Biodynamics on NHPR

I recently happened to catch a segment on New Hampshire Public Radio‘s Word of Mouth, entitled “Biodynamics: The Next Green Wine.” The nearly nine minute segment focused on what biodynamics is, why it is being used in the wine industry, what sets it apart from organic and, of course, how it effects the products.

Biodynamic farming was introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 in response to farmers complaints about degraded soil conditions and health of crops and livestock due to the use of chemical fertilizers. It capitalizes on one of the biggest misconceptions about organic farming, namely that farming organically forgoes chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In fact, organic farming allows all kinds of fertilizers and pesticides, but they can’t be synthetic. (To further complicate the issue, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill (passed back in December 2005) allowed the use of 38 synthetic ingredients in organic foods.)

The core of biodynamic farming is a collection of nine preparations that are supposed to transfer cosmic “forces” into the soil to aid fertilization. Most of them include some kind of very specific instructions for use that usually involve ritualistic methods. Preparation 505 is a good example; Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped into 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. The finished preparations are used in very small amounts, after being mixed into compost, inviting a comparison to so-called homeopathic remedies.

Planting, cultivating, and harvesting of crops are all planned with astronomical guidance, usually by the phases of the moon. Pest control is attempted by using small amounts of ash created by burning the offending pest or infected plant, yet another nod to homeopathy. Seeds must be gathered from the local plants to avoid getting your seed stock from large, multinational seed corporations.

So biodynamic farming turns out to be a bit of a hodgepodge of various other non-scientific disciplines, from homeopathy, to astrology, and includes some seemly religious rituals. But does it work? Most studies have shown little effect, and have attributed any effect that was observed to the extra care and use of compost from more normal methods of organic and sustainable farming.

So why do they do it? It turns out that the use of sulfates in winemaking makes it very hard to get an organic label on a bottle of wine. However, the different rules mean that it’s far easier to put a biodynamic label on the same bottle. And vineyards that label their wines as “biodynamic” are able to charge more for them.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s hard to tell, since wine varies so greatly depending on where it’s grown, the year, and various other conditions, like the weather, that are basically uncontrollable. Depending on the actual effort the vineyard puts in, and how much of a mark-up they charge for the biodynamic label, it could be worth the extra effort. And it certainly feeds the need that many consumers have, to search out things they perceive as better. Biodynamic has been said to be almost “super organic,” which makes the allure that much greater for people looking to feel like they’re doing that much better for the Earth, but in reality they seem to be paying for little more than rituals and wishful thinking.

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