What is Biodynamic Farming? The Pseudoscience, Debunked
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On an autumn night, you meet a farmer stuffing chamomile blooms into a long strand of intestines, freshly butchered from a cow. His partner is diligently chopping oak bark, pushing pieces through the eye of a goat skull — it must be timed with the moonrise. This practice stimulates crop growth. Much like ancient agriculture, biodynamic farming is rooted in ritual and shrouded in myths and religious rites. But how much of it is actual science?
Tales of a Madman
Biodynamic farming has its roots in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, a self-described clairvoyant with bizarre ideas. For instance, Steiner created anthroposophy, a practice based on the belief in a physically tangible spirit world. It includes the idea that water used to be much thinner than it is today, allowing the citizens of Atlantis to invent advanced technology.
Steiner also co-founded the field of anthroposophic medicine. This pseudoscience claimed, among other things, that the heart was not a pump, that patients’ past lives were responsible for their illnesses and that the alignment of the stars determined a baby’s sex. In another example, mistletoe diluted in water was supposedly a cure for cancer. Steiner postulated that a parasitic plant that kills its host could fight similar diseases.
The Birth of a Movement
Biodynamic farming has Steiner’s fingerprints all over it. Terminally ill and just one year before his death in 1925, Steiner devised the idea that livestock care, soil health and plant growth were closely intertwined, effectively inventing the organic farming movement.
This was a brilliant concept that carried over into the 21st century. Through much of what he said was psychobabble, Steiner had, in fact, discovered a legitimate farming technique that would go on to become a worldwide sensation.
He emphasized that manure and compost improved soil fertility, that synthetic pesticides and fertilizers could be harmful and that crops should be rotated. He said that farmers should view their fields as an ecological system with complex interactions between the animals and plants, with his theory touching on nutrient recycling and the benefits of cover crops.
If he had stopped there, he’d simply be known as the father of modern organic agriculture. His farming methods are successful because the aforementioned practices are science based. Instead, the philosopher added his own black magic twist for good measure. It wouldn’t be a Steiner theory, after all, without some element of the occult.
Blood Tides and Satellites
Here are some of the wildest pseudoscientific beliefs in biodynamic farming:
1. Cow Horns Harvest Cosmic Energy
Steiner proclaimed that stuffing a cow horn with ground quartz could harvest cosmic forces underground. A single deer bladder packed with yarrow and baked in the sun could fertilize a pasture. In fact, most of his fertilizer recipes involved filling an animal organ or bone with another material and burying them in a remote location to help with the smell.
It’s true that manure, animal carcasses and minerals can improve soil health. However, they must be applied in areas intended for crop growth, or else they simply won’t reach the plants. It’s like placing a bottle of medicine next to someone lying in bed and expecting them to get better. The medicine’s presence alone does nothing.
Biodynamic farming often uses cow horns for fertilizer preparations. That’s because Steiner believed cow horns were actually akin to satellite receivers, and that they were specially designed to accept and focus cosmic energy. In a 1924 lecture, he explained that cows have horns so they can “send themselves into the astral-ethereal formative powers,” and that their horns “radiated astrality.”
What that means is anyone’s guess. The real reason cows have horns is to defend themselves and their calves from predators. Both male and female cattle may have horns, and some cows are naturally polled, meaning they never develop horns.
2. The Moon Moves Nutrients
Another idea that characterizes biodynamic farming is planting and harvesting based on the moon’s phase, and not just because it falls on a certain day of the season. It has nothing to do with good weather, and everything to do with how the moon pulls on the liquids inside of a plant. Like the tides, Steiner thought, the moon must affect the ebb and flow of vitamin-rich fluids inside plants, making certain days ideal for harvesting healthier crops.
It’s a good thing the moon’s gravity doesn’t work that way — having tidal waves in your blood would sure make it hard to function. Instead, most farmers harvest crops based on when they were planted, their growing zone or the presence of ripe fruits or vegetables. Unlike lunar gravity, healthy soil and adequate spacing from other plants improve a crop’s nutrient profile.
You can see for yourself that the moon doesn’t create miniature tides. Place a pot of water on the counter and set up a camera to record it every day for a month. Put a ruler in the pot to measure any upward movement of the water. Finally, cover the pot with a sheet of plastic wrap so the water can’t evaporate. What happens?
Even during a full moon, the water will not rise or slosh around in the pot. That’s because the moon’s gravity doesn’t specifically affect liquids.
3. Hydroponics Isn’t Natural
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants directly in water. A rich supply of nutrient-dense liquid fuels their growth, and the plants receive the same vitamins and minerals they’d get from the soil. The main advantage of hydroponics is that plants can be grown closer together, in cities, in areas with poor soil or in vertical spaces. It also saves an enormous quantity of water.
With the exception of growing aquatic plants, the biodynamic farming philosophy maintains that hydroponics is a bad idea. But what’s not to love about a sustainable agriculture technique with the potential to feed the growing population? Whether grown in soil or water, the end result is a healthy fruit or vegetable.
What Is Biodynamic Farming Doing Right?
Biodynamic agriculture has the same benefits as any non-pseudoscientific organic farming technique. Crop rotation, soil health, natural pesticides, cover crops and an emphasis on ecological systems are king.
This — and not stuffing viscera full of flowers — is what makes biodynamic agriculture work. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to bury a cow horn full of manure in the corner of a field, but it certainly doesn’t help.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.