Biodynamic farming is being damned by a group of Italian scientists who have started a petition, claiming that the practice is witchcraft. A leading senator backing the scientists has declared (somewhat unbelievably) “we risk giving legal recognition to flat-earthers who preach magic and witchcraft.” The aim of this petition, which has surpassed a staggering 31,000 signatories, is to overturn a bill which would put biodynamic farming on the same standing as organic farming, thereby allowing biodynamic practitioners to receive state aid. So puzzled about this state of affairs was wine consultant and restaurateur Mike Turner, that he decided to delve into the matter and ask some fundamental questions about all types of farming, talk to South African winemaker of the year Johan Reyneke, and generally put some positive PR out there for biodynamic farming.
“Blowing all that money on a vineyard and letting the soils die is the wine equivalent of when Mario Balotelli burned his plush Cheshire mansion down with fireworks in the bathroom,” writes Turner.
I got an interesting WhatsApp from a friend of mine the middle of last week. He’d come across an article in The Times that he thought might be of interest to me, relating to biodynamic farming in Italy. He knows I’m into biodynamics and he knows I’m into Italy, and so is he, so he sent it over for me to read.
Tom Kington, writing from Rome, was reporting that a bill that was overwhelmingly passed through the Italian Senate is coming under fire from a group of 21 scientists, now backed by 31,000 signatories, likening biodynamic practices to witchcraft. The bill seeks to put biodynamic farming on the same legal level as organic farming, and would henceforth be qualified for government funding. Clearly not if the petitioners have anything to do with it.
If, like me, you’ve met a few biodynamic farmers, you’ll know that there are levels of how far people get into it. Based on the theories of Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, and modified over time, the rough idea is to use nature to regenerate soils and let increased biodiversity create a better ecosphere for the vines to exist in. Let’s just repeat that: regenerate soils and increase biodiversity. Witchcraft? Or something that every segment of agriculture, from vines to wheat, needs to start doing or we’re all in real trouble?
Work in a biodynamic vineyard is also based on the lunar cycle. You judge when to plant, prune, pick, and even bottle depending on where the moon is in its 28 day cycle. Is that witchcraft? Or something farmers have done for tens of millenia up until the agrochemical boom of the 1920s? The biggest issue with anything to do with the lunar cycle is that scientific research has not produced enough explanations thus far to give those who need it a definite “yes, this works” or “no it doesn’t”. Some would argue, including those women out there suffering cruelly at the hands of conditions such as endometriosis, that not enough research has gone into nature’s 28 day cycles, mostly due to the fact that men have until recently been the ones who decide what gets researched.
Closed minds speak volumes
Overall though, I have to say I’m amazed that allegedly educated people are so definite with their judgements. The only senator to vote against the bill was Senator Elena Cattaneo who stated that “we risk giving legal recognition to flat-earthers who preach magic and witchcraft.” I’ll stop you there Elena. Biodynamic farmers are not flat-earthers. Well, some might be, who knows? But it’s got nothing to do with biodynamics. She’s simply lumping that in to boost her point. The irony, however, of her bringing up a theory that until 500 years ago the best/non-inquisitive minds thought was true and dismissed anyone as crazy if they offered up another explanation is not lost on me. I fear it might be on Signora Cattaneo.
From a human level, I defy anyone to walk into a biodynamic vineyard and not feel a difference to the place. There’s life everywhere, it’s…I nearly said magic, but let’s not stoke any fires here! The winemakers themselves and the reasons they begin biodynamics is so varied. To suggest they’re practising witchcraft and magic? That’s something 15 year-olds do when they’re rebelling against a strict religious upbringing, not serious people with businesses to run. But as we can all see from the scramble of top companies to align to ethical standards such as those for B Corp, the way in which we run businesses is slowly changing, from a purely profit-driven ideal to a more sustainable view of your land, your environment, your staff, and so on.
Maybe wine this good really is witchcraft?!
I recently attended a webinar with Johan Reyneke of Reyneke Wines. Johan is a biodynamic winemaker with some accolades behind him. He was recently awarded Tim Atkin’s South African Winemaker of the Year 2020 and his winery was the first organically certified winery in South Africa to receive 5 Stars in Platter’s Wine Guide. He’s been guided by his past experience as a farm labourer then his studies in environmental ethics to take a big move towards sustainable viticulture, ensuring to keep what he would consider a healthy mix of practical and theoretical.
Johan was taught by a local organic and biodynamic flower and vegetable farmer who told him he was being organic by accident. It was vital to look into how to replace chemicals with a natural remedy. Grape growers are farming with basically two things – grapes and soil. The correlation between soil health and humic acid levels has been proven to produce healthier vines and better grapes and there are natural ways to do that, from companion plants to fix nutrients to ducks to eat snails. “Natural solutions make for better wine. Naturally” says Johan, and follows with his pride that “we’ve made great progress, we’re nearly back where we started”.
Protect your investment
From an economic point of view, it makes a lot of sense too. Vineyards are expensive bloody things to buy. If you’d just put down hundreds of thousands of pounds (and the rest) down to and bought your dream chunk of prime vineyard hectares, would you not want to preserve it? Would you not want those soils to be alive and thriving? When French government microbiologist Claude Bourguignon declared Burgundy soils dead in 1988, people started to wake up. Blowing all that money on a vineyard and letting the soils die is the wine equivalent of when Mario Balotelli burned his plush Cheshire mansion down with fireworks in the bathroom. It’s just idiotic. Regenerating and then maintaining healthy soils is integral to biodynamics.
Natural products have shown that they do really help. Biodynamic preparations are designed to increase available nutrients and boost microbial activity in the soils, something that research into sustainable agriculture is incredibly hot on. We need only look at the buzz surrounding seaweed extract products that protect vineyards from frost and drought damage and increase yields, such as Ekogea’s BioComplex that’s used by, amongst others, Slovenian wine luminary Aleks Klinec. It’s not magical, it’s not witchcraft, it’s simply science and nature working together to outperform.
I don’t cope well with closed minded or dismissive people. I don’t know why these 21 scientists decided to start this petition, and I don’t know why all those people decided to sign it. I’m sure they had their reasons. But on reading this piece in The Times, it did trigger memories of similar chats with a few others I’ve met on my wine journey so far, and I fancied popping out a bit of positive PR for biodynamics.
I hope you didn’t mind.
Johan Reyneke wines are available from New Generation Wines
You can read Tom Kington’s article here (subscription needed)
What a biased and carefully partial article this is.
You’re absolutely right, it is very biased, it’s because I have a strong opinion…hence it’s in the opinion section
Rudolph Steiner had lots of other theories. Have you ever read them? He was a nut case and a major racist, and Biodynamic farming would be better served if it distanced itself from his name. Most of the viticulturists that I know only employ parts of Biodynamic farming that work for them – they do not embrace Steiner’s entire philosophy (thank god). This also means that Biodynamics is poorly defined, if folks only use what works for them. So I would side with the Italian government that it shouldn’t be subsidized until it is distanced from Steiner (even re-branded) and more clearly defined.
There is no doubt that thoughtful care of the land is both important and successful when it comes to wine grape growing. I do believe that biodynamic is a type of organic farming and applaud anyone who utilizes these types of practices to protect the land and produce quality fruit. But I haven’t seen evidence that the voodoo (I believe it is words like this that fuel your protest) of biodynamics is any more successful than that of organic techniques.
Your article is indeed biased. Your points focus on the “witchcraft” word, which is used to highlight the debatable aspects of biodynamic you conveniently did not report: all the compounds made with animal parts, following witchcraft-like procedures (hence the word) which have NO PROVEN effect. Moreover, Demeter, the private organization (unlike Organic, which is regulated publicly and no one profits from the use of this word) who licenses the production and sale of these compounds actively protects use of their logo (rightfully so) and the Biodynamic wording (less rightfully so). They are a for-profit company selling bullshit (at best, more often and literally deer blood and such) compounds that have little to no prove effect on vineyards and wines. The lunar cycle does have an effect, 100% agree. Whether biodynamic vineyards are better or not has yet to be proven by statistically relevant SCIENTIFIC studies – perhaps, and likely so, whoever is good intentioned among biodynamic winemakers does indeed put more care and effort in what they do because of their good ethics and their striving for a better World. But there is NO causation between Demeter products (and hence biodynamic, as they pretty much make the only relevant difference from Organic) and better quality vineyards and wines. You should be ashamed of …. (Comment edited – Editor) sharing such badly and deviating-so put words and “facts”. Biodynamic, as for example Querciabella interprets, can be awesome (and they are a source of inspiration for us approaching the practice too), but no public money should be given to support a pseudo-science with NO RELIABLE effects and outcomes, just opinions and millions of dollars in marketing from private corps trying to sell more and more of compound 500 and such.
You failed to mention the logic or lack thereof of burying a ram’s horn in the soil.
Unquestioned and ill intentioned superstitious beliefs, whether about the lunar cycle or a satanic, child eating cabal out to get Trump, misdirect our efforts and emotional energy away from real world problems we can deal with in a more pragmatic way.
Healthy skepticism is like spreading seaweed on the vineyard floor.
It keeps the toxic ideas at bay, and allows the natural culture to thrive.
Closed minds are those of the practitioners of biodynamics: Closed to science and common sense.
I appreciate Mike’s fervor for the subject, and I myself enjoy many biodynamic wines. I think there is almost no empirical data to support biodynamics or homeopathic tinctures, and Mr. Turner’s argument, while emphatic, is mostly ad ignorantiam and lacking any factual foundation or evidence, only opinion. Historically, the ‘my granddad was organic,’ argument is specious as we know arsenic and carbon bisulfide was used in the 19th century in an attempt to eradicate phylloxera, while nicotine sulfate, lead, mercury, pyrethrum have been used for centuries as pesticides.
The lunar cycle ‘theory’ could be easily tested with a $300 turbidimeter yet no producer I know has provided us factual data proving the moon’s weak influence results in cloudy wine or increased sap flow in plants (Common sense says evapotranspiration and stomatal closure is predominately affected by weather rather than gravity.)
It seems the author’s menstruation theory would be easily debunked by studying tampon sales compared to the lunar cycles or simply googling to see that many primates have shorter or longer cycles than 28 days, yet, we are offered no hard facts, no peer reviewed evidence, not even theories or conjecture. Instead we get statements, and as-I-heard-its passed off as fact, such as, “Biodynamic preparations are designed to increase available nutrients and boost microbial activity in the soils, something that research into sustainable agriculture is incredibly hot on.” Why, what research, which preparations, who is ‘hot’ on it – please give us something other than fluff!
Hey JW, I have no doubt that Steiner was a racist, it was the 1920s after all. Perhaps, as you say, it’s time to redefine what in means in the current world.
Hey Craig, yeah potentially it’s that that bugs me, is that people are having a go at people trying to do what they believe is the right thing. As you say, they’re to be applauded not lambasted.
Hey Mattia, maybe it goes back to what JW was saying, a new definition might help, one that is based more forcibly on the regenerative agriculture and biodiversity aspects. Then there’s less of a monopoly for those looking to govern producers that you’ve highlighted.
Hey Jim, thanks for your reply. I think the way you ended your comment was perfect, it’s all about healthy skepticism. I don’t think that’s what was coming out of the headline in The Times and I apologise if you’ve felt I’ve gone too far in my opinion piece here. Don’t get me wrong, i’m perfectly skeptical of many parts of biodynamics (the one you mentioned being one of them), and I’m more than happy to have my opinion changed as my experiences change over time or solid facts come to light.
Hey Ben, you’re absolutely right, it is based on my opinion. Once again, it’s in the opinion section. It is based on my time tasting biodynamic wines, spending time in biodynamic vineyards, and talking to biodynamic winemakers and, crucially, my view of the world. Unfortunately I’m just a lowly mathematics graduate who spent his university years understanding why scientific research and theology are infinitely intertwined.
It’s one of those that if someone turns round tomorrow with a scientific paper saying, “here you go everyone, I proved it, it’s all bollocks” then I’ll be one of the first in the queue to hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong. Trust me, I’m not that hard headed.
I’m not here to have a slagging match with anyone, and if my opinion has upset you, then I wish it hadn’t.
And my granddad was a shit kicker from Liverpool, he wasn’t really an organic kind of man.
Iubentium amici mei
The commentators have generally pointed out the misleading concepts and claims behind the biodynamic push. The BD preparations are applied in such extremely low amounts that the organisms therein cannot compete with the much more numerous microorganisms that live naturally in a well managed soil, that is one to which organic residues have been returned in the form of compost and mulch, and/or a diverse cover crop has been grown in the midrows and undervine. There is also no evidence that these very low concentrations of organisms in the BD preps can increase the availability of nutrients in the soil. The reference to humic acids (HA) in the article is a fallacy because HA is an operationally defined constituent of organic matter (it is a product of the extraction method); it does not exist as a separate entity in the soil. The real point to make is that a soil should have organic residues returned to it to feed the multitude of diverse microorganisms that normally live in the soil. That is the basis of organic farming (as well as avoiding harmful pesticide use). Some BD vignerons rely solely on the BD preps and add no additional organic matter. Under this practice, the soil will gradually decline in fertility over time. There is no free lunch.
Turner should read Steiner’s eight essays….. Just an evening of comparing the claims therein with the evidence would leave him with a firm conviction that biodynamics is witchcraft.