Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Biodynamic agriculture and university education

The text was approved by National Union of Italian Academies for Food Science, Agriculture and Environment (UNASA) and the National Academy of Sciences called XL

It is an absolute must to properly discuss with university students everything about our times especially if the facts, products, processes, and even fashions have some bearing on university courses. Therefore, it certainly seems fair to discuss biodynamic agriculture fairly, especially in all the agricultural courses, so as to give students sound information on its basic principles and the techniques that make it work. From here to formulate ad hoc training courses, we have to go a long way and we will try to explain our concerns, striving to distinguish this form of agriculture from organic farming. The latter, organic farming, has now established itself with a wide range of products and with a substantial proportion of consumers who prefer them to traditional ones. 
Is biodynamic farming based on the use of specific techniques, like traditional and organic farming? The answer is certainly yes, but it is necessary to consider the merits of these technical means so as to make a careful and accurate assessment. 
Do cultivated fields require a supply of nutrients? Of course, and biodynamic farming does not deny this technical operation, but it is carried out in a very unusual way, with the use of natural substances that are, at times, uniquely prepared. In fact they recommend the "biodynamic preparations" derived from manure, but extremely diluted and used in very small concentrations on crops; or propose derivatives of the cattle horns, which are also used, such as manure, to traditional agriculture, but in very limited quantities as to be homoeopathic; to many skeptics, these practices seem marked by esotericism, therefore devoid of objective scientific basis. Obviously, a cultivation treated with chemicals, either pesticides or fertilizers or, let alone, herbicides cannot be biodynamic. If the synthetic substances now listed are also frequently avoided by organic farming, their absence in biodynamics must be total, as they are opposed to life. 
Not surprisingly, the biodynamic method of cultivation has been inspired by a philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, who lived in Austria from the second half of '800 and the early' 900.
One of the objectives of biodynamics is to increase humus in the soil. There is nothing better from the agronomic point of view, even if this objective is reached in a very peculiar way: using small amounts of derivatives prepared by composting specific plants, mainly grasses, and macerated in animal containers to avoid reducing the “life-force power”. Alternatively, humus content can be increased using horn manure, in which a cattle horn is filled with manure and then buried for several months. 
The vital energy concept is associated with that of a “cosmic force” that respects phases of the moon, principles which are not unknown to farmers but which have not been validated by adequate generalizable experiments. 
Nonetheless biodynamic agriculture has been subjected to experimental comparisons, especially to determine the "authenticity" of the resulting products. However, on the whole, biodynamic techniques are not more effective than traditional agronomic techniques or than biotechnological ones for the purposes of obtaining healthy and quality products. Unless for quality we intend a notion based on axiomatic assumptions accepted a priori. It seems only right to point out that thinking of producing quality and healthy foods, such as bread, pasta and bakery products, with the concepts above, is absolutely dangerous because it is universally known that the probability of producing loads of carcinogenic mycotoxins food is very high. 
In Italy biodynamic agriculture has spread since the thirties of the twentieth century, and today, the Italian Association Demeter ensures the protection of the brand that guarantees that food comes from biodynamic farms. Some reasons of "biodynamic" farmers can be relegated to the personal ideas about the conception of the world and of life; maybe we do not share them, but they are respectable. We would like to reject the proposed techniques that certainly are not based on scientific criteria and are far from being an alternative method for managing fields and farms, required by a global community increasingly in need of healthy and quantitatively sufficient food.
University education of young people interested in agriculture can rightly offer information on all forms of cultivation and breeding, as long as they are based on science, technology and economy.