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For & against: biodynamics

Publish Date: 19 Feb 2016

Authored by: Erinn Klein & Ralph Kyte-Powell

Is biodynamic farming all hype, or are there merits to this method? Erinn Klein and Ralph Kyte-Powell duel it out, providing the for and against of this difficult practice.

For: Erinn Klein, Ngeringa

I grew up with biodynamics in our backyard gardens in Germany and later on our farms in Australia. I have never known any other way. I therefore instinctively didn’t entertain the thought of using chemicals to manage weeds, pests or diseases in establishing and running our vineyards and farm.

To be biodynamic first and foremost I believe you cannot use any synthetic chemicals, which is a primary requirement for organic farming.

For us, biodynamic farming also strives towards a self-sustaining farming system, in which soil, plants and animals all play their part in creating a system that is in natural balance, and less reliant on external input. Organic farming is often based on an input-replacement system, not unlike conventional farming. Achieving this natural balance and having healthy soils teeming with diverse microbes, fungi and earthworms – all playing their role in making essential soil nutrients available to plants – makes for crops that are healthy and resilient to fungal disease, insect attack and severe climatic conditions.

The use of the nine preparations prescribed by biodynamics founder Rudolf Steiner is unique to this way of farming. These preparations are powerful tools that help build life and balance in the soil, plants and animals. They work on both the material and energetic level as determined by their select ingredients, the timing of the year they are made, the manner in which they are prepared/energised and then finally applied to the farm.

One of our principle objectives in growing wine grapes biodynamically is to produce wines that reflect, with the most integrity, the land on which they were grown, their variety and the vintage. This is the essence of terroir viticulture. By avoiding synthetic fertilisers, or imported materials (organics), but rather applying our own farm-made compost and building soil life through our preparations; mowing instead of poisoning weeds; cultivating and grazing sheep; and, not having to rely on systemic and residual chemicals to fight pest and diseases, we can achieve a purer expression in our wines, which reflect even more closely their terroir, not distorted by artificiality. Likewise, in the winemaking, we do not add synthetic chemicals, enzymes, cultured yeast or fining agents, instead aiming to keep the purest expression of our wines.

Erinn Klein is co-owner and winemaker at Ngeringa, a biodynamic winery in the Adelaide Hills.

Against: Ralph Kyte-Powell

Millions across the world have been saved from terrifying epidemics of contagious diseases by the simple insurance of a little jab from a needle, or a small mouthful of fruity syrup. Yet immunisation rates are falling and diseases of yesteryear are rearing their ugly heads again. Some in the community simply don’t believe in immunisation. They would rather listen to gossipy hearsay, the views of a quack posting on the internet, or a noisy anti-science evangelist than the considered and researched opinions of just about every doctor and concerned scientist in the world.

The idea of researched, peer-reviewed, proven science is being challenged everywhere, and a new, belief-based, quasi-science is being substituted. In the world of wine production the same thing is happening, led by a new belief called “biodynamics”.

The originator of biodynamics was Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who wasn’t a scientist at all. He was a thinker and intellectual who arrived at his views on agriculture via meditation, clairvoyance and mysticism. To get some perspective on him, it’s worth examining some of his views on other issues. On the matter of race, Rudolf says that “blonde hair actually bestows intelligence.” On Jews he claimed that “Jewry as such has outlived itself for a long time. It does not have the right to exist in the modern life of nations.” He saw the Aryan race as the natural leaders of humanity, that “the soul becomes corrupted by the use of the French language,” and that “the European sort of invention is impossible for either the Chinese or the Japanese”.

Does this sound like the sort of man you would view as an expert on viticulture, or indeed anything? Yet his formulae for viticulture are enjoying a worldwide surge of support.

Scientifically researched proof of his ideas may be thin on the ground, but biodynamics has received a fillip by the more recent incorporation of the ideas of organic agriculture into the biodynamic overview. In France and elsewhere, vineyards devastated by generations of chemical viticulture employing artificial fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides have taken on new life with holistic organic management. When the organic regimen is incorporated as part of a biodynamic one, biodynamics is the buzzword often given as the reason for any improvement in vineyard health, when the real hero is organics.

The differences between biodynamics and organics have become muddied, and the benefits of the latter, proven by scientific method, have come to be seen as evidence of the success of biodynamics.

Why does it matter? It’s all about truth. Unless quasi-scientific beliefs are challenged and subjected to rigorous tests, these ideas achieve unwarranted legitimacy in the community – and we are weaker for it.

Ralph Kyte-Powell is an award-winning wine writer, based in Melbourne.

Next article: Ralph Kyte-Powell walks us through tasting wine like a pro

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