Introduction

June 1, 2010

Welcome to “Biodynamics is a Hoax.”  I created this blog to offer an alternative view to Biodynamics and to engage the Biodynamic community in debate over the merits and efficacy of Biodynamic farming.  I challenge any Biodynamic farmer or supporter to defend the writings of Rudolf Steiner.  I submit that if you believe in science you cannot believe in Biodynamics, and the corollary is just as true, if you believe in Biodynamics you cannot believe in science.  As you can tell by the title I believe that Biodynamics is a hoax and deserves the same level of respect the scientific community has for witchcraft, voodoo and astrology.

Austrian Philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures and discussions on Agriculture in June 1924 to a group of several hundred of his anthroposophical followers in Koberwitz, Poland.  Steiner had never been a farmer, yet he delivered these lectures on Agriculture which became the foundation for Biodynamics.  In recent years Biodynamics has been embraced by an ever widening group of vineyardists and wineries around the world.  Some of the world’s most renowned wineries farm Biodynamically and many consider Biodynamics to be the “Rolls Royce” of organic farming.

Yet, after reading Steiner, I conclude that Rudolf Steiner was a complete nutcase, a flimflam man with a tremendous imagination, a combination if you will, of an LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum.  His books, writings and lectures should be catalogued under “science fiction” because there is not a scintilla of truth in any of his writings.  Reading Steiner is tough sledding because it makes no sense in our real world, yet when viewed as  “science fiction” masquerading as some sort of Jim Jones new age cult you are forced to admit that Steiner was extremely clever and creative in actually making this stuff up.  Unfortunately, it is quite sad that someone—anyone—would actually believe in this hoax and profoundly disturbing that the Biodynamic movement is gaining ground.    Future postings will endeavor to expose Biodynamics as the hoax and fraud that I believe it to be.

Stuart Smith

Note:  This is an introductory post and comments are closed. Please feel free to comment on recent posts. – -Stu


WHY I RESENT BIODYNAMIC FARMING!

February 6, 2011

 Writing this blog has helped me better understand Rudolf Steiner and clarify the negative issues underlying Biodynamic farming.  I’ve always taken offense that the Biodynamic supporters claimed superiority with their “living soils,  healthy vines and better expressions of terroir,” and now I realize that they are also claiming that only through Biodynamics can your vineyard obtain its greatest potential and thus result in the most authentic wines.  It reminds me a little of the Christian doctrine that only through Jesus can you find salvation.  The clear implication is that if you’re not a Biodynamic grower your products are inferior and will always be inferior because you can never reach your vineyard’s greatest potential.  

I’ve taken personal offense at these claims and resent anyone claiming they care more about their vineyard’s health, soil and wine quality than I do.  But there was something more that I couldn’t identify and it left me unsettled.  Personal indignation is all fine and dandy, but I felt I was only half-way there.  That is, until recently when I recognized that what was bothering me was the divisive nature of Biodynamic farming.   By publicly claiming superiority they, de facto, belittle and ridicule everyone else’s farming methods and wine quality for not being Biodynamic.

 I can’t think of a better way to divide our industry than by pitting winery against winery and grower against grower – something I’ve never seen in my 40 plus years in the wine industry. 

 Here’s a section from my opening remarks at the Unified Symposium that deals directly with this topic:

       “Historically, the wine industry has been a friendly industry; we help one another and work together to solve problems – like most farmers do.  But that’s not the case with Biodynamic farming:  Biodynamic promoters claim superiority and not so subtly put down conventional winegrowers. “

“Here’s what the Demeter website says under the heading “How do Biodynamic wines differ from conventional wines?”

      “The primary distinction between Biodynamic and conventionally grown wines is that Biodynamic grape growing develops the vineyard’s greatest potential – allowing the vineyard to be the best it can be – and then captures that distinctiveness in the bottle.  You will often hear Biodynamic winemakers say that their goal is to make the best wine by making the most authentic wine.”

“Here is another quote from the April 2010 NorthBayBiz magazine article written by Kevin Morrisey, the president of Ehlers Estate Winery:

       “Does it make better wine?  Of course it does – not because it’s certified organic, but because organic and Biodynamic farming is being used.  By ridding the vineyards of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, and by building healthy soil … we grow healthier and more balanced vines which, along with great terroir, gives us better wine.”

 And Mike Benziger famously says that “Biodynamics is the Rolls Royce of organic farming.”

 What’s next – if you’re not a biodynamic farmer your vineyards are dead and your wine stinks?  Is this the future we want for wine marketing  –  trashing your neighbor and his wines?”   I was recently visiting one of my distributors and when this subject came up I was told that they often hear in their Friday morning sales meetings how Biodynamically grown grapes are superior and that Biodynamic farmers care more about the environment than conventional farmers.  Nice touch for a once friendly industry!

 It’s the “Big Lie” concept all over again that Biodynamic farmers care more for their environment than all other farmers.  Biodynamic farmers do not have a monopoly on being environmentally sensitive farmers and I’m sick of hearing this lie from quasi-supporters, that goes something like this “Yes, Rudolf Steiner is a little wacky and maybe even a nutcase, but at least I know that Biodynamic farmers care about the environment and tread lightly on the land, and that’s good.”   To me, that’s bunk, because it’s not true!   I care for my vineyard, my soil and my environment as much or more than anyone else and I resent those who claim otherwise.   But what I really resent is that Biodynamic farming is attempting to divide our industry, an industry that I love and have spent 40 years of my life working in, just to get a marketing edge.  That’s shameful.

 Stuart Smith


POINT COUNTERPOINT

January 25, 2011

On Wednesday, January 26 at the Unified Symposium in Sacramento I’ll be on a panel discussing Biodynamics in a point counterpoint format.  Should be interesting.  BTW, the Unified Symposium is a large trade/equipment show that also has presentations on various topics.

Joe Roberts of the 1winedude.com blog did a  point counterpoint with Alan York and me.  Last Tuesday Joe posted a 40+ minute conversation with Alan York, a Biodynamic consultant on four continents and this morning posted my conversation which runs a little longer. 

There’s an awful lot I could say about Alan’s segment, but I think I’ll refrain, at least for a while and until most folks have heard it. 

Stuart Smith


What do a Nobel Prize, a Sydney Award and The SF Chronicle have in common?

January 11, 2011

 Bad science and Biodynamics of course!  Well, Biodynamics, that is, from a certain point of view! 

I’d like to follow-up my January 5 post, POSTMODERNISM, RATIONALISM & BIODYNAMICS with some real-life examples of how science polices itself, seemingly fails, and can become a captive of the political system.  This may also help explain why so many folks distrust science and scientists, and thus can accept Steiner’s claim that he goes beyond science.   But there is a happy ending – good honest scientists and science win out in the long run.  Allow me to re-work a wonderful phrase from Lincoln – you can fool all of the scientists some of the time, and some of the scientists all of the time, but you can’t fool all the scientists all of the time.     

The New York Times, The New Yorker and The San Francisco Chronicle all have had recent articles which I believe bear on the Biodynamic farming controversy.   The New York Times and The New Yorker articles detail stories on how scientific research is faltering –  yet make a great point about how difficult and complicated and how very messy really good science is.   The Chronicle’s article is about the California Air Resources Board (CARB) overstating diesel pollution levels by 340% – to advance a political agenda.  

Nobel Winner in Physiology Retracts Two Papers, The New York Times, September 24, 2010.   This is a short article about Linda Buck, who shared the Nobel Prize for work with the sense of smell, retracting one paper each from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the journal Science because key findings could not be reproduced.  

I suspect that Rudolf Steiner would likely use these retractions to show, yet again, how limiting science is and how science gets it wrong so often.   Not me.  I view this as a scientific success story.   Research paper gets presented, questions arise, and the results can’t be reproduced so the paper gets retracted.   Science, overcomes a setback, and moves closer to revealing a truth.  It wasn’t good research to begin with, or possibly worse, so what’s not to like with the outcome?  

Contrast that to Biodynamics.  Can someone show me the rigorous peer reviewed research that demonstrates burying a cow horn transmits cosmic energy into the earth?  Have others successfully reproduced that (non-existent) research?  Yeah, I’m still waiting too.  

BTW, the research that Linda Buck did to share that Prize was not the research which was retracted; she was not the lead author and it was not her data that were brought into question. 

The Truth Wears Off, by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, December 13, 2010.  Here is a provocative article looking at science and how research isn’t holding up to scrutiny over time, at least in the fields of psychology and ecology.  As the saying goes, it’s the talk of the town, in part, because David Brooks gave it one of his Sydney Awards.  It’s a wonderful read. 

The term that Lehrer is focusing on is called the “decline effect,” which was originally coined by Joseph Banks at Duke University when he was researching ESP.  Banks had some test subjects who demonstrated remarkable ESP abilities, well above the statistical chance threshold, but as time went on the test results became unremarkable, just as ordinary as guessing.  

Jonathan Schooler, from University of Washington, did some remarkable work with language and memory which included remembering the tastes of wine.  Unfortunately, as time went on he too had difficulty replicating his work.  He then began to wonder if there might be a broader problem with research in his field of psychology; after all, what good is research if it can’t hold up to time and be replicated?  Is it just the decline effect or something more?  Schooler identified a flaw, works on understanding why the flaw occurs and then works to find a solution. This is good science; this is how it’s supposed to work. 

Again, if Steiner could have read this article, I suspect he would have used it to sneer at and deride modern science.  And again, not me.  Science is not a clean process, it’s messy, it’s challenging and it’s very, very hard to prove things, especially in the social sciences and new fields like ecology.  In science, failures are valuable because they narrow the search for the truth.  Unfortunately, it seems most Americans scan the headlines on TV or glimpse a newspaper and it seems that bad science gets bigger headlines than good science.  They get confused with the mixed messages, don’t understand the process and tune out.  Just look at global warming.  How can ordinary people be expected to sort out what is true when both sides seem to have scientists taking exactly opposite positions?

Particularly irritating to me is the October 8, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article “Overestimate fueled state’s landmark diesel law.”  CARB has a political agenda, which was to garner support for their proposed air quality regulations, which when passed became the most restrictive air standards in the country, and it seems that a little something like science wasn’t going to get in their way.  Fortunately, a couple of top-notch scientists, one from UC Berkeley (go Bears!) and one from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, got together and did their own work and guess what, CARB had overstated the pollution numbers by 340%.  A simple accident, or something else?

And if that wasn’t enough, sometime in 2008 Mary Nichols, Chairwoman of CARB, learned that their lead researcher lied on his job application about his PhD and Nichols kept that information from the rest of her Board.   Only because Board member Dr. John Telles did his own investigation and discovered the truth did Chairwoman Nichols confess to her board about the deception and cover-up.  This confession occurred one day before the board voted on very stringent regulations which were based on this researcher’s data.

Here’s what I think are some of the take away message from these three vignettes:

  • Be skeptical, and then be skeptical some more.
  • Be patient, sometimes it takes a very long time to sort out fact from fantasy.
  • With science, as with many other issues, especially politics, follow the money, the agenda and/or who’s to gain before blindly accepting some fact or theory.
  • Science is practiced by humans and we humans are flawed.
  • Even the best scientists get it wrong once in a while.
  • The scientists—the good and honest ones—eventually get it right and advance our understanding of our universe. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if Biodynamic promoters had such rigorous standards to back up their claims of superiority?

Stuart Smith


POSTMODERNISM, RATIONALISM AND BIODYNAMICS

January 5, 2011

 Biodynamics and the Limits of Rationalism, Clark Smith, Wines & Vines January 2011.

 Clark and I have had some lively exchanges about Biodynamics and it’s clear that neither of us is convincing the other to change our views. 

Clark is a “postmodernist” who seems to believe, like Steiner, that science is limiting and that there is more to this world than science can answer: At best, truth is soft and ephemeral and truth is what we wish it to be or what we can get away with — in fact, there may be no truths!  This “beyond science” postmodernist approach also seems to accept that our current language is limiting and the new era should utilize a new language – something Clark clearly embraces with his writing style. 

 Herein lays the very essence of the Biodynamic debate.  I reject virtually everything written in this article as utter nonsense because I reject the notion that science is limiting.  We should not abandon our search for the truth because it is difficult.  Clark’s article is an apologist’s love letter to Biodynamic farming.  He believes that Biodynamics should be held to a different standard because we now live in a postmodern world where truth is not out there.  

Specifically:

I seriously doubt Red Mountain, Hearty Burgundy and White Zinfandel consumers care one whit whether their wine is “soulful” or “transformative.”    Many, maybe most of us in the premium wine side of our industry, forget that we are not the center of the universe.  Let’s keep this subject in perspective – Sutter Home makes more White Zinfandel than the entire Napa Valley produces and their sales are up a whopping 25% or so. 

Should Biodynamics, which requires a leap of faith, be acceptable to us?   Should we also accept the idea that science can’t model complex systems, farming or not, or accept the “intractability (of B-d) to conventional scientific practices” (Clark’s term)?  I answer with a resounding NO!   Just because it may be difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done.   Start with definitions, develop theories, test those theories and repeat the process.  Do Biodynamic wines taste better?  Do buried cow horns work?  Do tea sprays stop mildew?  Is the carbon footprint larger, the same or smaller than organic or sustainable farming?  What is the social cost-benefit from the various farming systems?  I know that experiments can be designed to test these types of hypotheses – saying it can’t be done is just a cop-out.

 Clark’s passage on Adam Smith gets it completely wrong.  Adam Smith’s theories on Capitalism were not from “imagination” and “science fiction” (as were Steiner’s) but from careful study, travel and observation of world economies.  Modern economics is based on formalizing the idea of the invisible hand.  Game Theory and Neuro Economics  are just two examples of scientific research bringing the light of day to Clark’s “fundamental mysteries.”  

The brain and mind are no longer forbidden topics of research as  Clark would have us believe.  For research  being done to unravel the mysteries of music appreciation – see Blood and Zatorre, 2001, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 I could hardly believe my eyes when I read “All Biodynamics needs to do in order to be valid is to survive and thrive.”  Does this mean that fascism, communism, racism, homeopathic medicine, tarot card/palm reading and astrology are all now “valid?”

 I don’t understand why Clark believes that Acupuncture can’t or shouldn’t be critically evaluated?  Again, it may be messy and take effort and time to sort out the various studies and the cultural biases, but it is not impossible.  In a recent article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker (more on this in the next post) Lehrer points out that when the studies were conducted in Asia all 47 studies showed efficacy for Acupuncture, yet when studied in the West only 56 showed efficacy out of the 94 studies.  Time will sort out what and who is correct – which is exactly what science is all about.  Again, science is messy and slow and we should remain skeptics.

 Clark goes on with Philip Armenier’s “poetic language” regarding preparations and energy forces and then drops the bomb “Word confusion is the common stamp of paradigm shifts.”  A paradigm shift?  It certainly appears that Clark is heralding that Biodynamics will triumph and be the new farming standard!  I’ve re-read this section a dozen times and if Biodynamics sounds “nuts” to Clark, as he claims, then why would he write this? 

The part on Alan York is typical of what I call “Biodynamic speak.”  What’s not to like about what Alan says?  A closed system, biodiversity, funny little preparations and a holistic approach: Clark left out motherhood and apple pie.   It sounds lovely and says absolutely nothing!  The devil is in the details and Clark and Alan York never address the details.  If it’s a closed system then why is it OK to truck compost from up to 250 miles away from the farm?  If Biodynamics employs a holistic approach than why is it OK to use the very nasty pesticide PyGanic which contains Prethrins?  Why is it OK to use a nasty pesticide made from chrysanthemums than a more environmentally friendly one made from the petrochemical industry?

 I take offense at Clark’s claim that I and/or others delighted in our Biodynamic neighbors getting Powdery Mildew.  Once again Clark is wrong, because that is not true.  It was my understanding that many growers got mildew this year and if we were to single out one group that got hurt the most it would be the organic growers, not the Biodynamic farmers.  I don’t understand why that would be, but I’ve heard that from many of my associates who are vineyard managers.  IMO, there is no excuse for getting mildew.  It is absolutely preventable if you pay attention to your farming practices.  I had mildew in the past and it was my fault – period.  I swore I’d never get again and I haven’t.

 Science, with all its faults, searching for the truth or Biodynamics supported by a postmodern view that goes “beyond science” and says truth is relative – your choice.

Stuart Smith


HONEY, I SHRUNK THE FARM ADVISOR!

December 3, 2010

I went and it was painful – both physically and mentally.  Eight hours on old fashioned metal folding chairs and then listening to a love fest for all things Biodynamic.  A very good lunch was catered by the Silverado Brewing Company, but they didn’t bring their beer — that I desperately needed.

 Overall impressions:

 Good for Demeter USA to have a sold out event with almost 200 folks in attendance and for snookering the University of California into violating their ethics pledge and sponsoring this event.  While I think Biodynamics is bogus, I have to tip my hat to Demeter for a well thought-out and well executed event.  There is absolutely no question, it was a sales and marketing event for Demeter USA to sell their product, Biodynamic farming.   There was no balance to the presentation; it was Biodynamics and nothing but Biodynamics.  The speakers did a fine job presenting why they were involved with Biodynamic farming and one of the speakers even said “I flew here from Oregon because I want other people to do Biodynamics.”  

 I can say without any reservation that Demeter USA should have been the sole sponsor.  UCCE clearly violated their own code of ethics by being a sponsor – shame on the University for their poor judgment.  Dr. Andy Waterhouse (Chair of the Dept. of V & E, UC Davis) was there and asked my friend if he was a Biodynamic supporter and mentioned the controversy.  My friend said that he was not, that he was there for a client and that it was wrong for the University to be sponsoring this event.  Dr. Waterhouse skulked away. 

Elizabeth Candelario, Marketing Director for Demeter, made it clear in her opening remarks that “Biodynamic farming is just sound farming” and while you shouldn’t embrace Biodynamic farming for the marketing, she pointed out that consumers, retailers and the media want more Biodynamic products.  She clearly knows how to bait a hook.  She also invited and I would assume comped Wilfred Wong, Cellarmaster of BevMo, and several sommeliers.  Again, a smart outreach to those who can help the pull-through of Biodynamic wines.   

Later in the morning Glenn McGourty, Farm Advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties, gave a presentation that went way over the line and made me apoplectic.   Mr. McGourty didn’t just talk about Biodynamic farming in an impartial and detached way; he clearly believes in Biodynamic farming and promoted it as the superior farming paradigm. He talked about operating in the “post petroleum world” and how to comply with the Demeter USA Farm Standard – as though he were the expert on compliance standards.  Mr. McGourty was a co-author of a 2005 paper that found not difference between Organic farming and Biodynamic farming, but he never mentioned it.  When not on stage, he sat at the front table with Elizabeth Candelario (facing the stage).   I went to Berkeley during the 1960s and saw a lot of ugly things, but in its own way this was one of the ugliest things I have ever seen my University do – it was embarrassing and flat out wrong.  If I had the power, I would have fired Mr. McGourty on the spot!  And, I suspect that Demeter would hire him in a nano second as one of their compliance inspectors or for marketing.  

After Mr. McGourty was a panel discussion on pests and diseases for the Biodynamic farmer which included Dr. Monica Cooper.  Several of the panel spoke before Dr. Cooper and talked gibberish about pest control that I could see made Dr. Cooper uncomfortable and shrink into her chair.  When the moderator turned to Dr. Cooper he said to the audience “Dr. Cooper will now talk about pest management under the (Demeter) Farm Standard.”  Not so quick, Mr. Moderator.  Dr. Cooper went on to give a nice, pleasant little talk about the ecology of invertebrates and never, not even once, did she mention or utter the word “BIODYNAMICS” or it’s Farm Standard or give even the slightest hint that she had an opinion on Biodynamics – good or bad.  Well done!   You may have been snookered into sponsoring this event, but you stood your ground with an unbiased presentation.  But she looked a little lower in her chair. 

Next were a couple other panelists, including the Preparations expert who admitted that he was a sculptor and didn’t really know anything about farming but was doing research and testing on the Preparations.  One attendee asked if you could control mildew by using only the preparations.  There was unanimous agreement by the Biodynamic panelists that no, you had to use sulfur or other fungicides.  Another attendee asked the panel if “ashing” of pests worked?    The panel hemmed and hawed and then an attendee spoke up and said he’d had pretty good results ashing yellow jackets and some other insects, but that it didn’t seem to work on larger creatures.  Dr. Cooper is a scientist and this is an area of her expertise and when I looked back at Dr. Cooper she seemed even smaller in her chair and reminded me of that movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.  As far as I can tell, Dr. Cooper left the building immediately after that session.   

After lunch Ginny Lambrix, Winemaker for Truett-Hurst, gave a nice talk on Science and Biodynamics which probably was successful for those who don’t know much about science and Biodynamics.   However, she easily slipped from saying a particular study “suggested” a Biodynamic superiority to the “evidence” showed …  To her credit, she mentioned what she called the Achilles Heel of Biodynamics, which are exotic pests.  Since there has never been any connection with these exotics in the past, the natural defense mechanism cannot be expected to be able to mount an effective defense.  This is a new and a refreshingly honest admission. 

The only thing I found interesting in the afternoon session was that Demeter now certifies wineries.  I didn’t know this.  To be a Certified Demeter winery, you can use up to 100 PPM of Sulfur, you must use native yeast, you cannot add acid, sugar or enzymes, and Reverse Osmosis and the Spinning Cone are prohibited.  The only question I asked all day was, “is it OK to add water to the must?”  First the answer was no, but then the speaker said yes, it was OK to add water.  Can’t add acid, yet it’s OK to add water – seems strange to me.

 There was a wine tasting of various Biodynamic wines at the end, which were all nice, yet confirmed to me that acidulation should be allowed.

Stuart Smith


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