The Scientific Basis of Biodynamics

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By John Bradshaw

Rudolf Steiner, in giving his 1924 Agriculture lecture series, which formed the foundation of Biodynamics, was insistent that all his suggestions for a renewal of agriculture be thoroughly scientifically tested. A rigorous scientific approach has been the basis of biodynamic development since then.  Some scientists criticize Biodynamics on the basis that it is unscientific, or that it is based on mysticism, some claiming that there is no scientific evidence to show that it is any different from organic agriculture.

An example of this is the article The Myth of Biodynamic Agriculture: Biodynamics is a scientifically sound approach to sustainable management of plant systems by Professor Linda Chalker-Scott1. In this article, Chalker-Scott states, in relation to the biodynamic preparations: “These processes were not developed through scientific methodology, but rather through Steiner’s own self-described meditation and clairvoyance.… The rejection of scientific objectivity in favour of a subjective, mystical approach means many of Steiner’s biodynamic recommendations cannot be tested and validated by traditional methods. In practical terms, this means any effect attributed to biodynamic preparations is a matter of belief, not of fact.” Further, “Given the thinness of the scientific literature and the lack of clear data supporting biodynamic preparations, it would be wise to discontinue the use of the term ‘biodynamic’ when referring to organic agriculture.” And, “The onus is on academia to keep pseudoscience out of otherwise legitimate scientific practices.”  It is a sad indictment on the standards of contemporary science that such ill-informed comments can be written by a scientist of her academic standing.

Inspiration in Science

Regarding the process of scientific enquiry, Fred Hoyle2 and Raymond Arthur Littleton3 wrote (1948): “It is often held that scientific hypotheses are constructed, and are to be constructed, only after a detailed weighing of all possible evidence bearing on the matter, and that then and only then may one consider, and still only tentatively, any hypotheses. This traditional view however, is largely incorrect, for not only is it absurdly impossible of application, but it is contradicted by the history of the development of any scientific theory.  What happens in practice is that by intuitive insight, or other inexplicable inspiration, the theorist decides that certain features seem to him more important than others and capable of explanation by certain hypotheses. Then basing his study on these hypotheses the attempt is made to deduce their consequences. The successful pioneer of theoretical science is he whose intuitions yield hypotheses on which satisfactory theories can be built, and conversely for the unsuccessful (as judged from a purely scientific standpoint).”4

It matters not the source of the inspiration, the wild leap of imagination that may lead to new theories. No rational scientist would say: “I don’t know where that promising idea came from, I’d better not investigate it.”  It is the application of the scientific method, to prove or disprove an idea or theory, that is important. Throughout history, men and women have had ideas which seemed impossible to their contemporaries. Often these ideas came as if from outside the mind, in flashes of inspiration. 

Consider Friedrich August Kekulé’s5 inspiration which led to the discovery of the molecular structure of organic compounds: “One fine summer evening I was returning by the last omnibus through the deserted streets of the metropolis [London], which are at other times so full of life. I fell into a reverie, and lo! the atoms were gamboling before my eyes!  Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion, but up to that time, I had never been able to discover the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller, whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain.” Reaching home, Kekulé spent the night sketching the figures the atoms danced in his dream. The patterns eventually became the formulas for organic compounds. In Ghent, Kekulé dreamed again, dozing off while thinking about the formula for benzene. This time he saw chains of atoms dancing like snakes: “One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.” The picture of the snake swallowing its own tail gave Kekulé the idea of what chemists now call the benzene ring.6

Kekulé’s dictum was that inspiration is a perfectly normal part of scientific investigation, but must be followed up by careful development of a theory and experimental verification. Compare Kekulé’s inspirational discovery with that of Alex Podolinsky, who was giving an early biodynamic introductory lecture to farmers, when: “momentarily stunning, exactly between the audience and myself, a moving, see-through picture arose: Soil; plant with biology and liquids in action and flowing up the roots and leaves; Sunlight raying down and crystallizing into leaves and downwards, ie a motion picture of total Earth, plant, cosmos happening; and through it, in the background, the audience still visible. I stopped, breathlessly looked, but then had to continue the lecture. I did not seek such motion picture… but, I was very concentrated and an inspirational overview of this important functioning Reality was received. It took a further three years… to achieve the objectivity portrayed in Lecture 17. This was undertaken by the holistic overviewing of all factors – by thinking.8

Whatever the source of Rudolf Steiner’s inspiration, he appears to have had considerable insight into the inner workings of nature. The detailed suggestions he made for a renewal of agriculture, including the seemingly strange suggestions for the making of the biodynamic preparations, imply some sort of inspirational source.

Whether his ideas had any basis in fact would, properly, later be tested by scientific research. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer wrote: “He never proceeded from abstract dogma, but always dealt with the concrete given facts of the situation. There was such germinal potency in his indications that a few sentences or a short paragraph often sufficed to create the foundations for a farmer’s or scientist’s whole life-work.9

Scientific Validation of Biodynamics

To accuse Rudolf Steiner of rejecting scientific objectivity is simply ignorant. Steiner had the greatest respect for scientific objectivity. As a high school student he questioned Newton’s theory of colour, and, while a tertiary student at the Vienna Institute of Technology, began conducting experiments on colour and light, writing several papers on his conclusions. He later discovered the scientific work of Goethe, including his theory of colour and found that Goethe had conducted similar experiments to his own. Steiner repeated many of Goethe’s experiments, confirming his findings, and agreeing with Goethe’s conclusions. He eagerly studied all of Goethe’s scientific writings, and so impressed his Professor that at the age of 22 (1886) he was entrusted with the job of editing Goethe’s scientific works for publication in the German National Literature series. Steiner gained his PhD in 1891 from the University of Rostock, his doctoral dissertation being published as a book under the title Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and Science).

When Steiner met the 19 year old Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, in 1918, he was a university student.  Steiner encouraged him to concentrate on studying the sciences, including physics, chemistry and botany. He valued scientific qualifications and wanted scientists to thoroughly test his recommendations for agriculture. The first test of Steiner’s agricultural suggestions was made in 1923, when Dr Pfeiffer and Dr Wachsmuth buried cow manure in cow horns at Arlsheim, Switzerland. The horns were dug up in early summer 1924, and had been converted into the moist colloidal, concentrated microbial substance we now call 500, as predicted by Steiner’s theory.

After the 1924 lecture series, Steiner entrusted Pfeiffer with refining the method of making and applying the biodynamic preparations he had described, including correct application rates, storage methods etc. Pfeiffer carried out this research work meticulously, and provided his results to those involved in the practical implementation of the method.  Around the same time, Steiner entrusted a research worker in Stuttgart, Lily Kolisko, with the task of testing the validity and effectiveness of the preparations. This she did  together with her husband, Dr Eugen Kolisko, a medical doctor and lecturer in medical chemistry.

Steiner had earlier asked Lily to find a method of demonstrating the activity of what he referred to as ‘formative forces’, and she developed the method of capillary dynamolysis for this purpose.  The Koliskos also carried out much detailed research on the effects of very dilute substances, and on the influence of moon and planets on plant growth. The results of their decades of collaborative work were published in a book called Agriculture of Tomorrow in 1939.

They established that Steiner’s suggestions for preparation making were correct. They found that, when they compared the method suggested by Steiner for each preparation with alternative methods, Steiner’s suggestion was always correct. For instance, cow manure buried in a cow horn converted into a sweet smelling colloidal humus, and was far more effective than cow manure buried in an earthenware pot or in a wooden box (neither of which converted into humus) next to the manure-filled cow horns. And they found that the preparations did have a significant and positive effect on plant growth, despite the very small amounts used.

A rigorous scientific development has been the basis of biodynamics since then, in those countries that followed Dr. Pfeiffer’s indications, based on his research, that was undertaken at Rudolf Steiner’s request.

In Australia, Alex Podolinsky thoroughly tested every new development in Biodynamics (with the assistance of Andrew Sargood in the early years) at the Bio-Dynamic Research Institute. Meticulous tests were carried out, over a six year period, to evaluate the effectiveness of the stirring machines developed by Kevin Twigg for activating biodynamic preparations. 500 was sprayed so accurately that each square inch of soil in the comparative plots had to receive a drop of 500. Tests included comparative chromatography tests of the stirred 500 liquids, plant stem, leaf and whole plant, and evaluation of the effect of the variously stirred 500 on soil and plants over time. Most important was the long-term monitoring of soil conversion, soil development and biodynamic upper plant expression.

The stirring machines proved more effective at activating the preparations than expert hand stirring, for any amount of water over 12 gallons (54 litres)10. Obviously, for biodynamics to spread widely, it was essential to stir larger quantities of water at a time than 12 gallons (the soil activator spray 500 is applied at the rate of three gallons per acre). The maximum amount of water which can be stirred in one vessel while maintaining the correct vortex and chaos characteristics was established as 60 gallons/270 litres (20 acres of 500). For broad acreages, linked series of stirring vessels were developed, so far up to six 60 gallon vessels (120 acres per stir).

Prepared 500 (developed by Alex as the only way to get the biodynamic preparations 502-507 out over broad acreages) was tested in a similar methodical way, and proved considerably more effective than 500 sprayed by itself. Many tests were done on soils, showing humus development, deepening colour and improvements in structure resulting from the application of the biodynamic preparations. Using no inputs at all (for 40 years), Alex was able to increase the organic matter in the top 100mm from 0.9% to 11.4% and from 0% to 2.4% at 1000mm in just the first six years of applying the biodynamic preparations. In 1989, Alex asked a Victorian Agriculture Department senior agronomist, Peter Medling, to investigate the amount of carbon dioxide locked up in his soil over the six year period (organic matter holds CO2). The investigation was done by Peter Medling, together with Agriculture Department scientists John Stewart and Graeme Savage, using Professor Leper’s11 methodology. The finding was that this soil had locked up a staggering 1614 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare over the six year period.  Various researchers have compared aspects of Biodynamic farms in Australia with those of conventional farms:

• J.A. Lytton-Hitchings12 studied the physical and chemical properties of adjacent biodynamic and conventional dairy farms in Victoria. He found that the biodynamic soil had greater macro-porosity to a depth of at least 420mm, weaker soil (ie better structured) at 60, 120 and 200mm, smaller dry bulk density values at 120 and 200mm, greater air-filled porosity at 200mm, smaller volumetric water content during summer to a depth of 1.4m, and greater organic matter content in the upper 50mm. He concluded: “These more favourable soil properties of the bio-dynamic soil have the potential to allow faster infiltration, less surface runoff, less waterlogging, deeper soil exploration by plant roots and a longer interval between irrigations.” (In fact the interval between summer irrigations on the biodynamic farm was nearly twice as long as that on the conventional farm).

• C.B. Parker13 and S. Cock14 also found better soil structure on biodynamic farms.

• In 1991 the Dairy Research and Development Corporation funded a research project to assess biodynamic methods of dairy production on the basis of biological and economic data. This study compared seven (later expanded to ten) matched pairs of biodynamic and conventional dairy farms in Victoria. The project was overseen by Doug Small (senior Victorian Agriculture Department Soil Researcher) and Dr John McDonald (Victorian Agriculture Department Veterinarian). The results, together with three undergraduate thesis papers on phosphorus balance, physical and chemical soil properties, and soil and plant root characteristics on BD and conventional farms formed the basis of a paper presented at the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science’s Organic Agriculture Conference, 1993, by Doug Small.

 

By John Bradshaw

From Biodynamic Growing Magazine Dec 2009. www.bdgrowing.com

Thank you John Bradshaw, for your kind permission to reprint this article. – Ed.

 

REFERENCES:

1 Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD, Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Pyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University, September 2004

2 1915-2001, mathematician and physicist, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge 1948-1973

3 1911-1995, British astronomer

4 ‘The Internal Constitution of the Stars’, in Occasional Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1948

5 1829-1896, founder of the theory of chemical structure.

6 Frederick Prescott, Modern Chemistry, Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd., London, 1932

7 Alex Podolinsky, Bio-Dynamic Agriculture Introductory Lectures Vol 1, Gavemer Publishing, Sydney, 1985

8 Alex Podolinsky, Living Knowledge, Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association of Australia, Powelltown, Vic, 2002, p33.

9 Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture, Biodynamic Agricultural Association, London, 1974, preface, p.6

10 Expert hand stirring was slightly better than machine stirring for amounts below 12 gallons. 12 gallons proved to be the limit to which a competent hand stirrer could go while still maintaining the required energetic, deep vortex and vigorous bubbling chaos

11 University of Melbourne

12 Lytton-Hitchins JA, Koppi AJ, & McBratney AB, The soil condition of adjacent bio-dynamic and conventionally managed dairy pastures in Victoria, Australia in Soil Use and Management (1994) 10, 79-87

13 Parker C.B. The Phosphorus balance of a conventional and a biodynamic dairy farm, Undergraduate thesis LaTrobe University, School of Agriculture 1992

14 Cock S. A comparison of soil and plant root characteristics in irrigated summer pasture from two different farming systems. Undergraduate thesis, LaTrobe University, School of Agriculture 1991