogged this on La Vérité sur les écoles Steiner-Waldorf.

  13. Jeremie Langevais Says:

    Preparations (labeled 500-508) in biodynamic agriculture is just a natural way to fertilize the soil, a kind of “the old ways”. You’re not forced to use chemicals in agriculture. And nobody is forcing you to eat those vegetables also. You don’t mention that biodynamic agricuture prevent desertification that you see in massive agriculture. And that some wine producers refers to it when they see that pesticide on grapes change the taste.

  14. Hollywood Tomfortas Says:

    Here is a long and excellent article about wine as a sacrament, with special focus on bio-dynamic wine. Along the way, the author gives a really good summary of Steiner and his ideas and mentions Lynne Carpenter-Boggs as the leading scientist who has done peer-reviewed research on Bio-Dynamics since 1990.

    http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/how-new-world-wine-resurrects-old-world-religion/

    “In the late 1990s, Lynne and a colleague set up a series of long-term experiments designed to test the efficacy of Steiner’s preparations. Up to that point, little of the research into biodynamic agriculture had been properly refereed. The first of their experiments compared ordinary organic compost piles with organic compost piles treated with biodynamic preparations. In the biodynamic piles, Lynne found slightly higher temperatures and new populations of microbes. She also found faster decomposition and greater retention of nutrients, improvements that showed up consistently across several years. But when the preparations were added to the soil, the results were ‘unimpressive’, she told me.

    How the biodynamic compost piles improved is still a mystery, because the preparations are too thinly spread to boost nutrient levels on their own. Lynne said they might serve as catalysts for complex organic processes we don’t yet understand. They could, for instance, trigger butterfly effects among microbes. ‘We know that microorganisms communicate with each other by several means, including through diffusible molecules,’ she said. ‘But the chemistry of microbial signalling is a new frontier in microbiology, and it’s very complex.’

    I asked Carpenter-Boggs if she thought Steiner’s work should be regarded as a source of genuine insight into agriculture, given all the pseudoscience he promoted. ‘Biodynamic agriculture is meant to change the way you look at a farm,’ she said, ‘but we don’t have to take all the details at face value. The compost preparations, for instance, could work by forcing you into valuing biodiversity, because you have to use all these different animal parts.’”

  15. Kristy Says:

    As someone married to a viticulturist and living on 600 acres of wine grapes, I can safely say that biodynamics is nothing more than a way of marketing shit wine for a ridiculous price. I

  16. Lizzie Says:

    Hello All. I’m a lifelong vegetarian, and a co-owner of an organic farm. The farm has also recently become biodynamic. I am also a biological scientist by training. The three main things I’d like to say are:
    1. Biodynamics does use animal parts – mainly cow horns – in making its preparations. But animals don’t have to be slaughtered to obtain those parts. Every animal dies of old age at some point.
    2. Biodynamics is not based on Western science. Rudolf Steiner was thinking in another paradigm. So it isn’t reasonable to expect BD to make sense from the point of view of Western science.
    3. I cannot explain why Biodynamics works, and I find Steiner’s writing very unclear. But there is a wealth of evidence that BD does work: it creates extremely healthy soils, plants and ecosystems. It is possible to taste that health in food that is grown biodynamically! For example, biodynamic wine is far-superior to conventional wine.

    I too think Steiner’s ideas were eccentric. But if more farmers used his methods, our earth would be healthier. Conventional farming, using fertilisers, pesticides etc. is doing terrible damage.

  17. Seb Says:

    Didn’t someone write a book entitled ‘Why Smart People Believe Weird Things’?
    Taste is subjective (re. biodynamic wine is superior). How can one taste health? Biodynamic farming equals healthy soil – break that down, what in biodynamic farming causes healthy soil? Is it anything different from organic farming? Biodynamic farming, that is every instance of farming biodynamically, is a hell of a lot of variables, how can we know that the things actually causing the healthy soil are unique to biodynamics? I think some of this may be approaching the questions scientifically. Whereever Steiner was coming from – East, West or outer space – biodynamics can be analysed scientifically, there is no exemption, those seeking exemption are simply trying to protect their “spiritual” leanings.

  18. Seb Says:

    PS I can’t get past the signs of the zodiac in biodynamics. How can patterns projected on to stars that are nothing more than cultural fairy-tales, and the fact that the stars involved have no relationship to each other than they look close together from this planet, really have any bearing on agriculture or horticulture? The author has been pejoratively labelled a “linear” thinker – is that opposed to a squiggly thinker capable of linking the tree outside the window, the unwashed cup in the sink, and the cat’s latest fur ball, into a revelation of greater truth?

  19. Atmaja Yoel Anan Says:

    Here is an article on vegan alternatives to the biodynamic preparations: https://goo.gl/Nr7kJi

  20. sacredagriculture Says:

    I’m glad to see some people have figured out that biodynamic agriculture is NOT compatible with the vegan and vegetarian philosophy/spirituality and way of living. Not matter what the biodynamic assocation shills may think or say…

    Btw, there is no vegan alternative to making preparations, don’t be fooled by such claims… Biodynamic means following Steiner’s indications and do a certain degree, at least for legal/marketing purposes, being certified by DEMETER. What this means is there is no alternatives to making BD preparations; deer and cows MUST be slaughtered and their guts taken out to ferment plants inside their bladder, intestine, etc. End of story.

    People need to know what is going on in both Organic (co-opted and corrupted by the government) and Biodynamic. ALL the facts need to be told, not only what marketing feels is best to sell more products.

    Biodynamic agriculture is NOT sustainable and not a sacred practices, no matter what the so-called “experts/gurus” tell us. They lost their perspective when they decided to put their brains on ‘park’ and beLIEve what a former Rosicrucian/ Theosophist (i.e. change agent ushering in the new age agenda (sic)) told them, rather than decide to build a loving relationship with nature on their own, coming from within their own spiritual authority, at their own pace, on their own terms.

    I suspect people are falling into the biodynamic agriculture trap because they are searching for a deeper spiritual meaning in their lives. Good for them!. They know that Big Ag and Monstanto is perverted and they feel that Organic does not quite fill them with the “spiritual willies” they need. “Spiritual willies” is the “rush”, the excitement and tingling that we feel inside our guts when something moves us beyond the monotony of materialism, and into something closer to the spirit world where we came from. This is why cults and religion are so successful; they make people feel like something bigger, deeper and transcendent exists, something that reminds them that they are spirits caught in a material world and that there is a magical way out of their predicament.

    Steiner knew this being an initiate and high level member of various secret ancient mysteries schools. BTW, if you didn’t know, once you reach level 10 of the Rosicrucian you may be asked to join the “Illuminati”, via a secred ritual… Good for Steiner for making that far!

    This is why Anthroposophy (i.e. Steiner’s creation tailored to corral Christians into the new age) is full of “mysterious rituals” that only a clairvoyant can understand… This is the ruse used by cult leader; only they have a direct connection with things of the “higher world”. You don’t and can’t so you must follow their guidance. You see, Anthroposophists don’t have the luxury to question Steiner’s indications (i.e. dogma); they do as told because he is the all knowing guru/priest. People can only climb the Anthroposophy ladder by studying Steiner books, becoming experts at quoting Steiner at whim: “Steiner said….”. Just like all members of a Cult they cannot question their Guru and feel inferior to him.

    This is why Biodynamic Agriculture is a spiritual cul-de-sac; it can only bring you so far on the path of self-discovery. If you can’t walk on your own and feel stuck, then you can follow Steiner…

    Biodynamic is NOT vegan, is NOT “saving the planet” (i.e. DEMETER slogan), and is NOT “sustainable”. At best it is a misguided attempt at finding the deeper meaning of life and a case of spiritual narcissism. – “Look at me I’m doing magic in the garden and know the true secrets of the cosmos”. :S

    Some of us can think for ourselves and can cut right through the bullshit (pun intended) no matter how it has been composted or marketed.

    Killing deer, killing cows, killing insects, killing weeds, etc. is not a sacred practice, and covering the planet with cow dung is not sustainable, end of question.

    The time has come for a real paradigm shift: http://www.sacredagriculture.wordpress.com

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