Also known as biological dynamic agriculture or just biodynamics, biodynamic farming was developed from a series of lectures given in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, artist, and social reformer. (You may know him for his theories on education that led to the creation of the Waldorf schools.) Steiner had been concerned about the increasing industrialization of agriculture, including the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, which he thought were degrading the food supply.
Since then, biodynamics has been an evolving agricultural management system that shares many similarities with organic practices (see below). It has been very popular in Europe and is becoming more widespread in the U.S. In fact, Whole Foods carries some biodynamic foods, and it’s not too hard to find biodynamic wine.
However, it should be emphasized that Steiner was not a scientist, but rather a philosopher—and his lectures on farming included many fringe components regarding how to use “cosmic energy” and “land forces” to influence organic life on Earth. And there are numerous books, articles, and websites dealing with biodynamics that are hardly of a scientific nature.
In particular, preparation of the classic biodynamic compounds—which are said to harmonize and revitalize the soil as well as the people who consume the crops grown in it—involves “mystical” elements, namely packing cow manure or silica into cow horns that are buried for months before the contents are mixed with water and ritually applied in minute (homeopathic) quantities to the soil. Why cow horns? They are said to receive and focus the cosmic energy. Specific herbs are also packed into skulls, cow intestines, or deer bladders and buried before being prepared for the soil.
Also integral to biodynamic farming: It follows cosmic cycles. Crops are planted and harvested according to the biodynamic (lunar) calendar, which is based on the position of the moon, planets, and stars.
Despite its decidedly unscientific basis, biodynamics encompasses a philosophy that resonates with the sustainability movement increasingly popular today—that the farm is a living organism with plants, animals, soil, and humans all working together for the benefit of the whole. The idea is that the farm is self-sufficient, with water and organic materials (such as manure) recycled—a “closed system” with little brought in from the outside.
How biodynamic farming compares with organic farming
Biodynamic farming incorporates many of the same practices used in organic farming, including a ban on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as GMOs (genetically modified organisms). One difference is the type of compost preparations used, though there is no evidence from well-designed peer-reviewed studies showing that biodynamic preparations improve soil and plant health beyond organic methods.
Like organic farms, biodynamic farms can be certified. Demeter USA (named after the Greek goddess of earth and harvest) certifies both producers and products that meet its requirements, which include having to adhere to the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program. Thus, some farms may have both organic and biodynamic certification.
In several ways, biodynamic certification goes further. For example, it certifies the whole farm rather than individual fields or crops, uses different processing standards for different products (as opposed to a single set for all organic foods) and sets higher animal welfare standards. It also requires that 50 percent of livestock feed be grown on the farm (organic farms can source their feed from anywhere in the world) and that 10 percent of land be set aside for diversity. But the standards also include the fringe elements, such as requiring use of homeopathic preparations.
Bottom line: Biodynamics is a type of sustainable farming practice that is better for the environment and certainly for farmworkers (who are not exposed to any pesticides) than conventional farming—and perhaps even better in some ways than USDA-certified organic farming. But as with organic foods, there is no definitive evidence that foods produced this way are any healthier than conventional foods. Whether they are worth the extra cost, compared to conventional, is a personal choice.
Also see Clearing up Confusion about Organic Food.