Your Friday Dose of Woo: Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o, and on his farm he had some woo, ee-i-ee-i-o

This week's been a lot of doom and gloom here on the ol' blog, hasn't it? I don't know how it happened, but somehow I let blogging about dichloroacetate, the inexpensive small molecule drug that has been widely touted as a "cure for cancer" that "big pharma" (or the FDA, or both, take your pick) is keeping from cancer patients because it's supposedly unpatentable and unprofitable, take over the blog for three whole days. Believe it or not, I really hadn't meant for that to happen. It just sort of took over. Of course, big time Pharma Shill that I supposedly am (with the badge to prove it), no doubt supporters of the unscrupulous purveyors of an unproven (in humans) cancer therapy to desperate patients will accuse me of toadying up to big pharma in order to crush the "real cure" for cancer, when in fact it simply pisses me off to see people like that pose as being interested only in "information," "education," and "advocacy" about DCA on the one hand, while selling the stuff on the other.

I'm funny that way.

Fortunately, it's Friday, and you know what that means. Yes, it's time to take a break from such downers as contemplating all the desperate patients who are being taken in by the hucksters I've been blogging about. It's the end of the week. Time to sit back, pop open a bottle of decent wine, and enjoy a glass or two (after I'm done with work this evening, of course). And, at the risk of trampling on fellow ScienceBlogger Abel's own Friday feature (The Friday Fermentable), I have to point out that I'll be breaking open a bottle of wine produced only by the finest biodynamic wineries.

Oh, yes, my friends. This week, the woo is down on the farm (and winery), and it's "biodynamic." If you believe the hype, it's the ultimate in farming technique that produces only the finest wine. Maybe it is and does, but, man, is there a lot of woo there! For example, check out these quotes:

Biodynamics is the aikido or ashtanga yoga of winegrowing -- a way to focus energy and awareness for peak performance and exceptional health. Sick vineyards need homeopathy; biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt. Like Barry Bonds turning a 100-mph fastball into a soaring arc headed for McCovey Cove, biodynamic vineyards are completely aligned with their purpose, and therefore able to channel all the forces of the moment into a powerful result."

The New York Times (Download the .pdf)
June 16, 2004 - Trying to Bottle Moonlight and Magic

"Biodynamics, its advocates assert, maximizes the personality of a given plot of earth. Like a homeopathic doctor, a Biodynamic farmer analyzes the land and determines what is out of balance. The aim is to turn the land into a self-sustaining, self-regulating habitat."

The Press Democrat (Download the .pdf)
June 30, 2004 - Eco-friendly, high quality and tasty, too: Benziger releases Tribute, a wine made from biodynamic grapes
by Peg Melnik

"Like a homeopathic doctor"? "Sick vineyards need homeopathy"? "Biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt"? Uh-oh. Sounds like woo to me. And, boy, is it ever! And some of it in the New York friggin' Times, yet!

So, what is "biodynamic farming"? Well, in essence, biodynamic farming's a lot like organic farming, only with oodles of the most amazing woo added! If you believe what its advocates say, this is what it can do for your farm:

While it encompasses many of the principles of organic farming, such as the elimination of all chemicals, Biodynamics goes further, requiring close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine. It also emphasizes a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem.

OK, sounds good so far. Who could argue with eliminating chemical pesticides in farming wherever possible? But what on earth are these "varied forces of nature" they're talking about? It's starting to sound woo-ey to me. But let's see what's involved:

  • Employs a series of eight herbal-based preparations applied to the soil in order to promote soil vitality through increased microbiologic activity and diversity (think of these as vitamins for the plant and soil). The more nutrient-rich and biologically diverse the soils, the more character in the wine.
  • Uses cover crops and companion plants to maximize the health of the vineyard environment.
  • Promotes pest control through soil management; Biodynamic sprays and teas; crop rotations and diversification; and the encouragement of diverse animal, bird and insect populations that lead to self-regulating predator and prey relationships.
  • Aligns vineyard practices (planting, pruning, etc.) with the earth's natural cycles (lunar, seasonal) for maximum health and development of the vines.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Who wouldn't be in favor of minimizing pesticide use and using crop diversification to minimize the harmful effects of mass farming on the environment? Unfortunately, along with all these laudable goals comes a heapin' helpin' of good, old-fashioned woo. You see, biodynamics was derived from the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner back in the early part of the 20th century. The philosophy based on Steiner's teachings, anthroposophy, forms the basis of the philosophy behind "biodynamic farming." Anthroposophy, which means "human wisdom," is also known as "spiritual science." According to Rudolf Steiner, anthrosophy is:

Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge to guide the Spirit of the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in man as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling: and it can be justified inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need.

Indeed, the very concept of biodynamic farming is based on a series of lectures that Steiner gave in Germany in 1924 at Schloss Koberwitz in what was then Silesia, Germany. (In actuality, Steiner was a prodigious lecturer and gave an incredible number of talks in his lifetime, many of which are archived here.) Reasonably, Steiner was concerned about the increasing use of chemicals in the form of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides in farming. Not quite as reasonably, he viewed this form of farming as having "spiritual shortcomings." The central aspect of biodynamic farming is that the farm is viewed as a single organism, which should be viewed as a self-nourishing and self-replenishing system. So far, this is not that far out of the mainstream, although you can already feel a bit of woo creeping in, as if this is "Gaia Lite."

But if you really want to get the full feel of the woo involved in biodynamic farming, you really have to check out the recipes for eight different fertilizers that Steiner prescribed to "strengthen the life force" of the farm. These are numbered 500 through 507 (why 500 through 507 instead of 1 through 8, I have no idea). First, we have field preparations for stimulating humus formation:

  • 500: (horn-manure) a humus mixture prepared by stuffing cow manure into the horn of a cow and buried into the ground (40-60 cm below the surface) in the autumn and left to decompose during the winter.
  • 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 litres 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 to prevent burning of the leaves.

Both 500 and 501 are used on fields by stirring the contents of a horn in 40-60 litres of water for an hour and whirling it in different directions every second minute. About 4 horns are used for each hectare of soil.

This is some serious woo, stuffing cow manure into a horn and using crushed powdered quartz apparent reason. Why dilute it in 40-60 liters of water? Why not 100? Or 25? "Whirling it in different directions every second minute"? What's the reason for that? Why not every minute or every third or fifth minute? I suppose it must have something to do with the life force of the farm. But it gets woo-ier. Just check out the compost preparations:

  • 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Cervus elaphus, Red Deers, placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 503: Chamomile blossoms (Chamomilla officinalis) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
  • 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca, and the whole plant in full bloom) is stuffed together under ground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
  • 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of some 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 peritoneum from some cattle is buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) is extracted into water.

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 litres 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, i.e. the preparations fulfill spiritual goals and nothing else.

Alright, the parts about stuffing the intestines or peritoneii of cows or the urinary bladders of deer (what did the deer ever do to deserve this fate?), burying them on the farm for the winter, and then retrieving them in the spring are truly disgusting. Just imagine how much fun it is to dig this stuff up in the spring--probably even more fun than stuffing the various animal organs and burying them in the first place. I somehow picture sandal-shod, long-haired, tambourine-playing woo-meisters chanting magical spells as they bury these various "composts" around their farms in order to "strengthen its life force" before finishing up the day with a little drum playing and a mini Burning Man ceremony. But, hey, that's just me. I do wonder, however, what's the deal with all the horns used in these recipes? Thanks to Skeptoid, I get an idea, as this is what Rudolf Steiner himself said about it:

The cow has horns in order to reflect inwards the astral and etheric formative forces, which then penetrate right into the metabolic system so that increased activity in the digestive organism arises by reason of this radiation from horns and hoofs.

Ah, yes, when I start hearing talk of "astral and etheric formative forces," I know I'm right at home in some serious woo and that Friday is the perfect day to write about it.

One thing you should notice is that 500 and 501 mixes one tablespoon of quartz powder into 250 liters of water and that 502-507 involve spreading mere ounces of the disgusting potion of decomposed plants and animal organs into many tons of compost. Truly, as the advocates of biodynamic farming say, this is indeed a homeopathic amount of whatever stinky concoction it is that they're making. But, hey, it doesn't matter, you know. After all, none of it has anything to do with any scientifically measurable phenomenon. Its purpose is to "strengthen the life force" of the farm. (I'm guessing that the stinkier the mixture, the more the "life force" is strengthened.) Also, like homeopathy, there's a rather bizarre element of "like cures like," except that it's extended to an entire farm. This "like" is diluted to, in essence, undetectability but still somehow manages to retain some sort of therapeutic effect. This whole concept is taken to a ridiculous extreme when it comes to pest control. To Steiner, pests and weeds are are the result of "imbalances" between life forces emanating from the earth. Most biodynamic strategies to control pests or weeds involve ceremonially burning the pest or weed in question and then sprinkling the ashes over the farm, preferably at the right astrological time. Check it out:

Since Steiner viewed the full moon, Venus and Mercury as cosmic powers influencing the fertility of plants, the biodynamic techniques for pest control involves blocking the fertility influence from said planets on different pests. Steiner dictates that this is achieved in different ways for pests and weeds:

  • Pests such as insects or Apodemus (field mice) have more complex processes associated with them depending on what pest is to be targeted. For example field mice are to be countered by deploying ashes prepared from field mice skin when Venus is in the scorpius.
  • Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, which will according to biodynamic philosophy block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile.

All I can say is: Woo-woo!

Oddly enough, even today, the whole concept of "biodynamic farming" is pretty well accepted, at least in the wine industry. Some wineries go to great lengths to make sure that they plant their crops at the right phase of the moon or under the right astrological alignments. It's also not at all uncommon to see gushing reviews of wines from wineries that use biodynamic farming techniques, coupled with claims that the wine coming from such farms "tastes better." The problem is, wine varies from year to year and from vineyard to vineyard, even when using the same species of grapes. There are good years and bad years; similarly, there are vineyards that do a better job at making wine than others. There's also a whole lot of subjectivity involved in the tasting and evaluation and rating of wines. It's thus not too hard to see how confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and other logical fallacies could lead wine makers, wine drinkers, and wine reviewers to detect a salubrious effect on the wine from biodynamic techniques that may or may not be there.

What's really irritating about biodynamic farming is that it's quite possible that the non-woo components of the technique may actually result in better crops or better wine, depending on whether we're talking about farms or vineyards. After all, minus the woo, biodynamic farming involves nothing more unusual or special than hardcore organic farming with little or no pesticides. There's no need to invoke magic or woo to explain why biodynamic farming, stripped of its mysticism, might potentially result in better crops or tastier wine. Yet, woo is what is invoked, in the form of bladders, horns, or or skulls full of herbs or blossoms buried in the farm, and biodynamic farming is considered quite natural, normal, even respectable. Almost nary is heard a skeptical word from wine reviewers, for instance.

I could be wrong (in fact, I hope I'm wrong), but I'm guessing that most of these vineyards that advertise that they use "biodynamic" farming probably steer clear of the most blatant woo associated with Steiner and the technique. Either that, or they downplay the mysticism and burying of animal parts stuffed with various plants to decompose followed by the spreading the resultant mix over the soil and instead play up the organic farming angle. I'm also guessing that most of them probably don't believe in the woo-iest aspects of biodynamic farmings. However, because somehow the term has become fashionable to the point that reputable newspapers publish glowing and credulous accounts of the wonders of biodynamic farming, few people seem to be aware of the serious woo involved or that biodynamic farming is nothing more than a form of organic farming gussied up with a huge helping of truly bizarre woo.

You know, thinking about all this, perhaps I should postulate my own "philosophy" of farming or medicine. If I got EneMan involved, I bet I could come up with some sort of homeopathic farming woo that involves wine enemas and the depositing of the outflow onto the farm. (For a vineyard, like=wine, plus some human-made natural fertilizer added to the mix to "increase the life force of the farm." What could be better?)

Nahhh. Even I wouldn't sink that low.

Well, probably not, anyway. A lot of it depends on whether I can renew my R01 grant when it's up for renewal in a couple of years.


More like this

My first encounter with anthrosophy farming was in a...horror story. In which a new-agey type of lady and her man become really interested in developing their magical piles of compost, on which they would throw either fresh primroses or spleen of a bull at full moon.

What is funny is that an anthoposphy proponent happened to take second place in the Greatest Bulgarian contest. If people only knew that Mr. Petar Deunov stole his ideas from a German. But Deunov has a large following in Bulgaria, a group of devoted SMS senders.

Anyway, haven't heard them producing wine, although I'd be curious to taste a White Brotherhood label.

By hipparchia (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

Okay, gotta ask this one. Is Eric Asimov any relation to Isaac? (I do seem to remember that there was a son who did some non-fiction writing.)
If so, THAT would be even sadder than the wine industry going deep into woo.

You only get this biodymanic crap from wineries that don't have decent terroir - "It's Napa Valley, it's non-vintage, but it's biodynamic!". Try that in France and they'll laugh you out of the country...

I agree that it's a massive shame that the perfectly reasonable, scientifically-based approaches of modern organic or permaculture argriculture don't seem to be enough for some people. What really annoys me is that this lunacy then gets proponents of serious alternative agriculture tarred with the same brush.

I feel like I'm reading a Hogwart's textbook. Professor Snape may have a future in Napa Valley, depending on how he fares in the final volume.

Is there any way to get a printer friendly version of your blog entries?

Some friends of ours are involved in this project. In general, in principle, I think this sort of thing is a damned good idea; something we're going to need more of in the future. Unfortunately, along with the sound ideas about efficiency, recycling, sustainability etc -- basically, just paying close attention to your resource consumption and waste disposal -- it inevitably attracts a certain component of woo. Some members (to the irritation of some others) are into putting up funny pipe-sculptures in the fields to channel earth-energy and crap like that. That's one reason I could never live in a community situation -- I just couldn't deal with that sort of tripe.

By Steve Watson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2007 #permalink

I didn't realize that biodynamics was such a bunch of woo. I knew it was woo, but not to that degree.

I'm all for ecological, but let's get real.

Isn't it a little unscientific to attack the users of 'biodynamic' farming because of what you think some of its practitionsers might be thinking? From the original post: 'I'm guessing that most of these vineyards that advertise that they use "biodynamic" farming in fact probably steer clear of the most blatant woo associated with Steiner and the technique.' Shouldn't a attack on biodynamic practices for alleged uses of Steiner's stupidest ideas actually provide evidence of their use?

If the valid components of the technique produce a high quality crop and involve sound organic farming, who cares if they were inspired by Steiner or Lamarck or Newton (who by the way believed in God and astrology, obviously nullifying the validity of any work in mechanics, gravity and optics by anyone he inspired, right?)?

So what if I'm annoyed by 'religious' aspects of a certain organic farmer? I am mightily annoyed by redneck reactionary politics of a lot of mainstream farmers. The ideas and opinions of the producer are irrelevant if the quality of the product is up to par.

Anna, so what does biodynamic means other than what Orac described? It's obviously not the same as ecological, otehrwise you'd call it that. It must have something to do with the energy fields or wasnot, which is completely woo.

It's worth noting that biodynamics is not Steiner's larger legacy: that title goes to the Waldorf Schools which base their curriculum on Anthroposophic principles, including ideas about stages in biological-intellectual development. As a result, there's a lot of folks with biodynamic farming in their background in the Waldorf school movement.

The woo factor for Anthroposophy as pedagogy is not as high as for Anthroposophy as biology: for certain personalities, it's a very good match, and the educational outcomes seem to be comparable to other forms of non-state education. But there are some troubling aspects, including an emphasis on fairies in early years, and the implications of Steiner's racial/historical theories.

Any idea, when it becomes an ideology, is a problem....

Isn't it a little unscientific to attack the users of 'biodynamic' farming because of what you think some of its practitionsers might be thinking? From the original post: 'I'm guessing that most of these vineyards that advertise that they use "biodynamic" farming in fact probably steer clear of the most blatant woo associated with Steiner and the technique.' Shouldn't a attack on biodynamic practices for alleged uses of Steiner's stupidest ideas actually provide evidence of their use?

You don't think biodynamic farms actually use the composts? If they are certified by Demeter International, the international organization that certifies biodynamic farms, they certainly do. Don't believe me? Check out Demeter's production standards. Pay special attention to Appendix 10, where the above composts/manures are described. Quoth the standards manual:

The biodynamic compost and spray preparations (=preparations) created out of natural and organic substances are used in minute doses to enhance soil life, plant growth and quality and animal health. They act as a kind of bioregulator, forcing the self regulation of biological systems, e.g. the farms whole biological cycle.

They are essential to biodynamic agriculture and their use is a recognised requirement of the Demeter Standards.

(Emphasis mine.)


The biodynamic preparations will be produced under the use of natural processes (e. g. winter soil rest and summer soil life) at the best in the farm on which they are to be applied. All the materials used for making the preparations should originate from this farm as far as possible. Living biological processes are essential during production. The organs used are chosen for the unique properties they possess as a result of their former function within the animal organism. Their function is to concentrate the constructive and formative living forces into the substances of the preparations.

The animal organs used need to be of food quality standard. Disinfectants are deleterious to the process.

Produced in this special way, the preparations develop a strong yet subtle power whose effect may be compared to that of homeopathic remedies.

So, if you see any winery or farm that touts its being certified by Demeter International, that farm must be using fertilizers 500-507, or else it wouldn't be certified.

"After all, minus the woo, biodynamic farming involves nothing more unusual or special than hardcore organic farming with little or no pesticides."

Well, yeah, plus some pretty good household hints. Check out the following book if you're into gardening:

Example of an above-mentioned hint: Don't plant in rows. Plant in *offset* rows. (To visualize this, put 7 quarters in a hexagon with one in the middle - i.e., a 2-3-2 pattern with the edges of each quarter touching its neighbors.) Space the plants so that the roots and leaves will just about touch each other when the plants are grown (the book gives this spacing in inches for many different plants). What this simple offset does is cause the plants to crowd out weeds but not each other. Cuts *way* down on weeding, making the decision not to use herbicides an easy one.

I've gotten some pretty amazing results following the procedures outlined by the book (e.g., 7-foot-high tomato plants in a Zone 6 climate, only one fertilizer application and two weedings all season).

I have to admit, though there's nothing in the book about red deer bladders, it does talk about planting in accordance with moon phases. On the other hand, given the results I've had, it would be interesting to see in a controlled study whether there is anything at all to the moon-phase stuff.

"But why are the barrels stored above the open ground? Well, when a natural high-pressure system comes by, gravitational forces in the earth are forced down powerfully. If the wines are kept directly over these energy spots, solids in the barrel are forced down into the lower part of the barrel. When the wine is racked (the juice is siphoned off the sediments that have settled to the bottom of the barrel), it often doesn't need to be filtered or fined."
I did not know the weather had so much effect on gravity. Still I am a bit confused here, does the high-pressure system forcing gravity down make me weigh more or less?

It seems like this would lend itself to a simple double-blind test. There seems to be no claim that the evaluation of wine is more complicated than the evaluation of a cancer cure in the "holistic" approach to the patient. Uncork a few bottles, decant into numbered carafes and serve to knowlegable drinkers. The best wine is the best wine and if the best wines are from biodynamic farms then they are.

While it encompasses many of the principles of organic farming, such as the elimination of all chemicals, Biodynamics goes further, requiring close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine.

Thanks, but I actually prefer that they don't eliminate all the chemicals. CH3CH2OH in particular.


Absolutely required, huh? That makes it sound like a one-size-fits-all approach, and even if I'm wrong about that, it seems like a logical assumption to make, given how much woo is specific about its requirements in every case, regardless of the circumstances.

My roommate went camping up north last weekend and came back with a couple bottles of this stuff. Whatever winery he bought it from most certainly did not play down the woo-woo angle; he was very excited to tell me about the concept and made a big deal about the "energy" imbued into the wine by the stag bladders (calling 'em deer is apparently not Arthurian enough).

Woo sells.

..Biodynamics goes further, requiring close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine. It also emphasizes a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem.

Hm. I guess they don't mean closed in the way a physicist would. Come to that, if the ecosystem is closed and self-sustaining, why add all the dead bits of animals?


Skeptico points out,
Hey, Prince Charles has adopted biodynamics - what more proof do you need it's woo?

Still, perhaps it would be better to discredit biodynamics and
Harvard Medical School
on their own merits rather than association with the Prince.

Annoying fellow. Inconsistent. At least he's not an outright Aryan racist like Steiner, though.

[That link probably won't work.
I wonder when someone will invent a method for the production of links in blog comments without raw html that won't work anyway. Should be worth a Turing Award at least.]

Oh where to start. An uncle-in-law was very excited about some rock he was importing to attract fairies or pixies or whatever. Straight faced I pointed out the flaw in his plan: by using non-native magic rock he was going to attract old world sprites thereby displacing the native sprites. He actually took me seriously.

Farming is such hard work, and so important, and to do it successfully organically requires so much attention that I hate it when good people (because my uncle-in-law, despite his foibles, has been feeding a lot of people fantastic food for many years) get sidetracked into this kind of crap.

On the other hand farming is so unprofitable, that if somebody's willing to pay more for biodynamic food I say hallelujah as long as the money's going to the grower.

Okay, gotta ask this one. Is Eric Asimov any relation to Isaac?

Nephew. Son of Stanley, Isaac's brother.

Mr. [Stanley] Asimov is survived by his wife of 40 years, Ruth Sheinaus Asimov; two sons, Daniel, of Palo Alto and Eric, of Manhattan, an editor and restaurant reviewer at The New York Times; a daughter, Nanette Asimov of San Francisco; a sister, Marcia Repanes of Maspeth, Queens, and two grandsons.

Daniel Asimov worked at NASA at the time of his father's death. Still may, for all I know.

I agree: sad. His uncle would not approve.

Of course, wine tasting and enjoying are such subjective affairs anyway, that it hardly matters what you do in the vineyard (okay, maybe not sacrificing children to Moloch...). If people are going to think it tastes better because teenage virgins in diaphanous silk gowns rode unicorns between the rows of grapes, let 'em. The important thing to me is whether I feel the desire to pour a second glass, not what some 'expert' in extremely rarefied air wrote about how it tastes.

Ultimately, confirmation bias and wishful thinking are what sell more bottles of wine, which is what the winemaker wants. And it's not as if you are aiming for any sort of objective effect here (except where the drowning of sorrows is concerned): the happiness of the drinker is an end in itself. And if the drinker thinks the woo makes it taste better, who is anyone to stop them?

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 25 Feb 2007 #permalink

Hmm... deer bladders, cow horns and innards, domestic animal skulls... has anyone alerted PETA yet? I wonder how many woo-ish vegans have been drinking this stuff without reading the fine print about how cow unmentionables are being used in the production process.

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 26 Feb 2007 #permalink