Home > Zoom sur > Biodynamic agriculture: traditional knowledge, scientific research and agroecological innovation

By Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International

Interview with Professor Piccolo, one of the leading international experts in agricultural chemistry.

In the context of the ongoing debate on biodynamic agriculture, Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo’s recent intervention has caused quite a stir, as she is ready to reopen the courts of the Inquisition, complete with cliché seventeenth-century accusations of witchcraft, alchemy and esoteric practices.

A picturesque narrative that nevertheless had the merit of drawing attention to some specific aspects of biodynamics. What is the scientific basis for biodynamic research and practice? What are the economic interests of the agribusiness lobbies that incite our politicians against organic and biodynamic farming despite clear indications from the markets and the European Commission? Which is more harmful for the environment and human health, a natural biodynamic preparation or a chemical herbicide such as glyphosate, strenuously defended by Senator Cattaneo, despite the IARC’s definition of it as a ‘probable carcinogen’? We interviewed Alessandro Piccolo, Professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Ecology at the Federico II University in Naples, who is considered one of the leading international experts on the subject. Professor Piccolo was awarded the Chemistry Prize by the prestigious German foundation Alexander von Humboldt for his research into the chemistry of humus, and is one of the founders of the Italian Society of Biodynamic Sciences (SISB), as well as Chief Editor of the journal “Chemical and Biological Technologies in Agriculture”.

Professor Piccolo, what do you say to those who accuse biodynamics of having no scientific basis but rather of being similar to witchcraft?

It is astonishing that distinguished Italian scientists have to resort to such anachronistic terms to attack biodynamic agriculture. While biodynamic practices are linked to ancestral knowledge about the transformation of natural organic matter, they have been objectively proven to improve the quality of agricultural soils and the quality of their agri-food products. Accusations that raise the suspicion that they do not know the history of science or that they want to hide it. Without resorting to the image of primitive men who considered natural phenomena they could not explain rationally to be magic or witchcraft, many great scientists have been accused of practising witchcraft or magic when they broke the previous paradigm with new and alternative interpretations of natural events. Just think of Galileo who almost ended up like Giordano Bruno, of Newton who carried the reputation of being a sorcerer for his esoteric interests throughout his life, of Einstein whose speculations contrary to established classical mechanics led to doubts about his mental health. Biodynamic practices should be evaluated in the context of the complex multi-phase system of the agrarian soil in which the organic molecular dimension of the humus is accompanied by the mineral composition of the soil, the microbial biomass, and the root systems of the plants. Instead of rationally addressing a problem of complex systemic interactions that escape a reductionist Cartesian scientific description, they prefer to simplify and cry witchcraft. It is surprising that some representatives of ‘official’ science, who should already have an intellectual awareness of the epistemological break that occurred with quantum physics at the beginning of the 20th century, do not understand that we are again faced with a new emerging system that requires going beyond the limits of current reductionist scientism and developing a holistic scientific approach to be applied to complex multi-phase systems, such as agriculture. Instead of emulating Cardinal Bellarmino, Galileo’s inquisitor, in a new witch-hunt, they should remember to be scientists and support innovative research instead of hindering it.

You recently founded the Scientific Society of Biodynamic Sciences, together with Carlo Triarico, president of the Italian Biodynamic Association. Can you explain the reasons for this initiative and what you are actively focusing on? Are there similar experiences in Europe?

The young Italian Society of Biodynamic Sciences’ (SISB) aim is twofold. First, we want to apply scientific methods in order to study the relationship between the materials used in biodynamic practice, their effects on the quality of the soil and the agrarian environment in which they are applied, and on the properties of the organic materials. This means first of all using the most advanced and sophisticated analytical instruments for the characterisation of biodynamic preparations and then setting up rigorous experimental tests to test their bioactivity on the chemical and biological properties of the soil and agricultural crops. Secondly, SISB also wants to be an intellectual and scientific catalyst to apply the Steiner phenomenological method to other sectors of human activity, such as biomedicine, economics, pedagogy and sociology. Rudolf Steiner, one of the most recognised scientists and philosophers of the early 20th century, highly esteemed by Benedetto Croce among others, was undoubtedly inspired in his holistic approach to the relationship between nature and spirit, by the revolutionary innovations of quantum physics that revealed the equivalence between matter and energy and the interconnectedness of phenomena in the universe. This paradigmatic break with reductionist scientific positivism is clearly still struggling to become part of the cultural heritage of the entire Italian scientific world.

Abroad, however, the Steiner approach is accepted and officially pursued, especially in Northern Europe and the USA. There are established Steiner schools of various levels, numerous university departments and research institutes studying biodynamic agriculture, and even an entire university in Oslo named after Rudolf Steiner. To me, there seems to be nothing esoteric about the research carried out by our serious colleagues in Northern Europe and America, who rightly intend to study the economic and agro-ecological success of biodynamic practices in agriculture using scientific methods. It is no coincidence that the European Commission has also realised the concrete advantages that organic and biodynamic agriculture can bring towards achieving the objective of replacing 25% of industrial agrochemicals by 2030, and to that end it is encouraging the adoption of organic/biodynamic methods and practices through powerful research investment programmes such as « Farm to Fork ».

You were awarded the 1999 Chemistry Prize by the Humboldt Foundation for your research into humus chemistry. Can you explain the role of humus in biodynamic agriculture?

Although soil humus has been the subject of scientific investigation since the beginning of the 18th century, because of its importance for soil fertility and consequent profits in agriculture. Its complex and heterogeneous composition managed to elude detailed understanding until the end of the last century, when some innovative experiments conducted in my research group broke the previous paradigm of its macropolymeric nature, comparable to those of large biopolymers such as proteins and polysaccharides, to indicate an alternative structure in which organic molecules of relatively small masses self-assemble through weak bonds into supramolecular formations.

It is difficult to downplay the importance of this new description of the molecular structure of humus. This opens up the possibility of multiple technological implementations ranging from the environmental control of contaminants that naturally bind to humus, to the sequestration of organic carbon in soils with the consequent mitigation of climate change, to the understanding of the biochemical and physiological mechanisms of interaction between humus and plants. All of which are crucial for a new agroecology that maintains agricultural production yields but no longer uses polluting synthetic agrochemical compounds. Of course, this is a long road that will need not only the necessary research support but also an innovative holistic and non-reductionist intellectual approach to deal with the emerging discovery of the complexity of humus, whose properties and functions are due more to the whole than to its individual components.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter and the recent controversy. Can you explain what biostimulant preparations are and how they work, particularly horn manure?

Biodynamic humus (the preparation 500 method) is obtained through a process of humification of cattle manure enclosed in a cattle horn under conditions of micro-oxygenation at a constant temperature like the one obtained by burying it. Instead of invoking witchcraft, the detractors of biodynamics could easily have found scientific answers by reading up on the composting process, which is a true natural biotechnology whereby the organic and biological material in the manure, in the presence of oxygen, is transformed by bacteria and fungi partly into carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and partly into countless metabolites from the respiratory activity of the microbial biomass.

The humus obtained through the preparation 500, the infamous and ill-named « horn manure », is therefore a humus composted by bacteria and rich in highly bioactive metabolites that, when dissolved/suspended in water and distributed to the soil in minimal quantities (200-400 g per hectare), has the property of stimulating the rhizospheric soil microbiome and triggering the production of other microbial metabolites that activate plant physiology and biochemistry. Indeed, the humus in preparation 500 increases the uptake of nutrients from the soil and stimulates not only more efficient chlorophyll synthesis of CO2 from the atmosphere, but also the exudation of organic acids and peptides from the roots into the soil. These exudates, in turn, promote the release of hormone-like metabolites from the soil’s organic matter itself, to further enhance plant biostimulation.

Modern ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry suggests that the metabolites in soil and compost humus can amount to tens of thousands of different molecular masses. Preparation 500 and, with it, the other biodynamic preparations, are all generally humified in an oxygen-deficient composting process due to the semi-permeable walls of the protein tissues (horn keratins with different calcium content or bladder and intestinal epithelial tissues) in which the preparations are placed.  Because of the anaerobic microbial biomass, they therefore undergo a slow chemical transformation, whose metabolic products have specific molecular properties related both to the preparation itself (via the different flower essences) and to the semi-anaerobic method of humification.

Hence, this is a natural process of biotransformation of different biological materials into humus. The different molecular and microbial compositions of the different biodynamic preparations contribute to the stimulation of soil biodiversity and to the further transformation and accumulation in new humus of other plant and animal tissues that are added to the soil. It seems obvious to me that the humified preparations used in biodynamics do not pose any danger to the environment and human health, unlike the synthetic industrial pesticides that are so dear to Senator Cattaneo’s heart.

Many procedures are part of our food tradition, as is the case with many sausages in animal casings. What are the demonstrable beneficial effects of this procedure?

The casings in which the fresh materials of biodynamic preparations are enclosed so that they humify, i.e. so that the biomolecules in the manure and plant essences are transformed into a supramolecular set of new, highly bioactive metabolites, have the role of limiting the diffusion of oxygen, exactly as in the sausages you mentioned that are so common on Italian tables. The lack of oxygen favours not only a slow chemical transformation into more or less oxidised metabolites, but also a predominance of biotic bacterial activity over fungal activity. The result is a humidified product, which does not contain fungal moulds, and whose original material has been partially transformed into more or less oxidised metabolites where the CO2 mineralisation, and therefore the loss of organic carbon has been limited.

Only those who are not familiar with the extensive literature on the proven, astonishing effects of the humus of different origins (from soil, from lignites, from peat) on plant physiological activity at similar doses, can be surprised that such a phenomenon also occurs with biodynamic preparations. What we need to do is to understand the causes and the mechanisms. Research by my group applied mass spectrometry and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy to compare the molecular composition of some common aerobic manure compost with that of some 500 biodynamic preparations.

We invariably found that the biodynamic preparations contained significantly more polyphenols from lignin, which under anaerobic conditions (limited oxygenation) had not been fully mineralised to CO2, as is the case with aerobic compost where the humus is more extensively oxidised. Since it is known that the phenolic derivatives of lignin (the most abundant plant polymer on the planet after cellulose) are strong plant biostimulants, due to their structure similar to auxin hormones. Serious scientific experimental research has revealed one of the direct mechanisms of the « witch-like » effect of biodynamic humus on improved plant growth. There are also a number of properties of biodynamic preparations that play important roles in making the production of the biodynamic farm independent of most industrial agrochemicals.

What are the costs of these preparations? Could the whole controversy also be read in the light of the higher costs of industrial preparations? Are there perhaps conflicts of interest here?

The costs of the preparations used in Biodynamic agriculture are very low and not at all comparable to those of the agrochemicals used in industrial agriculture, such as pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. They require readily available natural materials (manure and flower essences) and their processing is carried out using a natural biotechnology that does not require investment in fixed capital. They can easily be produced on the biodynamic farm itself if the instructions for correct humification are strictly followed. This is in line with the agro-ecological philosophy, which envisages the farm as a cycle of internal conversion for the transformation of waste or farm produce into humus useful for improving the chemical and biological fertility of the soil and the quality of agri-food products. However, there are now specialised companies that produce the full range of biodynamic products and offer their services at low cost.

The 4500 certified biodynamic farms in Italy produce a wide range of products, from fruit and vegetables to wine and olive oil. The lower production yields of biodynamic farms are well compensated for by the higher revenues due to the better quality and consequent marketability of the products, and by the savings achieved by replacing industrial pesticides and fertilisers with the use of biodynamic humus. The continuous growth of the number of farms converting to the biodynamic approach, is itself a measure of the economic success and profitability of this approach. Needless to say, this situation may not please the less progressive chemical industry, which is trying to delay the agro-ecological transition of Italian and European agriculture, as well as the scientific lobbies that have built their status on the research agenda of the agrochemical multinationals. Thus the reductionist scientific vision tries to resist the innovation of biodynamic holistic research in ecological agriculture by resorting to the propagandistic simplification of « witchcraft » and « magic »!

What is the legislative situation in Italy and Europe? Can biodynamics represent an opportunity for the country?

Biodynamic preparations have long been authorised under European organic farming legislation, which Italy has implemented by granting authorisation to use them as fertilisers by a commission made up of three different ministries. The Italian intention is therefore to protect the nascent and already very profitable biodynamic sector, and to consolidate the trend towards a significant increase in the number of farms involved. In addition, the European Union has set the target that by 2030 organic farming should account for 25 per cent of all agricultural crops. Italy is already ahead of the game in this respect, with 15.8 percent of its total agricultural production being organic, while the EU average is only eight per cent. There is still a long way to go to reach the objectives set by the EU Commission, and this will require the reallocation of many resources, starting with the European funds for agriculture for the entire decade. The destination of which will have to be decided by the end of the year in Italy as well. Since the challenges of the European Green Deal and its strategies will require shifting of part of the funding from conventional to organic production, the barrage has begun from the opponents of biodynamics who, by launching ridiculous accusations, hope to block the transfer of agricultural research funding to biodynamics, to instead increase that of the industrial agrochemical sector. A sector we know is harmful to the environment and to human health (see glyphosate).

However, industrial sectors that are more sensitive to the agricultural world and more aware of European directives, such as Federchimica’s Assofertilizzanti, are already repositioning themselves, declaring their commitment to the sector of bio-organic stimulants, which, as part of the EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy, promises a doubled market value by 2025, already worth $2.6 billion today. I trust therefore that, in the wake of European experience and EU legislation, and despite the prejudicial fuss made by the usual suspects, Italy will continue to promote agro-ecological practices and related research, thereby further improving the quality of Italian agri-food products and their insertion into the demanding markets of northern Europe.

Professor, what does biodynamics propose for a sustainable future?

Biodynamics advocates for an ecological agriculture in which agricultural production aims to increase not the quantity but the quality of products, respect for the environment and human health, and the harmony of the civil community. This means producing more efficiently and with less impact on the environment, reducing the distance between production and consumption, adopting healthier diets, and promoting the redistribution of food, so that everyone can have access to enough good quality food. It is estimated that the adoption of organic farming practices leads to a decrease in production per hectare of between 8 and 25%. However, this relatively small disadvantage would be largely offset by the concomitant impact that organic farming would have on reducing current food waste, which in the western world amounts to up to one-third of the food produced by industrial agriculture and has a huge impact on the CO2 emissions and the ecological footprint. Industrial agriculture does not care about waste and, instead, foolishly tends to increase agri-food production, by exploiting natural resources to the limit and introducing ever greater quantities of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides into the agrarian ecosystem. Agroecology, the emerging paradigm of organic farming, is the most promising way to move the agrarian ecosystem towards full sustainability. Agroecology means using practices that enhance and protect natural resources and biodiversity and the synergies between microorganisms, plants and animals, while greatly reducing external industrial inputs and achieving stable, high quality production.

Biodynamic agriculture puts all this into practice and becomes a pillar of the circular economy concept, as every type of organic matter on the farm is transformed into humus, the primordial material needed to maintain soil fertility, its biodiversity, its organic carbon content, and its physical stability. Soil enriched with humus is not only highly bioactive towards plant growth, but also offers natural resistance to erosion. Especially as opposed to intensive industrial agriculture where the progressive degradation of organic matter in soils releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and makes them fragile to the impact of rain, triggering soil loss and hydrogeological catastrophes. Biodynamic agriculture, centred on the regenerative and protective power of humus, is also a response to the ancestral demand of man’s spirit to live in balance with nature. The challenge is to understand natural systemic phenomena through rigorous scientific research with a holistic approach and to use them for the well-being of the human community and the planet.

The original article was first published in Italian in Il Manifesto on 15 July 2021

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