Biodynamics – new approach needed?

18 April 2019  See a response to this article by Nigel Greening of Felton Road, Biodynamics beyond Harry Potter, as well as this meaty thread on our members' forum to which Katia Nussbaum has contributed.

11 April 2019 We're republishing this free today because we think it is particularly important and interesting. 

9 April 2019 Katia Nussbaum of San Polino in Montalcino argues that we need to reframe biodynamics for the twenty-first century. After long discussions with her, Walter Speller persuaded her to write this very personal, wide-ranging essay. 

‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us …

‘There is grandeur in this view of life ... whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1859

All the ideas that I am setting out in this short paper arose as a result of 30 years of working with olive trees and vines in Montalcino, Tuscany. The goal of this essay, to be read as a series of considerations, is to awaken us to a modernised and pertinent vision of biodynamics, as seen from the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century organic winemaker.

Right from the start, when we bought the old, dilapidated and stunningly beautiful house in 1990, with its five hectares of abandoned fields, we knew that we wanted to produce a pioneering organic Brunello di Montalcino and a first-class olive oil.

My husband Luigi Fabbro had been working on a project in the Brazilian Amazon for many years mapping biodiversity in the forest. He immediately saw that patterns in biodiversity are not purely casual and that organisms, including human life, work together to form mutually advantageous, synergistic bonds. He decided to bring these concepts back to San Polino with the aim of creating wines as complete reflections of the biodiversity of their terroir.

We would do an extreme form of organic farming, using microorganisms in place of sulphur and copper in the vineyard, and use only indigenous yeasts in the winery. At first, this approach caused many raised eyebrows. Our pride was at stake. Over the years I am happy to say that we have, for the most part, been able to rise to the challenge, producing many wonderful vintages of Sangiovese wines.

But the journey has not been simple and owing to the novelty of our approach we have frequently found ourselves looking to the scientific research of academia for help with issues that have arisen in the vineyard and winery. These encounters and the subsequent knowledge gained coalesced with many other thoughts I have had over the past years (both agricultural and philosophical) resulting in a reframing of my understanding of the definition of biodynamics.

In my case, things finally fell into place in 2016 when my mother gave me a book written by a Peter Wohlleben, a forester by trade. The book, The Hidden Life of Trees (William Collins, 2016), soon became an international bestseller because it was so exciting. Wohlleben explained that trees in forests are communicating with one another through subsoil fungal networks and through pheromones. The aim of this is survival: the trees are looking out for each other. Trees rely on the survival of their neighbours because if a tree dies and falls down it will leave a space in the canopy that allows the sunlight to dry up the forest floor.

Wohlleben explains how trees feed their saplings, and that if a tree is struggling, its neighbours will feed it in order to bring it back to health, and that if a tree really is dying it will push all its nutrients back into the soil for the benefit of the surrounding trees. His conclusion is that a forest is not just a haphazard grouping of trees; it is a society.

This idea blew my mind and shattered my complacency. Question marks appeared in my philosophy of life, and long-held certainties came crashing down around me. Did this mean that trees are conscious? I started thinking hard about consciousness and what it is and what/who has it. Certainly, if a lower form of consciousness can be defined as the ability to memorise, react, learn and plan, then trees fall into the bracket of the conscious. Similarly, the theory of plant consciousness has recently been explained in the extraordinary book by Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants (Atria Books, 2017).

As a winemaker, grape-grower and vine cultivator, and having a degree in social anthropology, I began to think: ‘How does this relate to our vineyards? If trees are social beings then have we got tens of thousands of lonely, isolated vines planted in sad, regimented rows on our hilltop?’

The idea was too sad to contemplate, so I contacted Primrose Boynton, who, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Kiel had worked in our vineyards over a period of four years to discover the presence, type, and life cycles of native yeasts in the San Polino terroir, their quantities in the must during fermentation, and their ability to procreate, hybridise and many other fascintating aspects.

I asked her just this question: Do you think our vines are isolated and lonely? She encouragingly replied to my anguished email telling me: ‘No, on the contrary’. She told me our vines would be happily chatting away and that I had no need to worry. Our soils were healthy and we had extremely healthy mycorrhizal communities.

Fungal life

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that grow in association with most plant roots. By increasing the roots' surface area a hundredfold or even a thousandfold, they increase the roots' ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, many of which will be utilised by the vine as food. Mycorrhizal fungi also release powerful enzymes that help dissolve nutrients such as organic nitrogen, phosphorous and iron which are then passed on to the vines.

The knowledge that our soils have healthy mycorrhizal communities piqued my desire to read further on the subject, and I began to think: what if we could tap in to this vine communication?

Would we be able to move further in the direction of agricultural sustainability? If the plants communicate to warn neighbours that a predator is on the loose, their neighbours would then be able to better protect themselves by, for example, putting more tannins into their leaves/fruit, making the leaves and skins of the plants bitter and tougher. They would therefore become unappetising to insect predators and be more difficult for fungi and bacteria to attach onto.

What if we could produce more resistance to the predators of our vines by joining in with their conversations rather than by just following our usual procedure of spraying microorganisms? We apply these sprays during the night as we need the increased humidity for them to develop and we apply them for two reasons: firstly so that the ecological space in the vineyards becomes filled with these friendly organisms, leaving no room for mildew to develop and, secondly, to act as predators to the mildew.

Surely entering a conversation with the vines would be a further step on the road to a more sustainable viticulture? (Below is a picture of Katia and Gigi taken by Tam when she visited San Polino in 2009. Note the view from the window.)

Since having these thoughts I have had the chance to talk to people from agro-industry, in particular those involved in new approaches to sustainable land/agricultural management. It turns out this is a vital new field of research for them and forms part of their next steps in the development of sustainable agriculture. It seems that the issue is now about understanding the soil, what it is made of, the microorganisms present and the interrelationship for positive ends of all of the above.

I then started looking into how the subsoil fungi work, where they come from and what they do. The answers that emerged were mind-boggling. Not only do they message between the plants but they pull up extraordinary amounts of nutrition from the deep soil, feeding and watering the vines, from the mycorrhizal networks through to the vine roots. In return the vines convert the sunlight from their leaves into carbohydrates which they feed to the subsoil fungi to keep them alive. Total interdependence.

Existential questions

In a different vein, I moved on to theories pertaining to the structure of the human biome. I came to understand that in terms of cell quantity, for every cell in our bodies, we carry at least 10 cells that are fungi, bacteria, yeasts or viruses. The ratio is at least one to 10! So I began to wonder: ‘What does this mean? What is inside/outside, me/you? What am I made of?’ Even ‘What or who am I?’

And while asking these questions I began to realise to what extent our world is a world of symbiosis, synergy, cooperation and fluidity. So why had I always believed that nature was competitive? That survival of the fittest meant that the weak went to the wall? I went back to look at the writings of Darwin.

Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’ in 1859, for the ‘principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved'. His friend and associate Herbert Spencer preferred to use the term ‘survival of the fittest’, and it seems that Darwin agreed to its use only if it be applied to situations of appropriateness, ie a particular organism being fit for a particular environment in a particular space and time. As Darwin said in the fifth edition of his On the Origin of Species (1866), survival of the fittest could be defined as an organism that is ‘better designed for an immediate, local environment'.

So survival of the fittest = survival of those parts that work best together.

I now believe that the word ‘fit’ has been the victim of grave semantic confusion.

In pre-industrial England the word ‘fit’ referred largely to situations of something being suited to the circumstances, a piece of a puzzle that fits, or of things of equal power fitting together. For example: ‘it’s not fitting to behave like that’, ‘my shoes fit’ or ‘they are fit partners'.

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, in the immediate post-industrial revolution period, eight years after the Great Exhibition which had so flamboyantly depicted the marvels of the modern world.

The emergence of industrial capitalism as an economic model and the wealth it brought to the new middle classes, the violence (and slavery) of colonialism with the riches it brought to nourish and nurture industry in England had to be morally justified.

As an authortiy on the question, religion could do this through the Calvinistic belief in predestination, which claimed that manifest wealth in life was proof that you were one of the chosen, or blessed, and that your place in heaven was guaranteed. This theory was best elucidated in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1905.

By using the semantic slip in the meaning of the word ‘fit’, and determining its significance as ‘physical prowess’ rather than suitability, capitalist discursive ideology could now use the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a further justification for competition. If nature was competitive, then human nature by extension, and as a faithful reflection of the natural world, was also competitive. As such, capitalism was justified as a reflection of human nature, and came to be seen as a natural phenomenon.

Social Darwinism reached its logical conclusion in Nazi Germany, where anyone who fell outside the category of the Aryan superior race was eradicated: Jews, homosexuals, criminals, the disabled and gypsies (among others). All were annihilated, justified by the Survival of the Fittest ideology, and it is no coincidence that the German reading is Überleben der Stärksten, ‘survival of the strongest'.

So where does this leave us in regard to vineyards, winemaking and wine?

As my ideas have developed, other questions have coalesced alongside. What if nature is cooperative and not competitive? How would that work as a mirror for human nature? How could that work as a business model?

What, though, if there is no essential difference between nature and culture, and what if the idea of the ‘natural’ is a cultural construct?

What if conventional biological taxonomy can be extended to redefine all organisms as fluid in a fluid universe, a symbiotic universe, where we are all entangled in curious connections for survival, where, as we evolve, we merge with other organisms to form new species and become indivisible from them, as evidenced by Lynn Margulis in her book Symbiotic Planet (Basic Books, 1999) with her observation that the mitochondrial cell, with its own DNA, has become integrated into our homo sapiens body?

What if we really should re-examine our semantic categories and become aware that our commonly quoted ‘us and them’ reside side by side within ourselves, and that as sociopolitical meaning infuses words, we re-create cultural context and our sense of reality? What if there is no essential truth to anything and we create truths only to make our world more palatable?

Modernising biodynamics

If any of the above has any sense then it would be a good moment to reflect on our notions of biodynamics. In my opinion biodynamics is a concept in dire need of modernisation.

An example of the modernisation of revolutionary concepts can be found in the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud ‘discovered’ the unconscious mind in the 1890s, referring to repression as ‘the psychical mechanism of (unconscious) defence’ (in The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence, 1896). From then on the very notion of what it meant to be a human being would be understood in relation to this new understanding of the human psyche.

However, in 2019 we understand that many of his contingent theories were skewed due to his patriarchal environment. Feminist psychiatry works with the unconscious mind but has chosen to modernise his teachings, regarding his original writings in the light of his cultural context. Most feminists would now agree that sexuality and gender roles could be considered constructions, ie as objects with histories.

Can’t we do the same with biodynamics?

We could see the ‘essential truths’ of categories used by Steiner as constructions, some of which may have outgrown their use or be meaningless, or even, at the very worst, reactionary.

Steiner had the extraordinary intuition of the farm as a living organism. Through a modern-day lens we can view this as a part of the homeostasis of the ecological systems of the planet earth; Earth as Gaia. Steiner had ideas that pre-dated the organic movement, but elucidated them using the analytical tools and culture of his times and environment. He wrote in the absence of highly powered microscopes and understanding of quantum physics and string theory. He worked through categories and essential truths, through notions of dichotomy, such as the male and female, through astrology and metaphor.

Now we know more about plant communication, about ecosystems and biomes, about physics, about biology, chemistry, about DNA, and much, much more. And now we have much better analytical tools to hand that can help us understand the how and why of Steiner’s original notions, which we can update to practise in a useful way.

My questions are these:

Why must biodynamic theory fossilise and stick to the original readings of Steiner and his theories of the cosmos?

Can we not use his original intuition and translate it into a modern language to make it more useful to ourselves and our understanding of how vines work and interreact with their environment, to gain a better understanding of how to produce healthier grapes and better wine?

I believe that the original and extraordinary notions of biodynamics with its emphasis on the interconnected nature of the universe, as laid down by Steiner, can be used as a powerful springboard by us today. As we reframe, reinterpret and modernise his central tenets we will create a very important new practical framework for creating a sustainable agriculture, a less cut-throat business culture and mutually beneficial social networks. We can build a forward-thinking biodynamics where man is not seen as the model of the universe and where ‘he’ does not reign supreme, but is rather seen as a social construct of a bygone era. We can appreciate that a person is, extraordinarily, just a part of a whole and that we are all created by, and are constantly re-creating, diverse realities where essential truths no longer exist but where everything is possible.

This is the new version of biodynamics that I would like to partake in.

Katia and Gigi