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are biodynamic olives better for you?

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cowhorns and bullshit

cowhorns and bullshit

This afternoon I was watching a Landline program, in which an Australian olive farmer was described as doing very good business, the key to her success being that her olives were marketed as ‘biodynamic’. It’s such a catchy term isn’t it? Don’t buy  those sluggish, more or less static olives, get stuck into these lively, energetic ones.

But what does biodynamic really mean? Is there any science to it, or is it just another fad? Well, anybody with a reasonably decent scientific education, or self-education, will not be encouraged by the fact that ‘biodynamic agriculture’ was first developed by Rudolf Steiner, that utterly earnest pedlar of pseudo-scientific dogma of the early twentieth century. So, okay, let’s leave aside the more loopy beliefs that he and his followers tried to put into practice, such as ‘astrological’ sowing, burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow (thus releasing “cosmic forces in the soil”), and the general treatment of the farm and its soils as an ‘organic entity’. What, then, is left of ‘biodynamics’ that makes it any different from integrated farming techniques practiced the world over?

Well, as far as I can see, nothing. However , biodynamic farming is also ‘organic’, in that it subscribes to zero toleration of synthetic fertilisers. What exactly makes it different from other ‘organic’ farming is an interesting question, but it seems that, like ‘organic’ farming, it follows a more or less arbitrary set of practices, which differ from country to country, in order to gain ‘certification’. Australia’s Department of Agriculture has this fact sheet up on its website, which conflates ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ produce in a revealing way. There we learn that there’s a National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, the most recent update of which I’ve tracked down here. Near the beginning of the document we have ‘definitions’, two of which are clearly relevant to my little investigation:

biodynamic: means an agricultural system that introduces specific additional requirements to an organic system. These are based on the application of preparations indicated by Rudolf Steiner and subsequent developments for management derived from practical application, experience and research based on these preparations.

biodynamic preparation(s): means the natural activators developed according to Steiner’s original indications.

All of which appears to indicate that ‘biodynamic’ agriculture is still based on Steiner, the Austrian founder of ‘anthroposophy’ and ‘spiritual science’ (he never did any farming in his life). But what are the ‘preparations’ indicated by Steiner, and what are the ‘natural activators’ derived from Steiner?

Well, we might find out (but we probably won’t) as we wade through this document, but meanwhile, I note, among the definitions, one for genetically modified organisms (now I wonder why?), and, even more disturbingly, homeopathic preparation/treatment, and allopathic veterinary drugs. Homeopathy is probably the most thoroughly discredited pseudo-science of the past 200 years, and its mention in these guidelines for ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ farming should set alarm bells ringing from here to kingdom come (the term ‘allopathic’ was coined by homeopathy’s creator, Samuel Hahnemann). But it’ll be interesting to see how the authors of this document, namely the “Organic Industry Export Consultative Committee”, connect homeopathy with biodynamism.

Under the section “Scope of this Standard” we have this:

1.1 This standard stipulates the minimum criteria that must be met by operators before any certified product can be labelled as in-conversion, organic or bio-dynamic.

‘In-conversion’ presumably means a product in the process of being converted to being organic or biodynamic. Further along, we have this more controversial section:

1.5 Products or by-products that

a. are derived from genetic modification technology, or

b. treated with ionising radiation, or

c. which interfere with the natural metabolism of livestock and plants,

d. that are manufactured/produced using nanotechnology

e. are not compatible with the principles of organic and biodynamic agriculture and are therefore not permitted under this Standard.

The writer seems unaware that 1.5 (e) is not a similar point to 1.5 (a) to (d), but is part of the main clause that starts 1.5, and defines (a) to (d) as verboten. But nanotechnology? Really? Presumably any other newly developing science that might help agriculture in the future will also be banned, as GMOs have been – an indication of the thoroughly ideological nature of this ‘methodology’. It should also be pointed out that ionising radiation is perfectly safe and does not produce ‘radioactive food’. To quote Wikipedia, ‘This treatment is used to preserve food, reduce the risk of food borne illness, prevent the spread of invasive pests, delay or eliminate sprouting or ripening, increase juice yield, and improve re-hydration.’  It consists of stripping atoms of electrons, which interferes with chemical bonding and reproduction, and of course such processes are seen as ‘unnatural’ by ‘biodynamic’ and ‘organic’ ideologues, in thrall to the ‘natural is always better’ fallacy. In fact, 1.6 mentions other ‘environmental contaminants’ and pollutants – that’s to say, other than nanotech, GMOs and irradiation. Contamination is often used as a bogey-term here, always seeking to give the impression that all non-biodynamic and non-‘organic’ food is contaminated.

More specific info about biodynamics is given further down the document, in Section 3.23, where mention is made once again of Steiner’s 1924 lectures and the ‘natural activators’ or ‘biodynamic preparations’ he apparently recommended. What a surprise to find, though, that these activators or preparations aren’t described, either chemically or physically. They’re simply referred to as Preparation 500 through to Preparation 507. I wonder what happened to the previous 499? Some 14 ‘principles’ of biodynamic preparation or production are mentioned, most of which speak of nutrient cycles and dynamic biological processes without leaving us any wiser. Principle 4, though says this:

The Bio-dynamic Preparations are not fertilisers themselves but greatly assist the fertilising process. As the name suggests, these Preparations are designed to work directly with the dynamic biological processes and cycles which are the basis of soil fertility. As activators of life processes they only need to be used in very small amounts.

Very small amounts – hmmm, could this be the connection with homeopathy? And why are they so coy about the precise make-up of these ‘preparations’? Anyway these preparations are to be used in conjunction with more conventional ‘organic’ treatments, such as composting, manuring, crop rotation and diverse planting – all of which can be done without reference to ‘organic’ farming at all, I might add.

We do get some tiny tidbits of info about these preparations, which stop short of decent descriptions. That’s to say,  the information describes their effects rather than their ingredients:

Preparation 500, and “prepared” 500 (500 with Compost Preparations 502 to 507 added) specifically enlivens the soil, increasing the micro flora, root exudation and availability of nutrients and trace elements via humus and not through soil water. 500 promotes root growth, especially the fine root hairs. It develops humus formation, soil structure and water holding capacity.

Preparations 502 to 507 are ‘Compost Preparations’, and Preparation 501 ‘enhances the light assimilation of the plant, leading to better fruit and seed development with improved flavour, aroma, colour and nutritional quality‘.

Apparently these are like Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe for KFC, you can’t have authentic bio-dynamic olives, grapes or whatever without them. Having said that, it doesn’t seem all that bad does it? Increased micro-flora, humus formation, putting hairs on your roots and nicely structuring your soil – where’s the harm? And when it comes to livestock, they’re very caring and sensitive. Yet you have to question some of these strictures:

Standard 3.23.2

(f) – Bio-dynamic Preparations 500 and 501 are to be stirred for one hour.

(g) – Stirring of Bio-dynamic Preparations shall be organised to achieve an energetic vortex, followed by an immediate reverse action – causing a ‘bubbling’ chaos and reverse vortex – then subsequent reverse chaos and vortex etc for the full hour (Steiner, Pfeiffer)

And of course there are more of these ‘Standards’, with not a scientific explanation in sight. How do you know when you’ve achieved an energetic vortex? How bubbly is a bubbling chaos? And how, exactly, do all these stirrings help plants to grow? You would think, wouldn’t you, that the scientific mechanisms that connect these activities with plant growth and health would be the first things cited. But no, there’s nothing, zilch, zero.

We move on, then, to “General Principles”. Again, there’s a great deal of vague but positive talk about healthy soils, a healthy atmosphere, and of course, dynamism and nutrient cycles, but no scientific detail on plant or soil chemistry. But get this one:

In accordance with the research evidence of Lily Kolisko on the often-dangerous effect of minutest substances (even less than a molecule), materials used for the storage of the Bio-dynamic Preparations, stirring machines, spray tanks etc., need to be carefully considered.

I do wonder how substances of ‘less than a molecule’ (supposing such substances exist in soils!) can have such deleterious effects on plants, but hey, don’t homeopaths think that the more diluted a substance is, the more potent? And who is Lily Kolisko? She was a leading anthroposophist who did lots of experiments trying to prove the efficacy of astrological and lunar plantings, and, as you can see, she also believed in homeopathy. Nothing has, of course, come of her theories and claims, and there is no ‘research evidence’.

Both biodynamism and homeopathy are products of the guru effect – allegiance to one charismatic purveyor of pseudo-science – Steiner in the case of biodynamism, and Hahnemann in the case of homeopathy. At least, to Steiner’s credit, he called for thorough scientific experimental support for his agricultural claims, made at the very end of his life. His call has gone largely unheeded, leaving aside hopelessly compromised anthroposophical rersearchers. Had this not been the case, we might not be plagued today by no doubt over-priced ‘biodynamic’ products. But given the gullibility quotient, I’m probably being way too optimistic.

Having said this, these products are no doubt very tasty, and their makers no doubt really care for the land and its fruits, and sustainability and all the rest of it. But biodynamics is something else altogether. It’s bullshit, and the products are not made better by following some guru’s directives.

Don’t get angry, get educated.

Written by stewart henderson

December 26, 2013 at 8:12 am