A project facilitated by the Research and Development Group of the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association
The principles of Biodynamic Agriculture were presented by Dr R. Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher in 1924 at the request of farmers who were looking for alternatives to conventional agriculture. They were concerned about the decrease of soil fertility, and the decline in both animal health and in seed and food quality that was becoming evident at that time. A series of eight lectures by Steiner, known as the Agricultural Course, became the foundation for the biodynamic method of agriculture (Steiner, 1924).
In New Zealand, biodynamic methods were first used in 1928 in Havelock North. The Bio Dynamic Association in N.Z. Inc. currently has over 800 members and about 40 Demeter-certified farms. Demeter is the sole internationally recognized and used standard for certification of biodynamic farms and produce. The aims of biodynamic agriculture are to restore and maintain the vitality and living fertility of soils, and in doing so, produce foods of the highest nutritional quality.
At the centre of the biodynamic method and therefore of research on biodynamic agriculture are the concept of the farm as a unique individuality, the two field-spray preparations (horn-manure, also known as preparation 500 and horn-silica, also known as preparation 501) and the six compost preparations (known as preparations 502–507). For details of these preparations see Koepf et al., (1976).
Early biodynamic research in Europe was focused on finding proof that biodynamic preparations have a measurable effect. By the end of the 1980s, the focus of research had shifted to examining how the preparations worked in relation to varying farm ecosystems. Since then research has become more focused on understanding the farm individuality.
A further uniquely biodynamic method, and one that has been a source of contention, is the ashing of weeds and pests. As this method requires a highly integrated level of knowledge of astronomy and biology it is beyond the scope of this report. Interested readers are referred to the Biodynamic Research Institute, Darmstadt branch, Bad Vilbel, Germany.
Soon after his Agricultural Course, Steiner (June 1924) emphasised the importance of making a direct link between research and practice, so that the empirical knowledge of the farmer and the scientific knowledge of a team of disciplinary scientists could assist each other. He also discussed the importance of supporting the farmer by placing scientific knowledge in the context of farm ecosystems. This approach is consistent with participatory research methods now widely used in developing countries and finding increasing application in Europe, North America, and New Zealand.
In biodynamic agriculture one is confronted with concepts of terrestrial and cosmic origin, polarities, and questions of vitality and nutritional quality. The pioneering biodynamic researchers, in particular Pfeiffer and Kolisko, found conventional research methods were not always applicable and asked Steiner for advice, which led to the development of new and complementary research methods. Some of the most important biodynamic research methods, that have evolved from this early work, are outlined below.
Pictorial imaging methods
Amongst other things, Pfeiffer and Kolisko tested measurable substances as well as highly diluted and or potentised substances and their effects on plant and animal with newly developed pictorial imaging methods (Pfeiffer,1939 and Kolisko, 1939, 1978). This work has been developed and refined by other researchers.
The starting point for this method is that formative forces of a living organism or system are recognisable in each part of the whole. Pictorial imaging methods make these formative forces visible in a picture and can be applied in the following ways:
These methods are nowadays widely applied in combination with other complementary research methods and conventional methods, in biodynamic research (especially in the improvement of product and food quality) and areas such as medical diagnostics. Pictorial imaging techniques require training and experience before a picture can be read with accuracy. Dr Ursula Balzer-Graf from the Swiss institute Forschungsinstitut for Vitalqualitat has given this method a scientific base.
In a recent study, Anderson (2001) looked at the following methodological and experimental aspects of the crystallization method: crystallization chamber techniques, morphological features applicable for visual evaluation of biocrystallograms, computerized image analysis, application of the method in connection with different crop samples, and application of the method in connection with freezing processes of crop samples.
The idea of a phenomenological approach was introduced by Goethe (1749–1832) and extended by Steiner. Through regular observation of the living plant, animal or other organism in all stages of growth, inner and outer pictures of its processes of movement and changes of form are developed. Bockemuhl (1977, 1985) developed this into a rational method to research the development of plants and their nutritional and medical properties.
This method is used extensively in research work on the application of biodynamic preparations, for example in the work of Bisterbosch (1994) on lettuce. Biographical sequencing of plant growth, for example in leaf series of fruit trees, can help orchardists and scientists evaluate and improve cultivation measures (Bloksma, 2000). The method is beneficial for forming hypotheses, and the synthesis of different parameters such as the relationships between soil, crop and animal. These relationships can then be considered for the farm or eco-system as a whole (LBI, 1998). The phenomenological approach can also be applied directly at the farm landscape level (see for example, Vereijken et al., (1997)).
Long-term field trials
The focus of biodynamic research on life processes requires long-term field trials of a minimum of 4 years to be held in different regional locations. A recent example is the Long Term Fertilization trial, supported by the European Commission, over a period of 7 years in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in which seven institutes participated (Raupp, 1999).
Gardner, (1997) discusses the ideas of Steiner for the setting up of test plots on the farm. Statistical models have been designed to exclude unpredictable environmental influences from the investigated variables. The Goethean phenomenological method plays an important role in the synthesis of different parameters in field trials.
Early organic and biodynamic research looked at differences in quality of products from conventional and organic agriculture. Research overseas has since entered a new phase aimed at:
In traditional science it is assumed that the nutritional or health value of food results from a measurable composition of substance only. Limiting ones point of view to these material aspects misses the fact that food from plants and animals are also the result of the integral organising activity of growing living things (Balzer-Graf, 1999).
Huber (IFOAM, 1999) defines quality by:
The vital quality of a product, eventually determined by a complex of life processes, plays an important role in the consumer’s perception of the value of food in relation to personal health.
New research aimed at adequate and precise assessment of the vital quality of products is under development. The Louis Bolk Institute in the Netherlands developed the concept of vital quality as determined by a complex of life processes at three levels: a) growth, b) differentiation or ripening, c) integration. In their multidisciplinary research project "Elstar", these three levels were examined in trials and tests on the growth, structure and coherence of apples (LBI, 2001).
The phenomenological method, the pictorial imaging methods and the lesser known biophoton measuring play a central role in research on food quality. Data resulting from the work with these methods are complemented by a series of other tests that include the following parameters:
The advantages and disadvantages of the degradation tests have been discussed by Raupp (1998).
Parameters have also been set for consumer panel tests on taste, colour and smell, for shelf-life trials with retailers, and for trials on food preparation and food handling by chefs and bakers. Comparative trials of biodynamic and other food fed to animals have been studied by Gutknecht (1995).
A new International Network for Food, Quality and Health has recently been set up (email@example.com). A training course on pictorial imaging methods for scientists is offered by the Forschungsinstitut fur Vitalqualitat (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Farm participatory research model
The requirement for the biodynamic farm to form a semi-closed system with a high degree of self-sufficiency and low dependency on input from outside the farm system has led to the development of farmer participatory research methods. The questions and experiences of the farmer form the basis of the research, allowing a symbiosis of scientific knowledge and empirical knowledge to take place (Baars, 1998, 2000). Results from all trials and tests are judged in the context of the farm as a living organism and as an individuality with its own characteristics of soil, climate, location, history, management style of the farmer, and economic possibilities.
This section provides an overview of research on the field-spray preparations from the pioneering phase of biodynamic agriculture through to a more mature phase. The latter has focused on gaining an increased understanding of the preparations through application of a combination of analytical and new research methods in the context of the farm ecosystem. Findings from recent research on the compost preparations are also presented.
Hornmanure and hornsilica preparations
This review is based mainly on the publication of Lammerts van Bueren and Beekman-de Jonge, (1995) on the experiences, research and vision development on the use of the hornmanure preparation (field-spray preparation 500) and the hornsilica preparation (field-spray preparation 501) over 70–year timeframe. There is no translation of this publication from the Dutch. See also Goldstein, (2000). Lammerts van Bueren and de Jonge (1995) identify three development periods within this timeframe.
In the first period, from 1924 till the end of the ‘50s, the field-spray preparations were reported to give positive results when used in conjunction with the compost preparations. A series of publications suggest that there is a 20–30% increase in yield from use of the field-sprays (Voegele 1930,1937; Lippert 1931, 1933, 1938; Pfeiffer 1937). Pioneering research in the first half of this period was driven by enthusiasm and confidence in the preparations. Towards the ‘50s research developed more scientific rigour. Pictorial imaging methods were developed as a complement to conventional analytical approaches. Pfeiffer (1948) undertook chemical analysis, bacteria counts, and spectographic analyses of the preparations before and after fermentation in the earth. These tests provide rather amazing analytical data on the preparations and their bacteria-affecting properties. These tests have been repeated in the microbiological research of Dewes in the period 1983–1990.
In the second period, from the ‘50s until the end of the ‘80s, the main aim was to establish the effects of the preparations by scientific investigation. The research focused on various scientifically recognised chemical and analytical parameters as measurements for qualitative and quantitative effects. The results obtained could not always be repeated in subsequent experiments in different conditions of soil, climate or landscape.
In the third period, from the ‘80s onwards, emphases shifted to the restricting and stimulating effects of the two field-spray preparations on the development of crop processes in relation to varying agro-ecosystems.
De Vries, (1988) reported a balanced development of grass in spring and a stimulation of grass growth in autumn after applying the field-sprays 500 and 501. Von Mackensen, (1994) studied the effects of the preparations on strawberries and reported a rich setting of fruit, good aroma and fungus free growth, 30% higher yield, and 8–10 days earlier harvest when the hornsilica preparation was sprayed after harvest of the last crop and not in spring. He discussed the polar effects of this preparation as related to environmental factors of soil, light intensity and moisture. By stimulating one phase in the plants growth one can help the polar opposite phase to reach its full potential (Von Mackensen, 1994). Bloksma, (1995) found that young apple trees in pots in a nursery showed more balanced growth and developed less side branches if the preparations 500 and 501 were applied.
Research and practice show that the field-spray preparations positively influence soil processes such as levelling the pH, and optimising mineralisation, humification, germination and rootgrowth (Lammerts van Bueren et al., 1955).
Work with the hornsilica preparation indicates that the preparation particularly stimulates those plant processes related to warmth and light, such as assimilation, ripening, shelf life and aroma. This is expressed particularly in the lowering of nitrate content and the increasing dry matter and sugar. Both preparations appear to regulate crops in such a way that plants are less susceptible to diseases and pests and have a longer shelf-life (Abele,1987; Lammerts van Bueren et al., 1988).
Application of both preparations may lead to a more integrated development of the crop plant to reach its full potential and provide corresponding quality improvements. The crop actively utilised the environment for its own development rather than submitting to the environment (Mansvelt, 1982). Application of the preparations creates conditions for a sound arrangement of life processes in an ecosystem. Koenig (1991, 1993) summarized the three principal effects of the preparations as normalisating, compensating and stimulating.
Complementarity of the field-spray preparations and the compost preparations
Kotchi, (1980) found that field-spray preparations worked best if biodynamic compost had been applied. Wistinghausen (1984) confirmed this. This research shows the importance of an integrated approach to biodynamics; application of only some biodynamic preparations may give an unbalanced effect.
Use of horns
Brinton, (1986) concluded that the bigger the weight:volume ratio of the horn used in making the field-spray preparations, the better the quality of the preparation. Big horns of bulls (which do not have rings) give a low quality of hornmanure. Dewes, (1983) found that hornmanure from a good horn contained microflora similar to those found in worm-castings, but these were not evident in hornmanure made in an imitation horn. Brinton (1986,1994) distinguished good quality hornmanure from low quality hornmanure by less rotting, an agreeable smell and less nitrogen loss. Goldstein and Koepf (1982) worked on quality control for preparations. They recommended their results needed further verification through field trials.
Frequency of applications
Where field-spray preparations are applied with increasing frequency, there is often an increasing effect which is not always positive. Effects may be negative; apparent in the dehydrogenase activity of soil microorganisms (Dewes and Ahrens, 1989). Bisterbosch (1994) found in her research on lettuce, which included extensive phenomenological observations and food tests, that application of preparations 500 and 501 more than once during the growth season negatively affected product quality. She concluded that a healthy ordering of live processes was disturbed.
Pfeiffer, (1948, 1956) mentions a 75% increase of oxygen in the water after 1 hour of manually stirring the biodynamic preparations into the water. Schwenk, (1962, 1989) and Filler, (1994) supported the hypothesis that water transfers information. Schiff, (1998) described the scientific relevance of the theory that water keeps the memory of dissolved substances. In New Zealand, flowforms are used for stirring (Trousdell, 1990). Schikkor, (1994) suggested that flowforms were better than machine stirring but that hand-stirring gave the best results.
A number of scientists have looked at the effects of the biodynamic compost preparations on the decomposition of manure and compost in comparative trials. From visual observation, the preparations appear to increase decomposition of manure (Abele, 1987). Wistinghausen, (1986) found an increase in the cation exchange capacity of manure piles and differences in their ammonium and nitrate content, indicating that the biodynamically treated manure was further decomposed. Ahrens, (1984) saw greater decomposition in biodynamically treated straw, shown by a higher ash and lower carbon content and a higher carbon/nitrogen ratio. Abele, (1987) found significantly higher organic matter, higher nitrogen dehydrogenase and cellulolytic activity, more humic acid, greater humification of organic matter and higher levels of Azotobacter and nitrogen fixation by free-living nitrogen fixers. In a long-term trial (1980–1984) with mineralised, organic and biodynamically fertilized vegetables, Abele, (1984) found the lowest nitrate content in biodynamically treated samples. Under optimal storage conditions the durability of products shows only small differences. However, under stress conditions (temperature, humidity, chopping up), clear differences occurred in terms of microbial attack and degradation, in favour of biodynamically treated samples.
More recently Bachinger et al., (1996) found the highest organic carbon content in topsoil following the application of composted manure and biodynamically treated manure. It took several years for the new organic carbon levels to be established, depending on the type of fertilization applied. Greater enzyme activity and larger microbial biomass with dehydrogenase activity was found in manure fertilizers, especially with biodynamic preparations. Positive effects of applying organic fertilization treated with biodynamic preparations had also been observed in the subsoil at a depth of 25–55 cm.
In a study on the metabolic activity of the soil micro-organism population in a clover/grass sown pasture, Hoffman et al., (1997) observed that biodynamically treated grassland showed similar microbiological characteristics to soil under permanent pasture. Scheller and Raupp, (1997) observed that regular application of farmyard manure led to increases of both amino acid and humus contents of the soil, these could be increased further by the use of the biodynamic preparations.
The comparative trials of Reganold et al., in New Zealand are discussed in other sections of this report.
Whole farm biodynamic research is required in the context of the unique agro-ecosystems of the various regions in New Zealand. A cornerstone for such research is the application of participatory research approaches that draw together the knowledge of existing biodynamic farmers with complementary and conventional research methods.
Further research needs to focus on the following areas:
For biodynamic research to be made relevant to a wider community in New Zealand there is also a need to bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding through training in the research methods and approaches outlined in this report.
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