Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Wild World of Wine

I was reading through the Nov/Dec 07 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer when I came across an article titled "Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle" by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquín (I will include a link to the article if they decide to publish it online). This article describes a current trend amoung grape growers to practice something called biodynamic farming. This agricultural technique is nothing more than an application of astrology and homeopathy to plant health.

Biodynamic farming is essentially organic farming plus crazy nonsense. Consistent with organic farming, BD farming does not use modern pesticides and herbicides. The entirety of the BD method relies on nine "preparations" and a strict adherence to an astrological calendar. These preparations are methods for preparing fields and compost. It is worthwhile to look at these preparations (as reported in the wikipedia article) one at a time (I'm not sure why they start at 500):

500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground (40–60 cm below the surface) in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.

I guess the theory is that plants like hummus?
501: Crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried into the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It can be mixed with 500 but usually prepared on its own (mixture of 1 tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 liters of water) The mixture is sprayed under very low pressure over the crop during the wet season to prevent fungal diseases. It should be sprayed on an overcast day or early in the morning to prevent burning of the leaves.

Mmm...this sounds a bit like homeopathy. One tablespoon dissolved in 250 liters? I would drink that for a quarter.

502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.

I'm pretty sure most crops don't grow through the snowy winter when the bladder is buried.
503: Chamomile blossoms (Matricaria recutita) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in full bloom are stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in 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 by.
506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) are extracted into water.
508: Horsetail (Equisetum)

It is also noted that
One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other, except for the 507 preparation, which is stirred into 5 liters of water and sprayed over the entire compost surface. All preparations are thus used in homeopathic quantities, and the only intent is to strengthen the life forces of the farm.

So far, I am under the impression that preparations 500-508 do nothing at all for the farm. Maybe if we look at the origins of this farming method we will be able to make heads or tails of this seemingly random set of directions.

Apparently, biodynamic farming was developed in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner. He gave a series of eight lectures (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) for a group of local farmer in response to a period of poor crop health. At the time, the farmers blamed chemical fertilizers for the crop deterioration. In short, "Steiner had a vitalist vision of the universe in which ethereal qualities infuse raw matter in order to give it life." (Smith and Barquín) Other crazy ideas of Steiner's include the notions that pests are created by cosmic forces and that illness is caused by our bodies being too "connected with the physical." (Smith and Barquín)

What does all of this have to do with wine? It turns out that an increasing number of vinyards are becoming biodynamic. Also, famous wine critics such as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson are favorably reviewing such wines which spreads the idea that BD agriculture has a positive effect on wine. Thankfully science is starting to weigh in on the the usefulness of BD farming. A 2000 Washington State University study found no difference between organic and BD soil.

While it seems that the scientific community will be able to prove the ridiculousness of BD farming, I would be willing to bet cash money that the number of practicing farms will still be on the rise as long as wine critics swear by its effectiveness. Thankfully, the only real harm in BD farming is the waste of time and money of the farmer and the increased price of the wine itself. The easiest way to stop BD farming would be to stop buying BD wine.


Flavin said...

505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in 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 by.

Would it be stupid of me to ask which domesticated animal? Or do I not want to know?

Ben said...

According to the 5th lecture in the 8 lecture series, the skull of any domesticated animal can be used from cat to cow.

Brian Charles Clark said...

Skepticism is certainly in order, but boycotting BD wine isn't going to stop the fascination people have with the way their food is grown. For better or worse, food is not subject to rational discourse, as it's a deeply emotional thing. For more on the recent uptick in interest in BD, see my article:

Ben said...

I think I agree with you almost entirely. I did read your article. I would not be the least bit surprise to see biodynamic biofuels in the future. The problem I see is that it will be a waste of time and money. Research seems to show that biodynamics is about as useful as the astrological and homeopathic influences it embraces. I also was not trying to take away anyone's fascination with how their food is grown. I think the fact that I took the time to write about biodynamic farming shows that very interest. However, I would like people to think critically about where their food comes from and how much more they would like to pay for grapes grown with magic.

Brian Charles Clark said...

Ben, Yes! Getting people to think critically is key to sane policy and use of resources. Good luck to us all with that....