October 2019 Issue
Organics: Digging Into Biodynamic Agriculture — A More Holistic, Ecological, and Ethical Approach to Farming
By Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Vol. 21, No. 10, P. 18
Just when you thought you were getting more familiar with sustainable agriculture terms such as “organic,” “local,” “community supported,” and even “regenerative,” along comes a new term: biodynamic agriculture, which describes a more holistic, ecological approach to farming. With the overall goal of achieving an agro-ecosystem that functions as an integrated, whole, living organism, biodynamic farming might seem like the latest new-age agricultural buzzword on the block, but that’s not actually the case.
Biodynamics has been around since 1924, when philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner, PhD, first introduced the concept of integrating science with a more spiritual, holistic view of nature in the application of agriculture. These are the roots of the biodynamic farming movement, which is growing in popularity among farmers, ranchers, home gardeners, and other stakeholders in the food system.
What Is Biodynamics?
“Biodynamics is really based on the idea of the garden being a living organism and nurturing the health of that whole and everything that comes out of it—the plants, the soil, the animals, and the people,” says Thea Maria Carlson, executive director of the Biodynamic Association, a participatory, member-based nonprofit organization that supports the biodynamic movement in North America.
So, how does biodynamic farming differ from other types of agriculture? “Conventional agriculture, as it’s practiced, especially in the US, is kind of an industrial mechanistic model. You see the farm as a factory with certain inputs and outputs. It’s all about how to maximize the quantity of yields,” Carlson says. “Biodynamics is focused on life—building healthy life and an abundant whole that generates all of this wonderful food out of that whole. So, it’s a completely different paradigm of agriculture.”
Indeed, Steiner’s inspiration for a biodynamic model of agriculture came in response to what he saw as an increasingly mechanized sort of agriculture emerging in the early 1900s, during which synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were being introduced to the farm, leading some to question the impact they might have on soil, plant, animal, and human health.
When it comes to organic agriculture, there’s a bit of an overlap when compared to biodynamic principles. Many farmers consider their farms both organic and biodynamic because biodynamic encompasses everything organic does, but biodynamic takes it a step farther and avoids chemical inputs, focusing on the health of the land, Carlson explains. Biodynamics has an emphasis on the system as a whole, creating a self-sustaining entity so that fertility is generated from within the farm instead of through outside inputs. There is a true focus on biodiversity, with integration between plants and animals.
Another thing that distinguishes biodynamics is the use of specific medicinal herbs referred to as “preparations,” which include yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian. A small quantity of these herbal preparations is added to the compost just after it’s built, then again after it’s turned.
“It really helps to enliven the compost and the soil to improve the quality of the crops that we get,” Carlson says. In fact, one study found that adding the biodynamic herbal preparation to composts increased nitrate levels by more than 65% compared with control compost piles.1
Does It Make a Difference?
How can biodynamics help improve our intensive system of agriculture? Carlson believes there are two types of benefits—the reduction of negative issues and the addition of positive outcomes. “With conventional agriculture, there is pollution of the water and the air through agri-chemicals—sometimes there are too many nutrients in the ground, and that causes dead zones. A lot of conventional agriculture and even industrial organic use only one plant for the whole farm, which decimates pollinators and wildlife because there’s nowhere for them to go—there’s no food for them,” says Carlson, who notes that even organic agriculture allows for use of approved pesticides.
In contrast, biodynamic farming attempts to generate pest management from within a whole, healthy ecosystem. “We try to figure out what’s in the system that could balance things out so we don’t have the pest problem in the first place. That really mitigates that impact on the environment,” Carlson adds.
Biodiversity is also a strong point of biodynamics, which is patterned after natural ecosystems you might find on the planet. Just think of entering a forest and finding an array of flora and fauna living together in harmony, with no single pest or plant overtaking the entire ecosystem.
Similarly, biodiversity in biodynamic farming is fostered by the inclusion of annual and perennial vegetables, fruit and nut trees, vegetables, herbs, flowers, berries, grains, pasture, and forage, in addition to native plants and pollinator hedgerows. Different animal species also provide different relationships with the land and manure.
Carlson says that in order for a farm to be certified biodynamic, you must set aside 10% of the land for biodiversity. “Biodynamics can help bring restoration to the land,” she says.
The DOK-Trial—the world’s most significant long-term field trial—compared biodynamic, organic, and conventional cropping systems near Basel, Switzerland, using a split-split-plot design with four field replicates. In the biodynamic system, soil organic material content remained stable for the first 21 years, while it declined in all other systems. In addition, the biodynamic system contained 25% more soil microorganisms.2
Nutrition and Health Benefits
While there may be environmental benefits linked with biodynamics, it’s a bit harder to pinpoint health benefits. Carlson, who worked as a nutrition educator in the past, notes that it’s hard to distinguish the subtle differences in nutritional content between different forms of agriculture, though when it comes to higher levels of phytonutrients and microbes in the soil, future research may show benefits for eating biodynamic food.
Importantly, nutrition goes beyond mere macronutrients and micronutrients. Carlson says that when people eat high-quality produce they experience a greater taste sensation. In fact, one of the ways biodynamics has come more into the mainstream in the United States is through biodynamically produced wines, which many wine experts consider to have a very high-quality taste profile.
Where to Find Biodynamic Food
If you wanted to give biodynamic foods a try, how would you go about finding them? Demeter USA is the only certification program for biodynamic farms and products in America. All of the organic requirements through the USDA National Organic Program are required for the Demeter Biodynamic certification, and then the stricter Demeter standards come into play for issues such as fertility, on-farm solutions for disease and pest management, water conservation, and biodiversity. Look for the Demeter label on food products and visit demeter-usa.org for a directory of biodynamic farms and producers near you. There’s also an international Demeter certification for biodynamic products outside of the country.
“Look for the label on foods in health food stores. If you want to buy direct from farmers, that’s a great way to get biodynamic produce. And it’s great to just ask at the farmers’ market if they are practicing biodynamics, because it’s one of those things consumers are just starting to learn about,” Carlson says.
The community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement is another place to inquire about biodynamic farming and buy biodynamic produce, too. The first two CSAs in the country were biodynamic farms, according to Carlson. “There is a lot of alignment between the principles that Steiner laid out that are associated with economics and the idea of a CSA, where you’re actually supporting the food system. You’re not just buying a discrete food product with a CSA, you’re making an investment in part of the farm that gives back to you. There are definitely a lot of biodynamic farms that have adopted that model and that sell directly to consumers,” she says.
Future of Biodynamics
“It’s a worldwide movement,” says Carlson, who reports that membership in the Biodynamic Association increased from 1,200 a few years ago to 1,700 and that 900 people attended the organization’s annual conference this year.
While California is a hotspot, with the highest concentration of certified biodynamic farms and vineyards in the country, there are biodynamic farms in every state. It’s doing well in the United States, but biodynamics is growing around the world, too. “I was just in India a couple of years ago, and there were 100,000 farmers practicing biodynamics. They’re just doing it because it works, it costs less than using chemicals, and their produce is better. You know one farmer who does it, another farmer sees what they’re doing, and it just spreads through whole regions,” Carlson says.
The other important facet of the biodynamic food movement is that it’s finding a home in backyard gardens across the country, which may be a more approachable method for people to get acquainted with this growing system. “More and more people are going to be growing their own food, and I think biodynamics is a great support if you just have a small backyard garden and you want to be able to grow food for your family,” Carlson says. “It can help you grow really healthful food and experience the connection you have with the earth.”
With webinars, online salons, and memberships starting as low as $5 per year, the Biodynamic Association might be a great way to encourage people to get their hands dirty in their own patch of soil to grow their own food. And that’s something we can all dig.
— Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, is The Plant-Powered Dietitian, an author, writer, blogger, and plant-based nutrition and sustainability expert. In addition to growing some of her own food in her backyard garden in Los Angeles, Palmer serves as the nutrition editor for Today’s Dietitian.
1. Carpenter-Boggs L, Reganold JP, Kennedy AC. Effects of biodynamic preparations on compost development. Biol Agric Hort. 2000;17(4):313-328.
2. DOK-Trial. FiBL website. https://www.fibl.org/en/switzerland/research/soil-sciences/bw-projekte/dok-trial.html. Updated November 25, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2018.