IGNORANCE IS BLISS

 Unlike Glenn McGourty who has been the Mendocino and Lake County Farm Advisor for many years, Dr. Monica Cooper is relatively new to Napa County and new to viticulture.  I seriously doubt that she knew much, if anything, about Biodynamic farming.  I don’t know what transpired in the back room when decisions were made, but I find it very interesting that the very well respected Sonoma County Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, Rhonda Smith, isn’t participating and isn’t a sponsor. 

 As much as I’d like to give Dr. Cooper as much slack as I can, the fact of the matter is that she is both the Director and Farm Advisor for the Napa County Cooperative Extension and the buck stops with her.  IMHO, it is completely unacceptable for her to ignore my direct questions concerning the ethics of NCCE sponsoring this event.  

 Dr. Monica Cooper and I had several exchanges. I’m including only the last one dated Nov. 11:

 Stuart:

Again, I appreciate your concern. I have had limited access to email all week, as I was participating in the Technical Working Group meeting for the European Grapevine Moth. This meeting was critical to determine EGVM policy in the coming years. I was invited to share my research results and to help shape that policy, along with a group of local, national, and international scientists.

Glenn McGourty worked with Demeter to develop the day’s schedule and to suggest appropriate speakers. As I mentioned previously, I am an invited speaker at the event. I previously elucidated the reasons for that involvement.  As Advisors, we are frequently called upon to suggest speakers, develop appropriate topics, and often to organize schedules for events. For example, I just organized the seminars for the Napa Vit Fair, and am headed to a meeting this morning at the NCFB regarding the program for their Farm Safety day. Organizations that we work with may then recognize us in the program. Typically, the monetary sponsorship is provided by the organization (public or private), and the University contribution to sponsorship is to guarantee a technically sound program. This works nicely for us, because these collaborative relationships allow us to enhance the quality and quantity of our programs, especially in the current budget situation.  (Bolding and underling added)

The following are Glenn’s comments. I am also attaching an article from AJEV on which Glenn is an author. He will likely discuss this work at the conference.

 We work with a wide array of clientele in our counties (Lake,

Mendocino, and Napa) and among them are Biodynamic Winegrowers. In my 2 counties, we now have over 600 acres of Biodynamically certified vineyard acreage. The Demeter Association has over 70 wineries that are either certified or in transition, so there is tremendous interest in this alternative farming system. The Demeter Association is a nonprofit, and is not a business per se.

 The University of California has among its priorities the support of sustainable farming systems. This includes ways of farming that put emphasis on improving water, air and soil quality, reducing the use of pesticides, promoting biodiversity and conserving habitat, and farm worker safety among many other issues. These are similar goals of Biodynamic Farming. The practices that are required for Demeter Certification are published in the Demeter Farm Standard which you may find on their web site. I don’t believe that there is any mention of paganism or religion in the Demeter Farm Standard, unless I missed it.

 I have worked with other land grant scientists and we have published an article about our observations over time of BD winegrowing compared to organic farming, which I have attached as PDF document for you to read.

 The mystical aspects of biodynamic farming (ie, the preparations) remain beyond explanation of reductionist science and we are wise to remain skeptical of their supposed effects until we have more information. But the organization of their farming systems and the practices that they use are well documented to improve soil quality, grow productive crops, reduce the need for petrochemical inputs, recycle farm byproducts in a safe and effective way, and provide a gentler footprint on nature compared to some practices used by conventional growers. 

I don’t expect everyone to become biodynamic farmers who attend this seminar, but I am hoping that they may be inspired to investigate some of the practices that are useful in producing high quality fruit and wine that are also environmentally friendly.

 Finally, we work with a wide array of cooperators and allied industries that not everyone approves of.  I have been taken to task at public meetings because some of my colleagues test chemical pesticides for efficacy. (I have also done such experiments in the past, and would do them again if there was a specific need in my region). There obviously is a wide range of personal values that the people of California have. I still believe that it is important for us to work with as broad a potential clientele group as possible, and shine the light of science on techniques that we can show to be helpful in the production of food and fiber that have a minimal impact on our public trust resources.

Dr. Monica L. Cooper

 I responded the same day, Nov. 11:

 Monica,

Thank you for your efforts in controlling EGM.  I know the fight is not over, but all of you involved in this effort have done a magnificent job – well done!   .

The fact that you believe you are just an invited guest, and not a sponsor, is at the very core of this issue.  Napa County UCCE is the official sponsor of this event and you are the person that represents Napa County UCCE.    Please look at your own web-site. 

I humbly suggest that you start viewing this event with the eyes of the sponsor that you are.

 Thank you for forwarding Glenn’s comments.   Like many supporters of Biodynamics, Glenn slides over the preparations with a dismissive hand that they “remain beyond explanation.”     Preparation 500 is the burying of cow horns, probably the most visible and controversial of the nine preparations.  To be a Biodynamic farmer you must be certified by Demeter USA, and Demeter USA is an absolute follower of Rudolf Steiner.  Demeter USA requires the use of preparations 500 and 501 at least annually.  There is no such thing as being “Biodynamic lite.”

 Unfortunately, you, Glenn or Dr. Waterhouse have not offered any cogent arguments that changed my opinion that UCCE is violating its ethical mandate by sponsoring this event.  While it pains me to do so, I once again, ask the Napa UCCE withdraw sponsorship of this event. 

Stuart Smith

Dr. Cooper never responded.

6 Responses to IGNORANCE IS BLISS

  1. Bill Dyer says:

    I agree with Stu that Demeter ran a very well organized seminar and should be complemented for that. My reason for attending was to absorb what evidence might be presented to verify the efficacy of this method. By this standard the content was pretty thin. About the only thing I heard that approached evidence- based knowledge was the information presented that suggested compost made with the preps may have measurably higher concentrations of organisms than organically prepared compost. I don’t mind that the data for this wasn’t replicated or statistically significant–at least there were some metrics that suggest a direction for more study. If compost can be improved by using preps, why not use them? I cite this as an example of what I would have liked to have heard more of. Most of what we heard was rather vague and of the “feel good” narrative that seems to accompany BD. For me arguments in favor of the practices such as “it makes me get out in the vineyard more often”, or “it can’t hurt,” or “since I started with BD my wines are better.” are not compelling. Something that jumps out at me is that BD supporters seem to have a very low level of curiosity. When I asked the Prep panelists if any had successfully used preps to control mildew WITHOUT also spraying Serenade, Sonata, Stylet Oil, etc I was surprised that none had even tried this approach. Why not leave a couple of rows sprayed only with 508 (which Steiner implied would control “blights)?” Wouldn’t basic curiosity lead to wanting to see if it had any effectiveness?
    To say that using the Preps requires the “precision of a poem” just doesn’t tell me anything.

    What I see as the most significant problem of our times is the replacement of critical thinking with “wishful thinking” or “magical thinking.” We have “reality shows” that are scripted, wars where our leaders have a hard time defining the objectives, public figures like Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck who create their own “facts” (so as not to be too political here, I’ll say I have nostalgia for William F. Buckley, who could at least be articulate about his positions).

    It is the element of “magical thinking” and lack of reflection that seems to me to be all too common among the BD advocates. A good example is that in the afternoon panel discussion in which winemakers gave their testimonials in favor of BD practices, one panelist said something to the effect that added nutrients were detrimental to wine quality (“makes them hard),” that commonly held standards for YAN (250 ppm) were unnecessarily high, and that if one needed more nitrogen in their must they only need to pump it over, because after all the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. As if! At this point it would have been appropriate for the UCCE representatives to object. As co-sponsors, one would think they would demand that such obvious misinformation not be allowed to stand unchallenged, as in “Yes, nitrogen fertilizers can be produced from the atmosphere, but it takes high pressure, high temperature, not to mention catalysts, and methane or hydrogen.” Sponsorship implies some level of responsibility for content!

  2. Jonathan Byron says:

    From what I can tell, Biodynamics is about 90-95% organic farming and conservation, and about 5-10% of a philosophy that is based on Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy, preparations that may or may not do anything, mysticism, astrology, and quaint tradition.

    >> “Preparation 500 is the burying of cow horns, probably the most visible and controversial of the nine preparations.”

    Yes, that is a curious practice. I am not aware of proof that it is beneficial, nor proof that it is not. The fact that organic matter is buried and undergoes a particular color change (to purple) indicates a specific fermentation – not sure if that contains a particular bacteria or fungi that might be beneficial, or if it is merely a placebo. The scientific method really should be applied to that – until it is, it remains part of the art of the gardener and not hard science… a practice that others should be free to follow if they like.

    • biodynamicshoax says:

      Jonathan,
      We agree that they should have the freedom to practice whatever the like, and we also agree that there’s no hard science that proves its efficacy. I’m just a skeptic who challenges the claim that Preparation 500 works.
      Stu

  3. bill says:

    I don like the title of you rant. You must be a very happy man.

  4. bill says:

    People should only hold seminars if they are centered around what you believe is the way to do things. How very American of you.

  5. David Vergari says:

    Glen’s logic for justifying the seminar is that a number of wineries in his bailiwick are Biodynamic. That is akin to using the same rationale to host a seminar on ritual animal sacrifice. Neither one passes the smell test.

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