Last week I was having lunch with my mom at our favorite nearby nursery/café. After failing to resist the grilled cheese sandwich (3 cheeses! And buttery panini bread!), we walked off lunch in the garden supply part of the nursery. Normally I’m on my best behavior when I’m shopping with my mom (i.e. I don’t take photos of things I’m going to take to task on the blog). But like the 3-cheese grilled sandwich I was unable to resist the bags of biodynamic compost.
Long-time readers of the blog may remember my earlier column and post on biodynamics. Since I wrote the original column over 10 years ago I’ve watched biodynamic marketing move from boutique wines to coffee, tea, tomato sauce…and now to garden products. Really expensive garden products, as in $19.99 for one cubic foot of compost.
What makes this bag of compost worth $19.99? One has to assume it’s the biodynamic preparations used to treat the compost. They’re referred to in the label under “concentrations of yarrow” and so on. Do these preparations make a difference? The label suggests it might be to restore the soil’s vitality. Is there validity to this claim?
In 2013 I published a review of the scientific literature on biodynamics, specifically looking at whether biodynamic preparations have a measurable impact on anything they’re applied to. In a nutshell, the answer is no. (Though this article is behind a paywall, I can send a pdf to you by email if you’d like to read it.)
Don’t let packaging and magical words sway you. Compost made with local materials like bark or agricultural wastes and certified by the US Composting Council is reasonably priced and sustainable.
Now that we have our blog safely moved to this new format, we all resolve to post more frequently. (It’s actually Bert’s day to post, but given that his computer is probably frozen – literally – in Michigan, I’ll step in.)
Today I got a link to my most recent publication in HortTechnology on the science behind biodynamic preparations. I’ve written about this topic before, but recognize the importance of peer-reviewed information for researchers, extension educators, and Master Gardener volunteers. Not to mention all the gardeners who rely on us to provide good science for gardens and landscapes. So here it is. I’m planning to continue submitting review articles to HortTechnology on other topics of interest. It looks like permaculture might be the next one up.
So enjoy this article – pass it on to others who are curious about biodynamics, and if you are a Master Gardener be sure to take it to your MG coordinator and ask that it becomes a resource for your program.
There’s a new blog already generating a lot of discussion among wine aficionados. The not-so-subtly named “Biodynamics is a hoax” discusses all things related to Rudolph Steiner and his philosophies, including the pseudoscience of biodynamics.
Just had to get your attention there. We’ve had a great discussion over native and nonnative plants over the last few weeks. I’m going to completely switch gears and move on to another topic – biodynamics.
If you’re not familiar with this term, let me refer you to my online column here. Biodynamics is a set of agricultural practices based on a belief system, not science, but is an increasingly popular approach, especially in the wine industry. (You can read a discussion of biodynamics in the vineyard in The Skeptical Inquirer here. This article is engaging as well as accurate – my column is pretty dry by comparison.)
Biodynamics is steeped in mysticism and includes special preparations that are used to treat soils and plants. Preparation 500, for example, is created by mixing water with manure that has been packed into a cow’s horn and buried for a set amount of time. Other preparations are more gruesome, requiring a stag’s bladder or cow’s intestine. A whole certification process has emerged in support of these practices.
While it may be easy to dismiss these practices, it turns out that biodynamic farms or vineyards are generally healthier than conventional systems. Does this prove a mystical force at work? Not at all. Biodynamic systems are also organic – using all of those good practices (low or no till, reduced pesticides, reduced fertilizers, polyculture, etc.) that have been demonstrated to be effective over decades of research. When comparisons are made between biodynamic and conventional systems, the impact of organic practices are hidden.
The few scientific studies that have compared biodynamic to organic systems – in other words, specifically testing the effectiveness of special preparations – have found no repeatable, significant differences.
Why do I even care about this? Well, it’s because it’s pseudoscience. It’s a practice that takes on the mantle of science, but doesn’t stand up to repeated scienific testing. Belief systems can’t be tested – even the inventor of biodynamics asserted that his methods were “true and correct unto themselves” and didn’t need to be tested.
Apparently simply being organic isn’t sexy enough anymore.