Biodynamic agriculture is a means of healing the earth and the human being; it enlivens the soil and thereby the food we eat. This is achieved through various cultural practices, but is centered on the deeply personal relationship between the farmer and the farm.
Although the Biodynamic Movement originated slightly before the Organic Movement, it actually represents the next conscious step beyond what the Organic Movement brings to agriculture. Fundamentally, it is inclusive of many of the methods familiar to "organic" and "permacultural" practitioners, but also takes into account the planetary influences and spiritual forces that affect plant growth. The use of the "biodynamic preparations" (specialized composts that are applied in homeopathic doses) also sets biodynamics apart from other farming practices.
Biodynamics originated through the spiritual scientific work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, artist, and educator. Steiner's Work, known as "Anthroposophy," (literally meaning "knowledge of the human being and what it can attain") has given birth to other movements such as Waldorf Education, Anthroposophical medicine, and the art of Eurythmy.
Biodynamic Farming Enhances the Quality of Vegetables in Every Sense
Biodynamic agriculture doesn’t just benefit the local and wider environment, but adopting this method of farming ensures the crops grown are of higher quality. This doesn’t relate so much to their appearance – though the higher content of certain vitamins does heighten their color - but to the yield, flavor and nutritional value of the produce. Any farmer who has ever embraced this form of agriculture will know themselves that they don’t just get more vegetables per acre, but that you can really taste the difference in comparison to those grown by conventional methods. The scientific research may be limited for the nutritional superiority of biodynamically grown vegetables specifically, but there is convincing evidence for the benefits of those grown by organic methods; biodynamics goes one step further than this and the figures that are available demonstrate this with regards to nutrient content. Here we consider the benefits of biodynamics with respect to the quality of vegetables grown, discussing the evidence where it is available.
Mechanisms for improved quality
Intensive farming, with its use of artificial fertilizers and monoculture, leads to poor quality soils. In such soils, vegetables of good quality can’t possibly be grown and by adding yet more artificial chemicals to the soil, the problem is simply made worse. However, through biodynamic methods using compost, manure and organic preparations, the soil is naturally fertilized, revitalizing it; through the addition of humus and bacteria to the soil, this allows both its structure and nutritional content to improve, but the plants also become more resistant to drought and disease. This provides the optimal conditions for vegetables to grow to their full potential. However, it isn’t purely what is added to the land that promotes the quality of biodynamic crops, but the choice of crops and the way in which they are grown. For instance, growing legumes helps to add extra nitrogen to the soil, while crop rotation doesn’t just boost the fertility of the soil, but it helps with regard to pest control as well. Resistance to disease and pests can also be encouraged through making careful decisions in relation to timings of planting and harvesting using the astronomical calendar and the provision of habitat for natural predators. All of this benefits the quality of the vegetables grown.
Improved nutrient quality
It follows that nutritious food can only grow in nutrient rich soils. A large scale study reported by researchers in the UK in 2007 found that organically grown vegetables had between 20 and 40% higher levels of vitamins than those grown using artificial means; this was the case for antioxidant vitamins seen in tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and onions. Levels of iron and zinc were also shown to be considerably higher in spinach and cabbage than food grown using conventional farming methods. The same researchers based at the University of Newcastle published a detailed review in 2011 of the evidence to date on this topic and concluded that eating organically grown vegetables and fruit is equivalent to eating 12% more in quantity. Looking specifically at vegetables grown biodynamically, figures quoted on the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association in Australia from available research – though the source of this is not qualified - indicate that in comparison to more intensive farming , vitamin C content is 47% higher, magnesium is 13% higher and potassium is 8% higher.
While there have been no long-term studies in relation to the health benefits of organic or biodynamically grown food in people, studies in animals fed organic food have shown them to suffer less from illness. Based on the nutrients provided, it makes sense this should be the case in people as well; both vitamin C and zinc support the immune system to fight infections. Additionally, as antioxidants, magnesium and potassium have been demonstrated to be beneficial with regards to heart health and heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, this offers potential health benefits; particularly as without a health check many people do not realize there is anything wrong till they experience a heart attack. Statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2009, only 14% of adults in the US managed to consume the healthy recommendation of five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Increasing the production of vegetables and fruit by biodynamic means would make them more widely available to allow those adults and children struggling to eat recommendations for this food group to still achieve a good intake of vitamins and minerals.
It leads that plants that are healthier owing to their higher nutrient content and have been able to maximize their ability to photosynthesize thanks to the addition of fermented herbs and minerals to compost are able to generate vegetables that are more flavorsome. This is noticeable on tasting, but with regards to scientific evidence, although there is none currently that relates to vegetables, this has been studied with respect to biodynamically grown fruit. In a Californian study reported in the American Journal of Ecology and Viticulture in 2005, it was shown that grapes grown with the addition of biodynamic preparations were of ideal taste quality in comparison to those grown merely in organic conditions; this was based on the Brix score, which relates to sugar content. As a dislike of the flavor of fruit and vegetables can be cited as one of the reasons behind poor intakes, the greater availability of those with enhanced flavor can only help to increase the nation’s intake.
Intensive farming may be favored by many growers for its higher yields, but there is evidence that biodynamic methods can equally produce large quantities of crops, with those that are produced of higher quality into the bargain. A German Study – albeit from 1998 - showed greater yields and higher quality fruit when apples grown using biodynamic methods were compared with other forms of cultivation. By meeting the needs of the farm from within and avoiding the need for outside inputs, biodynamic agriculture is sustainable in every way and has the potential to meet demands for produce, not just in America, but across the world.
Brandt K, Leifert C, Sanderson R & Seal CJ (2011) Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: the case of organic fruits and vegetables. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. 30, 177-97.
Reeve JR, Carpenter-Boggs L, Reganold JP, York AL, McGourty G & McCloskey LP (2005) Soil and winegrapes quality in biodynamically and organically managed vineyards. American Journal of Ecology and Viticulture. 56, 367-76.
Balzer-Graf U, Hoppe H & Straub M (1998) Apples – organic and biodynamic. Harvest volume and vital quality in comparison. Living Earth. 49 (5) 387-97.
For more information on Biodynamic farming check out the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association website.