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part 9: Bringing together biodynamics and science


Manual cultivation under the rows in a biodynamic vineyard - Beaux Freres, Oregon

So far in this series I have explored several aspects of biodynamics. One gritty problem remains, though. It seems to be in conflict with mainstream science. A literal belief in what biodynamic practitioners propose would entail any adherent to jettison large chunks of scientific understanding. Given the strong antiscience movement that is emerging in western cultures, there are probably some who are prepared to do this. But can’t science and biodynamics be reconciled?

Michel Chapoutier, in France’s Rhône valley, began farming biodynamically in 1991. All 250 ha of Chapoutier’s vineyards are now farmed this way, making him the largest biodynamic winegrower in France by some distance. Unlike many practitioners, he thinks that understanding the science behind biodynamics is important. ‘Biodynamic culture has an interesting future if we have an open attitude to fundamental science’. Chapoutier suggests that unless the observations of the effects of biodynamics are underpinned by a theoretical science understanding, biodynamics is in danger of becoming a sect. To this end, he is keen to understand the scientific explanations behind the various treatments. ‘Steiner had the genius of finding a great idea’, he explains, ‘but he is considered so highly that people think he got everything right, even the details. People like Steiner are good with big ideas, but not so good with the details’.

Certainly, a scientific underpinning to biodynamics would aid its wider acceptance by people currently deterred by its rather esoteric, cultish image. This would probably be seen as undesirable by many practitioners of biodynamics: to them, conventional science only offers a limited perspective on the natural world. However, scientific respectability could potentially improve the take-up of biodynamics dramatically.

However, rigorous research on biodynamics faces a number of obstacles. First, because biodynamics sees the whole farm as a single ‘organism’, the idea of separate, adjacent plots being farmed by different methods, in a trial-type scenario, doesn’t really fit. A second difficulty is persuading research funding agencies to pay for these studies. Professor John Reganold, a scientist at the University of Washington (Pullman) who is one of the leading authorities on organic agriculture, told me that some of his research proposals have been vetoed by funding agencies because they have contained the word ‘biodynamics’. ‘Many scientists who won’t even look at biodynamics’, he reports.

Despite these problems, proper studies have been carried out, and generally they seem to suggest that biodynamics really does work. In 1993, Reganold and colleagues compared the performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand, a report published in leading scientific journal Science. They found that the biodynamic farms had significantly higher soil quality, with more organic matter content and microbial activity. In 1995 Reganold published a review of the different studies that have examined biodynamics and have met basic standards for scientific credibility. The conclusion was that biodynamic systems had better soil quality, lower crop yields and equal or greater net returns per hectare than their conventional counterparts. But what could the mechanism be? A tantalizing clue is offered by some experiments carried out by a graduate student of Reganold’s, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, on the effects of biodynamic preparations on compost development. In an experimental setting, biodynamically treated composts showed higher temperatures, faster maturation and more nitrate than composts that had received a placebo inoculation. Reganold is clearly impressed: ‘Of all the farm systems that I’ve seen, biodynamics is probably the most holistic.’

In May 2002, the results of a 21 year study comparing organic and biodynamic farming with conventional agriculture were published, also in respected journal Science. A group of Swiss researchers, led by Paul Mäder of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, showed that while biodynamic farming resulted in slightly lower yields, it outperformed conventional and organic systems in almost every other case. The biodynamic plots showed higher biodiversity and greater numbers of soil microbes, and more efficient resource utilization by this microbial community.  

So, biodynamics seems to work. By and large, wine growers operating within this rather unusual philosophical framework are making interesting, personality-filled wines—something the world desperately needs more of. And the limited scientific studies that have so far addressed biodynamics have come down in its favour. But it’s an open question as to exactly how biodynamics has its effects, and by extension it is therefore unclear which elements of its theory need to be adopted by vignerons in order for them to accrue its benefit. So will biodynamics continue to increase in popularity? I’ll let Michel Chapoutier have the final word: ‘the future of biodynamics will be limited only by the ability of the consumer to appreciate complex, sophisticated wine.’  

  • For another perspective on this issue, see the article by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin in The World of Fine Wine on objections to biodynamics. There is also an excellent discussion of the points raised in this article here.

Other topics in this series 


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