Jun 19 2017

Biodynamic Farming and Other Nonsense

biodynamic1It seems that for every major practice in the world there is someone who will add an unnecessary layer of woo or pseudoscience. This is generally done for marketing, appealing to the emotions, which I guess is the underlying problem – that there is a market for feel-good pseudoscience. Sometimes the practice is philosophy-based, but that is just a way of saying that the pseudoscience is embedded in the culture.

Yoga is a good example. Start with stretching and exercise and mix in gratuitous woo. Massage is similar – there’s nothing wrong with getting a good massage, and it can relax tight muscles. Too often, however, they feel the need to talk about releasing toxins or activating your chi.

In other cases the process is the reverse, the pseudoscience came first and real science is just a patina on top to help make it more palatable. Naturopathy is a good example of this – it is based almost entirely on various pseudoscientific practices, like homeopathy, water cures, and nutritional pseudoscience. They throw in, however, some common-sense advice about diet and exercise and market themselves as lifestyle practitioners. They are defined, however, by the pseudoscience. You also can’t trust what they say, right or wrong, because they do not have a science-based quality control filter in place. So any given bit of advice can be complete nonsense.

Biodynamic Farming

Biodynamic farming actually fits both of these models of pseudoscience simultaneously. It started its existence as a (mostly) pure pseudoscience. The notion was to farm according to the natural cycles, but this included astrology, herbalism, sympathetic magic, and homeopathic principles. Certain planting had to be done under the proper phase of the moon and astrological sign, for example.

Also at the core of the practice are certain preparations, such as grinding quartz crystal, burying in a cow horn over the summer, then spreading the result on a field. There is a lot of placing herbs and manure into the various parts of a cow and burying it for a season to two.

In addition biodynamic farming advocates certain practices which are considered “organic.” In fact, the modern organic movement evolved out of biodynamic farming. These practices include limiting off-farm inputs, crop rotation, and not using artificial chemicals.

Now, apparently, biodynamic farming is on the rise, because organic pseudoscience is not enough for those who require grade A extra concentrated pseudoscience.  A modern biodynamic farm is organic plus extra stuff, like using the magical extracts and more severely limiting inputs. Astrology, apparently, is optional. So now we have a combination of philosophy-based farming practices that may contribute to sustainability, and others that are pure magic.

But even the sustainable practices, like with organic farming, are not really sustainable. They can only exist as boutique farming for people with more money than scientific literacy. For example, the Guardian article begins:

When John Chester, a filmmaker from California, quit his job to become a farmer, he didn’t do it out of a desire to “feed the world”. Instead, he says: “I’m trying to feed my neighbors – and if everyone did that, we would be able to replicate this.”

Um, no. Everybody can’t do that. We are already using about half the land on Earth for farming, and there really isn’t any more. I also don’t think people really want to go back to a time when 30% of the workforce were farming. Even organic farming, which allows for more off-farm inputs, like manure, can’t feed the world. Organic farming uses 20-40% more land than conventional farming, and there basically isn’t enough manure to go around.

This also gets to a fundamental logical problem with biodynamic farming. The farm is designed like a closed system. That’s fine if all you want to do is subsistence farming, but if you actually want to produce food for other people to eat then by definition the system cannot be closed. You want to take a lot of nutrients away from the farm (that’s the whole point), which means those nutrients have to be put back from somewhere off the farm.

In reality the biodynamic farming standard allows for 50% of nitrogen inputs to come from off-farm. They would have to. So why partially adhere to a principle that makes no sense, so you have to deviate from it just to survive?

In fact we need to think of the Earth as an entire system (it’s not closed because we have input from the sun). We need to think of the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, water use, and food production and distribution as a world-wide system. These small farms pretending to be detached from the world are just feeding those who can afford a premium for food which has no health or environmental advantage but which scratches an indulgent philosophical itch. They are buying the gratuitous layer of pseudoscience on top, sometimes because they just want to feel special, but sometimes also because they are guilted into thinking they need to in order to provide the best for their family.

I care more about the latter group – people who really can’t afford the premium but have been convinced that their family’s health will benefit by purchasing organic or now even biodynamic produce.

Generally speaking we can’t afford the gratuitous layer of pseudoscience which is mostly there for marketing, or exploitation. This is true generally, but increasingly true in food production. It is also true in fields like medicine, where the economic strain is significant and increasing. Billions are wasted on worthless services or products, and even more on dealing with the consequences of relying on worthless pseudoscience.

There is often real direct harm, but often the downside of pseudoscience is just wasted resources and decreased efficiency. To a significant degree our collective quality of life is determined by the efficiency with which we expend our resources. Pseudosciences like biodynamic farming are a cancer on civilization, sapping our resources and opportunities, slowing our advance, and lowering our quality of life.


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