The roots of biodynamics

Wine drinkers tend to think of biodynamic wine production as organic with bells and whistles: the bells of  biodynamic preparations, and the whistles of a lunar calendar.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by Demeter’s requirements for biodynamic certification, at least in the sense that they are simlar those for organic agriculture but more demanding.   But that is not enough for me. Who came up with all the ideas behind biodynamics?  I knew Rudolph Steiner and Maria Thun had a lot to do with it, but what were their respective roles, and who else was involved?  And when, why and how?

I was initially driven by the urge to examine the evidence that biodynamic agriculture works, especially in the context of wine.  But very quickly I realised that in order to establish how successful it was, I needed to understand what was being claimed on its behalf.  And I also wanted to know the extent to which the claims were based on theory, and how the theory was derived.  This was not an easy task, and even after as fair amount of work spread out over a few months I feel I still have much to learn, but these are my preliminary conclusions.  Feel free to put me right!

While Steiner did not himself use the term biodynamic, or biological dynamic agriculture, its roots are clearly tracable to a series of lectures he gave in Koberwitz in 1924.  These lectures, now known as The Agriculture Course, were given to a small group of people who had consulted Steiner for advice on how to tackle agricultural problems they perceived as becoming increasingly common.  The Agricultural Course is not easy going, and I do not pretend to have read it all myself, still less understood it.  But I do suggest you at least take a look at a few lectures to get a feel for the content.  Steiner’s advice did not come from his agricultural or viticultural expertise, because frankly he had none.  Rather it stemmed from Anthroposophy, his spritualistic philosophy.  The theoretical validity of his ideas stand or fall solely on this intellectual framework.  He introduced what were to become known as biodynamic preparations, and similar remedies for weed and pest control, which supposedly worked because they helped focus various mystical forces.   See Lecture 4 for example, where he discusses the preparations now known as 500 and 501.  Note however that he was not concerned about the chemical content of the preparations fulfilling nutritional deficits in the soil.  Neither was he concerned about the gravitational force exerted by the moon, which some modern day apologists for biodynamics seem to focus on.  No, the atrological calendar was important to Steiner because various heavenly bodies transmitted astral forces differently at various times.

Steiner died soon after The Agriculture Course, but his ideas were put into practice and tested by some of the attendees of his lectures, and by later followers  These tests were not what we would probably regard as scientific, but at least the people involved were real agriculturalists, and they were making empirical observations.  In fact one of the strengths of biodynamic practice is that it emphasises the need to get out into the fields, experiment, and observe.  A summary of some of this research is given here (click on Plant Rhythms on the left hand side).  You can see that this is where Maria Thun comes into the picture with the research on fruit, flower, leaf and root days that gave rise to her calendar  Again, I recommend that you poke about a bit, on the Maria Thun page for example, to get a feel for what these people were doing.

One thing I thought was worthy of note is that only plants grown from seed were used in this early research, and the criterion for success was the size of yield.  Surely these empirical results, even if they are otherwise trustworthy, could not possibly have anything to do with wine viticulture.   Vines are propagated through cuttings and high quality products are normally associated with low yields.  But Steiner probably would not have been concerned about this issue; his criteria for success were on a more spiritual plane than crop yields or a good glass of wine, and he doubtless saw no reason why his methods were not equally applicable to viticulture.  And here I think we have the first evidence emerging of diverging views of those in the biodynamics community.  Some regard themselves as Anthroposophists and fully buy in to Steiner’s ideas; others see themselves as less spiritual, and practise biodynamics primarily because they think it works.

But the practical group is obviously dependent on the spiritual theorising, and not just that of Steiner.  At some point, someone somewhere must have build on Steiner’s ideas to decide how best biodynamics should be applied to viticulture.  And then winegrowers with no real interest in Anthroposophy must have been convinced enough by the proposed new procedures to try them and evaluate the results.  One of the things I find most difficult to take seriously in biodynamics is the way new proclamations seem to be plucked out of mid-air, and stated as fact even if they are based on the flimsiest of evidence.  But it is definitely the case that the biodynamic cannon is being added to constantly, largely by word of mouth, from practitioner to practitioner and not least from consultant to practitioner.

So that is my attempt at a potted summary of the roots and theoretical basis of biodynamics.  Except that I have said very little about organic agriculture.  That illustrates one of the points that I hoped to bring out.  The origins of biodynamics are largely independent of those of organic farming, but the two are now so intertwined you cannot really be biodynamic without also being organic.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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