Sunday, October 9, 2011

Clarifications on the Subject of BioDynamic Farming

People say a lot of stuff about BioDynamics, and most of it not very carefully, that is to say, what is said tends to lack philosophical or logical rigor. I’m not going to link to anything or refute anyone in particular, but instead I’ll simply add my two cents on what I think is the real issue, the epistemology of the matter, or on what we can and cannot say about BioDynamic farming.

Briefly, by way of introduction, from Wikipedia, “Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food.” More specifically, BD is a farming method that requires the use of various “preparations” during the farming and harvesting processes, most famously (and controversially) the burying of a cow’s horn at a depth of 40–60 cm below the ground in the autumn, which is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring as an anti-fungal treatment for the vines. BD sprang from a series of lectures given by philosopher/intellectual entrepreneur Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Now, it seems relatively uncontroversial that Steiner himself was located somewhere on the spectrum between slightly loony and full-blown charlatan and fraudster, but hopefully no one is trying to commit a genetic fallacy here, so let’s put that consideration aside.

These days, if you want to get “certified Biodynamic,” you get an organization called Demeter to come certify you and give you permission to use the label. They charge you for doing this, so Demeter has an economic incentive for keeping the philosophy of BD alive (a much belabored point by certain critics, most especially Stu Smith of the blog Biodynamics is a Hoax). Again, this particular point doesn’t concern me, since the existence of economic incentives can’t logically prove anything about BD, though I will say that people don’t generally start businesses that sell products they don’t believe in, so the “hoax” part seems a stretch to me.


While I can’t find any sort of statement on Demeter’s website about what exactly BioDynamic viticulture will change about a given agricultural environment, or any guarantees about increases in quality (the focus instead seems to be on overall environmental health and sustainability), I think it’s fair to assume that Demeter or any proponent of BD must assert that (at bare minimum):

BD1. The farming practices prescribed by Biodynamics’ ecological farming system directly contribute to greater vineyard health/vitality than non-BD vineyards and (therefore)

BD2. Biodynamics is directly responsible for the production of wines superior to those produced non-Biodynamically (or more precisely, better than would otherwise be produced on the site, all other things being equal).


And more importantly, how do we measure it? I take it that BD1 is easy to measure (could be as simple as the overall robustness of the plants), but the issues enclosed in BD2 are of course a hornet’s nest of debate and confusion. I fear that what makes a wine better or worse than another is an issue forever damned to the realm of the subjective. We know from innumerable examples that virtually no two critics can be made to agree across the board about which wines are better than others. There isn’t even any (non-anecdotal) evidence, so far as I know, that anyone can tell BD wines from non-BD wines (even winemakers themselves—see the recently released documentary Wine from Here). But nevertheless, something like BD2 is necessary, because unless this method creates better wines, why do it (perhaps with philosophical or ecological benefits creating additional motivations)? But with regards to whether it works, I take it that no scientific study has shown significant differences in plots farmed BioDynamically vs. those farmed organically. This does not mean that there won’t be a study showing just that, as science is not about proving anything, but rather about falsifying hypotheses, but nevertheless, there is no evidence that Biodynamics is efficacious relative to BD1, and, if BD2 follows from BD1, BD2 fails to be supported as well.


What we get to say about it depends on how we think about BD. I take it that there are two schools of thought here: first, there are those who think the scientific method applies to BD, that is acts through a series of naturalistic (read: empirically measurable) processes. In other words, you don’t think BD works because it allows the vine faeries to perform their grape-ripening magic. Rather, you think that all the forces at work seem to be physical forces, and are at least possibly knowable by human agents (they don’t have to be actually known in reality...obviously our scientific knowledge isn’t perfect). If you’re in this first camp, and you agree that what BD claims to do is unclear, and that good science has thus far failed to show that BD has positive effects, well, then you can’t say much about it. You can say that it needs to make a hypothesis and subject it to experimentation. In the second camp, there are those who think that the scientific method DOES NOT apply to BD (or cannot apply, or ought not to be applied). If you’re in this camp, then I’m not sure what exactly you think the efficacy of BD can be attributed to, but you’re probably inclined to appeal to the complexity of the interactions of all the forces in the vineyard as a sort of explanation. If so, please read that essay I just linked. It explains why appealing to complexity is not an explanation. Also, you can watch this video (starting at 1:19), which explains the “Special Pleading” fallacy, which is more or less the same thing. To me, this claim that it is even possible to understand BD at a fundamental level is very strange, and of the fideistic character that you find in much of religious belief. And just like advocating the existence of a non-empirical deity, it seems the burden of proof is on the proponent of BD to explain how her system works.

One way to respond would be to say that one doesn’t need to understand something to be able to recognize its effects, i.e. we can oftentimes see the good (or bad) a thing does without perfectly understanding how the effect is caused (it is in fact really important to keep these two things separate, the what-is-the-case, or “metaphysics,” from the what-we-know-about-it, or “epistemology”). However, this doesn’t do anything to demonstrate the essential and irreducible complexity of BD, and it seems relatively easy to undo the claim of irreducible complexity that this sort of BD proponent is advocating. We could run some simple experiments where BD grape-growing was practiced on a given plot of land, while on similar plots, the grape growing was carried out in a variety of different forms, all of them close to BD, but not quite. So for instance one plot might leave out the cow-horn preparation, while another might ignore the moon phases with regards to picking schedules, etc. Variations on the theme of BD would, with a large enough sample, give us data about the most effective and ineffective aspects of BD farming. If you’re like me, you find it intuitive that some of these changes would help, some would hurt, and overall most of the slight variations would garner extremely similar end results to the pure BD farming. If that’s the case, then there wouldn’t be any logical reason for supporting BD as an irreducibly effective farming method, and Steiner’s spell would be broken.


But these experiments haven’t been done, and I don’t see anyone lining up to perform them. So here’s the bottom line. You can’t claim BD is the solution to a fundamentally complicated problem. Or that it itself is irreducibly complex (could this be demonstrated? I’m not sure “irreducibly complex” has a scientific definition). At least, not if you want to be considered rational. What you can say is that BD seems to do x, y, and z (and enumerate and articulate these phenomena), and conduct a scientifically sound experiment to see if your hypothesis (BD) is really best explanation.

Whether BD works remains to be shown, and this is the point I want to stress: it can be shown. Neither grape growing nor wine making are fundamentally complicated things. They are reducible to a finite number of possible influences. If we don’t perfectly understand the influences, well, so much the worse for us, but if the scientific progress of the last 200 years has shown us ANYTHING, it’s been that mysteries don’t stay mysterious for too long once science gets its teeth into them. So, seriously, you mystery mongers, have a little faith.

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