This branch of organic farming is either the gold standard or pseudo-science depending on who you ask.

By Marie Viljoen
May 14, 2020
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Credit: Marcus Nilsson

As the number of biodynamic farms in the United States grows, the availability of biodynamic products is increasing; in turn, lots of questions follow. What is biodynamic farming, is it different from organic farming, and what does it mean for the food we eat? Here, we explain the basics of biodynamic farming. First and foremost, it's important to note that biodynamics is the oldest certified organic method of farming. It's an agricultural approach offered as a response to the industrialization of agriculture, where synthetic fertilizers are regarded as the gold standard of growing, despite depleting the soil. In contrast, the Biodynamics Association (BDA) describes biodynamics as a "holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition." These are the founding principles of a movement whose roots lie in Germany in 1924.

A year before his death, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), an Austrian philosopher and controversial socio-political reformer, gave a series of lectures. These lectures, later published, are the foundation of an agricultural practice that views a farm as an integrated and self-sufficient system, where every aspect is interdependent and mutually beneficial. Steiner, a self-described clairvoyant (whose philosophies are also at the heart of the Waldorf education method), is variously described as a thinker, an occultist, and a scientist. He was loathed by Adolf Hitler and celebrated by political reformers. These conflicting characterizations offer a clue as to the sense of controversy that still accompanies perceptions of biodynamics.

Depending on who you ask, biodynamics is based on good, organic science, or it's muddled by unproven homeopathy, astrology, and alchemy.

What Are the Positive Aspects of Biodynamic Farming, and Where Does Dissent Creep In?

Fundamentally positive features of biodynamics include using manures and compost to fertilize; cultivating healthy soil by using cover crops, green manures, and crop rotations; and encouraging biodiversity on a macro- and micro-level. Disease and pest control are managed via species-diversity. While both organic and biodynamic farms share organic certification prohibitions against the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, their farming methods differ in three main ways.

First, on a biodynamic farm, the entire farm must be certified, in what is sometimes referred to as a closed-loop system: All aspects of agricultural life—fertility, soil health, disease, and pest control—must come from the farm itself and not be brought in. (In the United States, biodynamic farms are certified by Demeter USA, a global non-profit founded in 1928). A certified organic crop, on the other hand, can be grown on a farm that also raises non-organic produce and animals. Second, a minimum of 10 percent of total biodynamic farmland must be devoted to wilderness habitat. Third, unlike organic growing, biodynamic farming embraces homeopathic, spiritual, and astrological orientations. This is where detractors jump in: These aspects represent beliefs rather than quantifiable fact.

The list of nine biodynamic preparations that Steiner prescribed for farm health is at the crux of scientific criticism. Using the preparations is a requirement for biodynamic certification. One of the more benign is the burying of dung-filled animal horns in winter to dig up and disperse in the soil in spring. Despite the arcane and whimsical method, animal horn and manure are demonstrably good for the soil. In another preparation stinging nettles are said to provide intelligence to plants. Criticism describes these preparations as pseudo-scientific, based on magical thinking rather than on provable results. The lunar and astrological planting times are another source of criticism. While they are advocated in Steiner’s method and practiced by individual farmers, they are not a requirement for biodynamic certification.

Is Biodynamic Food Better for You Than Conventionally Grown Food?

There is no data to suggest this, but there is evidence suggesting that some organic foods are more nutrient-dense than conventionally-grown and raised produce and animals. What is undeniably true, though, is that biodynamic methods are good for the environment, working with natural systems rather than in opposition to them. Biodynamics support rather than destroy the complex web of soil life, advocate for well cared-for animals that are also mobile fertilizers, and creates fields not bereft of insect life but alive with pollinators and beneficial insects. From the point of view of sustainability, most biodynamic practices make uncommon common sense.

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