Biodynamic Bullshit

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Prefatory Matters

Crystals; auras; chakras; tarot cards; Feng Shiu; smart water; channeling; What the Bleep Do We Know?; Ramtha; spirit mediums; palmistry; the misapplication of quantum mechanics; homeopathy; supernaturalism; cryptozoology.

What do these things have in common?

Each is a shining example of New-Age twaddle.

And here’s another, one you might not be acquainted with: biodynamics.

Loosely defined (cuz that’s the only way it can be), biodynamics is a set of agricultural techniques which are hostile toward “Western” farming practices (crop rotation, synthetic fertilization, chemical pest control, etc.), and which are, according to their supporters, even more organic than ordinary organic farming methods. Biodynamics is often referred to as a “science,” which, as we will see, it is—in much the same way Jeffrey Dahmer was a chef.

The plant most often subjected to biodynamic (BD) treatments is one near and dear to my heart—the grape vine.

Yes, New-Age loonies have infiltrated the wine industry. And we’re not talking about a handful of oddballs blathering away on the fringes, either. We’re talking about some of the biggest names in the wine business, on both sides of the Atlantic: Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Leroy, Chapoutier, Benziger, and Fetzer. Wine writer Monty Walden, in his book Biodynamic Wines, estimates that almost 15 percent of France’s organic vineyards are fully biodynamic. And as a cherry on top of the movement’s soy milk parfait, BD wines have been extolled by both Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, the two most important and powerful wine critics in the world. Parker himself is busily converting portions of his personal Oregon vineyard, Beaux-Frères, to BD land. The number of tastings in Europe and the U.S. devoted solely to BD wines is increasing geometrically. A Google search for “biodynamic wine” yields better than 62,000 results, and of the fifty-some-odd sites I perused, forty-eight of them offered nothing but enthusiastic praise for BD wines.

What’s All the Hubbub, Bub?

For starters, if we listen to BD advocates, wines produced from biodynamically-grown grapes surpass, in flavor, and thus value, wines made from grapes grown according to traditional, proven organic methods (and they kick the screaming crap out of wines born of grapes produced by mass-production agri-giants). Advocates also claim that BD wines stay drinkable longer. Hey, sounds super-cool to me. Wine tastes pretty fabulous already, so who wouldn’t get at least a tad twitterpated over a better-tasting, longer-lasting beverage?

Next is the question of man-made additives. BD grapes—like their organically-grown cousins—are 100 percent free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other potentially harmful gunk. No problem here, either. What rational person wouldn’t favor a decrease in (or, in truth, an elimination of) the chemicals currently sullying our beverages? Granted, there is little strong evidence to suggest that minimal, common-sense levels of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, are harmful in any way, but why play with dice with the cancer gods if we don’t have to?

Organic growers (they call their discipline “agri-ecology”) have long touted the fact that their fields, once freed of artificial chemicals, display measurable increases in soil fertility and soil biodiversity, decreases in weed and pest populations, and easier disease management. Supporters of biodynamics point to these same exact successes as proof of BD’s efficacy. Um…okay. Is it safe to assert, then, that organic techniques do the job just as well, if not better, than biodynamic techniques, and without all the quasi-mystical silliness lurking at the root of BD? (Probably so, but we’ll return to this topic shortly.)

So far, BD wine sounds just peachy, even if the differences between it and its organic cousins are all but nonexistent. But that’s okay. The BD-ers are only getting warmed up. (If you begin to hear a shrill beeping noise, it’s your Bullshit Detector going off.)

Proponents will tell you that BD wine is the most “natural” of all wines, more so even than basic organic wine, because of the steps taken to ensure that BD grapes are raised in sync with the Earth’s “rhythms.” Supporters further claim, without irony or a shred of evidence, that the Earth “inhales and exhales,” and that all growing things are directly influenced by their positions relevant to the sun, the moon, and other celestial bodies, so BD growers carefully monitor the lunar cycle, and take pains to plant and harvest only when the zodiacal constellations are correctly aligned in the heavens. And finally, enthusiasts maintain that biodynamically produced wine is so “tuned in” to “nature’s ways” that sharing a bottle within a group of people will bring them closer together.

There are so many farcical notions contained in the above paragraph that I don’t know quite where to begin. While I think about it, take a look at the following, and understand this: BD-ers aren’t the first wine-people to go a bit squiffy. Viniculture has a long history of entertaining crackpot notions.

The Oddness of the Vintners

In the late 1600s, scientists figured out the dangers of drinking or storing wine (or any liquid intended for human consumption) in lead or lead-lined containers, but it took another 150 years for French wine fanatics to desist sweetening their wine with lead chips or lead musket balls. I mean, gosh, what’s going blind or becoming paralyzed, in the face of an inadequately flavored tipple?

A Portuguese wine company was forced to recall over 25,000 cases of its latest offering only days after its release on the American market. Why? They released it in mid-September, 2001, and the figure on its label bore a striking resemblance to Osama bin Laden. Other historical luminaries whose faces have failed to trigger buying stampedes include: Che Guevara, Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Benito Mussolini. In 1997 Italian winemaker Allesandro Lunardelli experienced lackluster sales when he presented a wine bearing a picture of Adolph Hitler above the slogan “One People, One Empire, One Leader.” And a New Zealand firm got into hot water when they attempted to attract a bigger share of the gay market with a wine called Pansy.

It is considered an unassailable fact among wine connoisseurs that a vintage produced during any year that a comet passes by Earth is one of significant importance and taste. The stars on bottles of cognac are an homage to Flaugergues’ Comet, which sped by our planet in 1811. It is a complete coincidence that many “comet” years have been unusually hot and dry ones—hot and dry being two things grape vines really like, weather-wise.

A town in Italy, fearing that some tragedy would befall their vineyards, passed a law forbidding “space ships” from landing there. It seems to have done the trick as, to date, the region, and its wines, have remained free of any UFO-carried taint. A technique used across Europe for centuries to rid vineyards of parasitic caterpillars was to have a woman walk barefooted among the vines…during her menstrual period.

Strange behavior by some strange people, but read on. The actions of biodynamics militants score still higher on the Daffy Scale.

Biodynamics in a Nut(ball)shell

Rudolf Steiner was a relatively obscure Austrian occultist when he coined the term “biodynamics” in 1924. Biodynamics was the centerpiece of Steiner’s larger intellectual project, the creation of a “spiritual science.” A philosophical vitalist, Steiner believed that all life was created by infusing empty or inert matter with “ethereal” and/or “astral” energy, and that life is constantly influenced by “cosmic forces,” though he never offered precise definitions for any of his terminology. Good ol’ Rudolf also believed that human beings, in the incarnation we recognize today, are the faulty (read: negatively materialistic) descendants of more highly evolved and super-spiritual race of humans who lived in Atlantis and Lemuria—the mythological, twin holy lands of New Age dogma. We became materialistic, Steiner said, from…wait for it…eating potatoes. (I am not kidding. It’s right there on p. 149 of his collected writings, Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method.)

As mentioned above, a BD vintner must heed certain celestial cycles, and also ensure that his vines are exposed to the correct alignment of zodiacal constellations, but the main elements of BD farming have to do with treating the fields themselves in accordance with numerous “preparations,” as enumerated by Mr. Steiner. Preparation 500, for example, recommends burying a cow’s horn filled with manure in the vineyard. He doesn’t say what purpose it serves, exactly, only that it is a good idea. Along those same lines, Preparation 505 asks the farmer to bury oak bark inside an animal’s skull, while Preparation 506 calls for the interment of dandelions inside a “bovine mesentery” (a segment of a cow’s intestine). Preparation 502 advises burying a stag’s bladder stuffed with yarrow flowers. Why a stag’s bladder? Well, here is Steiner’s explanation:

“The bladder of the stag…is connected with the forces of the Cosmos. Nay, it is almost the image of the Cosmos. We thereby give the yarrow the power quite essentially to enhance the forces it already possesses.”

I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what that means.

If your vines are beset by insect pests (which are spontaneously created, Steiner says, by “cosmic influences”), they can be eradicated “by means of concentration.” That’s right, folks, just think those nasty bugs away. Mildew is a traditional problem for grape farmers, but is easily overcome, says Steiner, through a “homeopathic dose of horse tail.” And if the vineyard becomes infested by naughty field mice intent upon devouring its young grapes, just capture one of the little buggers, skin it, burn the skin, and scatter the ashes about the field “at a time when Venus is in the sign of Scorpio.”

Contemporary BD-ers, apparently of the opinion that Steiner’s “preparations” are lacking in some way, have made several additions to the man’s basic tenets. “Specialists” (in what we are left to wonder), now routinely use standing-stones and pendulums to perform “geo-acupuncture” so as to “restore the cosmo-telluric balance” of their vineyards (“telluric” being fancy-speak for “of the earth”).

If Dionysus were with us today, I figure he’d make what went down on Mount Cithaeron look like an episode of “The Wiggles.”

Science, Actual and Otherwise

The gushing testimony of BD fans notwithstanding, is there any truth to Steiner’s and his later follower’s claims, or was he (and, by extension, they) a delusional goofball with a brainful of fuzz?

Several actual scientists have conducted several actual studies (complete with double-blind testing, peer review, the whole scientific-method shebang) into the veracity and/or effectiveness of BD as regards soil biodiversity and grape growing. But first, let’s take a look at a more questionable laboratory endeavor.

Proponents of BD get all giddy over the results of a lengthy study performed by a group of Swiss researchers, which found that BD techniques yielded richer soil fertility and soil biodiversity than traditional, or even rigidly organic, growing methods. What the BD-ers don’t like to talk about is what’s buried (arguably on purpose) in the report’s footnotes, where it is found that the researchers chemically treated the organic plots (the specifics are not revealed) but not the BD plots. Furthermore, the notes state that the chemical treatments were only the “main differences” between the BD and non-BD plots, and the specifics of the other, lesser, “differences” are never divulged. Eric Stokstad, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, suggests that the study was badly designed and wonders if the data were altered in order to demonstrate the researchers’ desired results. (Such shenanigans are known as “cooking” the data.)

At the University of Washington, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and John Reganold recently published the results of their six-year investigation into biodynamic farming. On BD-treated soil they write that:

“[N]o consistent significant differences were found between the biodynamically treated and untreated plots for any of the physical, chemical, or biological parameters tested.”

And as for the crops themselves, they looked at BD and non-BD grapes and found that:

“Analysis of the leaves showed no differences between treatments [and] there were no differences in yield, cluster count, cluster weight, and berry weight.”

And so we see that, after a careful, scientific, examination, BD can be summed up thus: There is no difference between biodynamic wine and the regular organic stuff.

No difference.

So What’s the Big Deal?

At this point, thoughtful readers might be saying to themselves: OK, fine. BD is, as Douglas Adams might’ve said, a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys. But in the end, why should we give a fig if a bunch of New Age lackwits want to muck about with braised mice and stuffed bladders?

I think we should care for several reasons.

First of all, biodynamic field preparations are ridiculously expensive. The head of production at the Benziger winery estimates that the BD process costs 10 to 15 times more than conventional practices. The BD process also wastes time and human resources (most local supermarkets don’t regularly stock bovine mesenteries) which translates, when coupled with the increased production costs, to a higher price per bottle for consumers. Which is sad, seeing as wine already has a higher sales mark-up than any other agricultural product on the market. BD enthusiasts (not to mention the merely curious) are being ripped-off, shelling out extra cash for a needlessly expensive product that in no way delivers on its promises, because its promises are fictions.

Secondly, there is the simple matter of perpetuating foolishness. Just when you think we’ve come a long way as a species, we’re hit with the fact that some of us are still living in caves hiding from the lightning. I find it mystifying that people continue, not only to revel in superstition and irrationality, but to present their views as superior. Don’t get me wrong. In life, it pays to have an open mind. Just not so open it’s a slop sink.

And finally, do wine snobs really need any additional pretensions? Sweet shit, they’re insufferable enough as it is. As the Roman poet Martial said: “You will make the wine good by drinking it.”

Biodynamic agriculture is quackery. Snake-oil. Complete bullshit. A marketing tool aimed at the badly informed, the gullible and the narcissistic. Don’t let yourself get taken in. Carpe vinum.

Cheers.

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