Biodynamics vs. organic farming vs. big agribusiness: Who’s on first? Photo of taro growing in Hawaii by Audrey Johnson.




STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them. Click here to contact her.



February 2006

Product Reviews / NutriNibbles

Organic vs. Biodynamic Agriculture

Organic Matter: February 2006

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My name is Stephanie Zonis, and welcome to Organic Matter for February, 2006.

Organic Versus Biodynamic Agriculture:
A Skim-the-Surface Comparison of Agricultural Production Methods

In 1924, one Rudolf Steiner, born in the area that is now Slovenia, combined two of his greatest interests, philosophy and science, and laid out the basis for something called “anthroposophy.” According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA, www.biodynamics.com), anthroposophy is “a new approach to science which integrates precise observation of natural phenomena, clear thinking, and knowledge of the spirit.” Anthroposophy is inextricably linked with the principles of agricultural production that most people know today as biodynamics.

Steiner turned to agriculture quite late in his lifetime. He believed that the introduction of chemicals into the farming system (including the same synthetic fertilizers and pesticides eschewed today by organic farmers) was a major cause of degradation of vitality in the soil. Unlike today’s organic practitioners, however, Steiner believed this degradation came about because of a spiritual dearth in those substances, not because of any hazardous materials or properties they contained. This lack of vitality in the soil would lead to a similar deficit in the plants grown in it, and, ultimately, in the humans who consumed those plants. Incidentally, the term “biodynamic,” short for “biologically dynamic,” was not Steiner’s; his followers came up with it.

The Debut of “Organic Farming” & Dual Systems

In the early 1940’s, Jerome Rodale, an American inspired by, among others, Steiner, began farming organically. The use of the term “organic farming” dates back to 1940, when it was mentioned in Lord Walter Northbourne’s book, Look to the Land.  Organic farming is based on the ideas of soil fertility, biodiversity, and stopping the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Is one system preferable over another? It would be difficult to answer that question in an article of this length, but we can examine elements of the two systems; there are a number of significant divergences in philosophy and practice. One of the biggest differences I’ve found is in the area of soil. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (ofrf.org), organic farmers seek to “nourish the living component of the soil, the microbial inhabitants that release, transform, and transfer nutrients.” In other words, organics is about building up and keeping fertile soil. In biodynamics, the soil itself is treated as a living organism.

Biodynamics includes the use of “cosmic rhythms,” where different phases or cycles of the sun, moon, planets, and stars determine both the quantity and quality of their light that reaches plants. By paying close attention to a very detailed planting calendar, biodynamic farmers are given precise dates and times for everything from the best time to apply pest controls to optimum dates and hours for sowing. So specific is this calendar that it often provides a range of days and certain hours with favorable or unfavorable lunar or planetary aspects. An example of this is: “Monday, December 19 @ 11:00 p.m. through Thursday, December 22 @ 2:00 p.m. (Avoid two hours before and after Venus’ upper nodal point @ 11:00 p.m. on December 21.),” taken from the planting calendar on the BDA website.
In biodynamics, different cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars impact sowing. Photo of the moon by Jane Fearby | SXC.

Composting is important on most organic farms; it is vital to the success of a biodynamic operation. Composting, building up and enriching soil via natural means, is part of the perfectly reasonable logic that humans have wreaked havoc upon the planet’s natural resources, not least, our soil. Biodynamics carries matters a step further. The BDA appears to regard organic agriculture, at least in the U.S., as a well-meaning but weak and excessively limited practice, one that has strayed from its foundations. To quote from the BDA’s website: “Organic agriculture rightly wants to halt the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing Earth.” The BDA believes that biodynamics does have a cure for “the ailing Earth.” This cure comes in the form of “medicines,” prepared by biodynamics practitioners from both plant and animal materials, combined according to strict formulations during particular times of the year. These preparations are then buried in compost piles for set amounts of time, which, the BDA states, organizes “the chaotic elements within the compost piles.” When done, these “medicines” benefit the Earth by drawing “new life forces from the cosmos.” An example is a preparation of chamomile blossoms, which is stuffed into cattle intestines, buried in the fall, and dug up again in the spring.

Self-containment is not necessarily a principle of organic farming, but a self-contained farm is put forth as an ideal in the biodynamics system. This sounds wonderful, but I question the practicality of such an ideal. It is extraordinarily difficult for any farm operation to function as a self-contained unit. The Demeter Association, whose American branch is the sole biodynamic certifier in the U.S., correctly declares that importation of materials onto a farm “reintroduces some of the same set of problems that conventional agriculture presents, namely dependence on the earth’s natural resources to transport, mine, and refine a myriad of materials.” But to insist that this can be avoided entirely through sufficient time and “foresight in developing the right farming system” strikes me as being too narrow-minded. I don’t know that an agricultural operation, especially one just starting out as organic or biodynamic, can be expected to have a full grasp of all materials that will be necessary for self-containment five or ten years down the road. 

Farm photo by Rich DuBose | SXC.
Incidentally, if biodynamics sounds like a return to the days of hippies and protest marches, you’d better think again. Remember that, in the U.S., organic production methods were viewed the same way until very recently. Now, organics are serious business, with an increasingly larger share of the American market in several sectors. Given the amount of work required and the restrictions placed on both organic and biodynamic farming, neither can be a casual endeavor if you want to make a living from your operation. There may be some hippies in both production systems, but I can guarantee you they haven’t the time to sit around trading love beads.

Organics & Biodynamics: Are There Common Grounds?

So far, there don’t seem to be profound similarities between organics and biodynamics. But there is one area in which both, sadly, are in complete accord: politics. I have spoken out in prior columns against the USDA, the agency charged with developing organic regulations in the United States; if you do not wish to read more complaints against them here, click out of this article now. True-blue, diehard producers of organics in the U.S. are seeing their hard work undercut by this government agency, which has repeatedly and shamelessly caved in to pressure from big agribusiness. U.S. organic standards are too insubstantial, often vague, and too favorable to mass producers not willing to invest the time or money necessary to bring the consumer a genuinely organic product. Even now, politics is threatening to erode more of the USDA standards.

Alas, biodynamics is not exempt from politics or accompanying quarrels. I’ve mentioned the Demeter Association as the sole biodynamic certifying agency in the US. Demeter, an international assembly of country-specific organizations, is by far the largest biodynamic certifier in the world. Jim Fullmer, of Demeter USA, sent this in an e-mail: “Demeter is the only Biodynamic certifier worldwide. Folks often get confused by this as there are so many organic certifiers in the US for instance but only one Biodynamic certifier.”

This is a remarkable statement, as it possesses the unique quality of being both true and not true simultaneously. There is at least one rival biodynamic certifier, Biodivin, who concern themselves solely with vineyards. You won’t see any vineyard in the U.S. certified by Biodivin, however. Demeter has trademarked the word “biodynamic” in this country, so they’re the only ones who can use that term. Demeter does not recognize Biodivin or any other rival group; presumably, the reverse may be true, as well, although I haven’t been able to find a web presence for any other certifier. I have read that, in some areas of the world, especially the Alsace region of France, bickering between Demeter and Biodivin is threatening the progress of the biodynamics movement. And, as is the case with organics, different producers claim that biodynamics standards are too dilute, or, alternatively, too strict.

McDonald'sIn a perfect world, both organic and biodynamic agriculture would emphasize quantity instead of quality. But one has to wonder in the case of some organic foods, with huge players such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart angling for a piece of the enormous economic pie organics represent. Can a megacorporation really be trusted to care enough about the environment and people to insist that organic principles be followed in food production methods? And what happens to the standards of their producer(s), who must meet huge demand on a daily basis?

At least in this country, biodynamic foods are unlikely to see the same degree of popularity (and subsequent controversy) on an immediate basis, for two reasons. First off, there aren’t enough of them. Biodynamic food production in the U.S. is extremely limited at present, and the greatest number of adherents are almost certainly vintners. But more importantly for me, the ideas behind biodynamics lack modern scientific validity. This has to be very difficult for practitioners, given the spirituality and awareness of natural cycles involved; how does one measure the success of such things in a scientific manner? Biodynamics practitioners point to the number of gold medals their wines have won in taste-tests over recent years, but taste is such a subjective matter that I don’t regard gold medals as scientific evidence of superiority. Then too, even if all other problems in the realm of biodynamics had been solved, the practice faces an image problem. Some people see practitioners as members of a cult or religion, and some regard them as freaks. None of that is accurate or just. Biodynamic farms, by their nature, are also organic (in fact, a number of vineyards I found are certified organic and claim to practice biodynamic agriculture, but are not certified biodynamic). So it’s possible that organic farming in and of itself will allow soil to “heal” and even improve upon itself. And for all I know, an astral component and some of those fermented chamomile blossoms help the process along.

Both organic and biodynamic farming have been viewed (or are currently eyed) with deep suspicion, as they represent a change from convention. But the goals of both are lofty and noble. My suggestion? Give organic and biodynamic products a try, and see if either system turns out a better product for you. 

Organic Finds Of The Month: Wineries

Because the most readily-available biodynamic products in the U.S. are wines, I offer this month a few wineries with varying outlooks on organic vs. biodynamic agriculture. They are listed in alphabetic order, and I haven’t tried any of these wines.

  • Ceago Vinegarden, 1.707.274.1462. Certified organic as well as biodynamic. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and others.
  • Cooper Mountain Vineyard, 1.503.649.0027. Certified organic as well as biodynamic. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay.
  • Frey Vineyards, 1.707.485.5177 or 1.800.760.3739. The first US winery to produce certified biodynamic wines. Some wines certified organic; some certified biodynamic. It is possible to do a direct organic-vs.-biodynamic comparison tasting for their Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. 
  • Robert Sinskey Vineyards, 1.707.944.9090 or 1.800.869.2030. Wines are certified organic; “sustainable organic techniques influenced by biodynamic methods”. Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and others.

Photo courtesy of Stock.xchng.



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