As I mentioned in last week’s article, where I explained what Biodynamic (BD) farming is, this week I will explain the difference between BD and conventional farms. In fact, I will provide you with 5 reasons BD farming is better than conventional.
1. BD Is A Sustainable Approach to Food Production. Conventional Farms Are Not.
BD agriculture offers a truly sustainable approach to growing food. Sustainable means that every part of the agricultural system needs to be sustained or prolonged, including “the farm fields, soils, aquifers, habitats, peasant and farm families and their rural villages, local indigenous knowledge, crop and animal germplasm, and the local and regional biodiversity and cultural heritages that are at their base” (Dahlberg, 1993, p. 78).
Sustainability is not well defined and can encompass many areas within and outside the farm, from the soil to the village surrounding the farm (Dahlberg, 1993). The premise of sustainability is that no resources should be depleted from an area, but if possible increased (Dahlberg, 1993).
Sustainability measures involve a lot of moving parts, but instead of focusing on all of these aspects I will focus on 4 factors. Each of these factors is also one additional reason BD farms are better than conventional farms. The four factors are productivity of crop yield, energy spent to grow the crop, soil fertility and structure, and biodiversity (Mäder et al., 2002), which I expand further on below.
The arguments in support of the sustainability of BD practices indicate that BD farms are productive. They may not be as productive in crop yield as conventional farms, particularly in the first few years, but they require reduced expenses, and have comparable gross margins to conventions farms. BD farms are also more energy efficient, have fertile and healthy soil structures, and encourage biodiversity. All these components are essential to the sustainable running of a farm.
2. BD Farming is More Productive… In The Long-Run
BD farms are more productive in crop yield when compared to conventional farms, although the productivity is about efficiency rather than quantity of crop yeld. BD farms “produce good crop yields with minimal impact on ecological factors” (Mäder et al., 2002, p. 1694). A small ranch in Napa Valley that grew grapes and lavender was in crisis from following conventional farming practices, but upon implementing BD farming processes, the farm was not only able to turn itself around, but learned to thrive (Damery, 2011). Studies conducted on BD farming may explain why.
A study conducted in Switzerland over a 21-year period starting in 1978 compared BD, organic, and two conventional agricultural systems (Mäder et al., 2002). Although crop yield was 20% lower in the BD and organic systems, the energy to produce crop was 20 to 56% lower in the BD and organic systems.
A separate study conducted in India compared biodynamic, organic, and conventional farms growing cotton, soybean, and wheat in rotation (Forster et al., 2013). The purpose of the study was to determine which farming system would least deplete and exploit natural resources, while still being able to fulfill the demand in quantity for these crops. This study started in 2007 and was meant to run for 20 years. Results from the first 4 years of the study indicated that yield of cotton was 14% lower in the BD farm and the organic farms when compared to the conventional farm, soybean yield was 7% lower, and wheat yield was 15% lower in both the BD and organic farms when compared to the conventional farm. However, production costs were higher in the conventional farm at 38% for cotton, 66% for soybean, and 49% for wheat, given the high cost of fertilizers and pesticides required in the conventional farm. Financial gross margins were higher in the conventional farms in the first few years, but over time this pattern reversed where the BD and organic farms were more financially viable. This indicated that although the BD and organic farms were not as productive and profitable in the first cycles of planting, they could build for a productive future in the long-run.
A study in New Zealand compared 16 farms over an 8-year period. Some were BD and others conventional, and results showed that BD farms were as financially viable as conventional farms (Turinek et al., 2009).
3. BD Farms Are More Energy-Efficient
Energy consumption can be lower in BD farms by up to 50%. Out of the farms included in the 21-year Swiss study, the BD farm was 20 to 56% more efficient in production than the conventional farms (Turinek et al., 2009).
Soil organic matter was used to determine the level of carbon sequestration as an indicator of the amount of carbon dioxide that was prevented to buildup in the atmosphere (Turinek et al., 2009). In other words, the more carbon dioxide in the soil, the less was released in the atmosphere. The 21-year study conducted in Switzerland showed that the carbon dioxide levels in the soil in the BD farm were maintained at the same level throughout the 21 years, but the other farms had losses of soil organic carbon, indicating the BD farm was more energy efficient (Turinek et al., 2009).
4. BD Soil is More Fertile & Better Structured
Soil fertility and structure are other factors and are essential to sustainability because “fertile soil provides essential nutrients for crop plant growth, supports a diverse and active biotic community, exhibits a typical soil structure, and allows for an undisturbed decomposition” (Mäder et al., 2002, p. 1694). Two BD preparations were evaluated to determine how they contributed to soil biological activity (Spaccini, Mazzei, Squartini, Gianattasio, & Piccolo, 2012). One was preparation 500 made from cow manure placed in a cow horn and left to ferment underground for six months in the fall and winter months. The other was preparation 501 made from powdered quartz placed in a cow horn and left underground for six months during the spring and summer. Molecular analysis demonstrated that the biological composition of the preparations was similar to that of recycled biomasses, green compost, solid waste, and cattle manure used in organic farming and other methods. But, there was slower decomposition activity in the BD preparations, which resulted in organic matter with a higher content of bioavailable molecules. This seems to indicate that the BD preparations provided plants a higher opportunity for growth (Spaccini et al., 2012).
Other preparations’ effects on compost were studied and determined that although there was not a significant difference in temperature between BD and traditional composts, BD composts had 65% more nitrate, a 10% lower respiration rate of carbon dioxide, and a larger microbial population (Turinek et al., 2009).
Microorganisms in the soil are important to soil quality, and are believed to reflect “changes in resource availability, soil structure, or pollution” (Hartmann & Widmer, 2006, p. 7804). Microbial diversity in soil is believed to indicate soil quality, and agricultural treatments have been reported to decrease bacterial diversity and influence the microbial structure (Hartmann & Widmer, 2006). In the 21-year Swiss study the BD and organic systems had “greater biological activity than the conventionally managed soils” (Mäder et al., 2002, p. 1695). Both BD and organic soils were more acidic than the conventional soils and had less nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. But, the BD and organic soils were more stable, with a greater microbial biomass and earthworm biomass. The highest microbial biomass was in soil from the BD farming system (Mäder et al., 2002).
A study comparing BD and conventional farms in New Zealand over an 8-year period found that the soil in BD farms had more organic matter, better soil structure quality, and more earthworms and microbial activity (Turinek et al., 2009). Another study compared a BD farm with a conventional farm that had been in place for over 70 years and found that the BD farm had healthier and better quality of soil structure (Turinek et al., 2009). Australian BD farms were compared to conventional farms, and found to have less phosphorus, but richer mycorrhizal fungi colonization, indicating healthier soil. On the other hand, the mycorrhizal fungi colonization in the conventional farm was in decline (Turinek et al., 2009).
5. BD Farms Offer More Biological Diversity
Lastly, biodiversity and activity of the farm represent a healthy ecosystem, which is evident from the large diversity of species, in fauna and flora, and in food webs that extend from the soil up to the birds and larger animals (Mäder et al., 2002). The metabolic quotient for carbon dioxide is a good indicator of the complexity and diversity of the microbial food web in the soil. In a two-year study, BD soil had a higher metabolic quotient for carbon dioxide (Turinek et al., 2009). Biological diversity and activity could also be measured by the extent of diversity in flora and fauna in the farm. The 21-year Swiss study comparing a BD system, an organic system, and two conventional systems found that there were 1.3 to 3.2 times more earthworms in the BD and organic farms (Mäder et al., 2002). The activity density of arthropods such as beetles, rove beetles, and spiders was double in the BD and organic systems than the conventional ones. The BD farm had 28 to 34 beetle species, followed by 26 to 29 in the organic, and 22 to 26 in the conventional farms. There were also 9 to 11 weed species in the BD and organic farms, and only one type of weed in the conventional farms. The highest microbial diversity was in the BD farm, followed by the organic and the conventional farms (Mäder et al., 2002).
Although I cited some studies in this article, more research on BD farming is needed. Critics of BD state there is lack of evidence or studies on BD farming and products, including data on how plants process nutrients from the soil in order to prove that BD farming has a different impact than conventional farming on the metabolic processes within the plant (Polito, 2006; Turinek et al., 2009).
There is a level of exclusivity with BD agriculture certification, and this is both positive and negative. It is positive because it demonstrates that there are rigorous standards to ensure that BD farming is productive, uses energy efficiently, promotes soil fertility and healthy soil structure, and enhances the biodiversity of the farm. These practices ensure that the BD farm is sustainable. However, it is negative because it feels alienating to those farmers who follow conventional practices and cannot meet or fulfill all the standards.
Dahlberg, K. A. (1993). Regenerative food system. Food For The Future: Conditions and Contradictions of Sustainability, 75-102. Retrieved from http://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C10/E5-15-07-05.pdf
Damery, P. (2011). The enclosed garden: Underlying principles of jungian analysis and biodynamic agriculture. Jung Journal, 5(2), 102-116. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jung.2011.5.2.102
Forster, D., Andres, C., Verma, R., Zundel, C., Messmer, M. M., & Mader, P. (2013). Yield and economic performance of organic and conventional cotton-based farming systems – results from a field trial in India. PLoS One, 8(12), e81039. doi:10.1371/journal/pone.0081039
Hartmann, M. & Widmer, F. (2006). Community structure analyses are more sensitive to differences in soil bacterial communities than anonymous diversity indices. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 72(12), 7804-7812. doi:10.1128/AEM.01464-06
Mäder, P., Fliessbach, A., Dubois, D., Gunst, L., Fried, P., & Niggli, U. (2002). Soil fertility and biodiversity in organic farming. Science, 296(5573), 1694-1697. doi:10.1126/science.1071148
Polito, W. L. (2006). The trofobiose theory and organic agriculture: the active mobilization of nutrients and the use of rock powder as a tool for sustainability. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 78(4), 765-779. Retrieved from http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0001-37652006000400011&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en
Spaccini, R., Mazzei, P., Squartini, A., Giannattasio, M., & Piccolo, A. (2012). Molecular properties of a fermented manure preparation used as field spray in Biodynamic agriculture. Environmental Science and Pollution Research International, 19(9), 4214-4225. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11356-012-1022-x
Turinek, M., Grobelnik-Mlakar, S., Bavec, M., & Bavec, F. (2009). BD agriculture research progress and priorities. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 24(2), 146-154. doi:10.1017/S174217050900252X