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July 23, 2018

Bio-dynamic vs Organic Food Explained – with Mark Rathbone

Although the answer to the question of the difference between bio-dynamic and organic is very much detailed and involved, today I will use ‘easy to understand’ terms and language in order to explain it, so if there are any biodynamic farmers reading this then please forgive the simple language.

The difference between Bio-dynamic and organic agriculture?

Bio-dynamic and organic are similar in that they both take a holistic approach to farming, in that it’s a fundamental part of our society and it affects the overall ecology of the world so we want it to be beneficial for all those concerned. Not using harmful chemicals is a good example of this.

The main differences are that bio-dynamics likes to create farm fertility from the resources of the farm itself, whereas organics can buy fertility in. For example, a truck-load of chook manure or rock minerals may be purchased for an organic farm and spread out on to the soil. That is not to say that some organic farms don’t create their own fertility on-farm. It’s just not as high in the priorities, philosophy or standards compared to the biodynamic farmer.

In bio-dynamics they use their unique preparations to build fertility on-farm and are far stricter in their certification standards in regard to what inputs can be used. Most of an organic soil preparation program is resting the soil or rotating it with other crops, growing cover crops and then ploughing them in, to build soil life. Most experienced organic farmers use compost or apply raw manure in association with a cover crop but depending how long the farmer has been doing organics, some may use a few water soluble non-chemical fertilizers regularly also.

The water-soluble fertilizer mixes with the soil water and causes the plant to feed through

Demeter Biodynamic Farmer

Demeter Bio-dynamic Farmer Mark Rathbone.

tap root and less through the small feeder root systems which may cause excessive un-natural growth of the plant. This is fair enough in remedial situations when the farmer is first starting out or when there is a soil deficiency, but if the farmer regularly brings in tonnes of manure or inputs every year on the same paddock, this will most likely become detrimental.

Some of these non-chemical water-soluble fertilizers could include animal manure, poorly digested compost, rock phosphate, seaweed extracts, and many others. Whilst these are from natural sources, nature simply wouldn’t apply them in large quantities on a regular basis.

For example, 50-250 kg per hectare occasionally might be ok, but if tonnes are used every year then it is a good idea to look for an alternative. Have you ever seen in nature, millions of birds fly over a property and dump tonnes of manure per 1 acre of land in just one day? Look to nature as a barometer and a guide. If too many nutrients are applied they may run off the farm into rivers and the sea.

Good organic farmers will use non-water-soluble systems which include well-digested compost, decomposing crop residues and then use remedial (small) doses of minerals for deficiencies. However, bio-dynamic farmers know the living power of the bio-dynamic preparations and have the knowledge on how these positively and naturally effect the farms eco-system and in particular soil health.

What exactly is Bio-dynamics?

Bio-dynamics was created by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, in the early 1900’s and focuses on building soil humus levels to feed the plants and not using some sort of un-natural water-soluble fertilizer. Similar to nature, bio-dynamics relies solely on humus to grow plants. The farmers are trained to know how soil biology works and use certain techniques to maintain and increase humus levels.

The goals of the bio-dynamic farmer include;

  • To grow the most nutritious plants possible and to build health for the end user.
  • To use a closed farm system that has very little, if anything, brought onto the property to treat the soil or plant.
  • To increase the humus bank in the soil, so there is enough for future crops. If there is a deficiency of elements or unusual climatic conditions then some substances may be needed to remedy a situation. In this case, permission must be received by the farmer from the certifying body, before proceeding.

How does bio-dynamics work?

Bio-dynamic farmers use a set of bio-dynamic preparations or cultures to add soil biology to the soil, or compost instead of some element or chemical. This soil biology has a composting action to produce humus (the only true plant food) and feeds the plants as required by the metabolism of the plant via the sunlight and warmth.

Bio-dynamic Stirrer

One of the first stirring machines ever built. Used to make preparations such as 500 for the Bio-dynamic farm.

One of the key tools we use is a substance called 500 which is made from cow manure. 500 refers to 500 million micro-organisms which is not an exact number, but perhaps more of a reference to the abundant life within a small portion of the substance. When the 500 is applied it is a bit like a probiotic for the soil, in that it adds a broad spectrum of microorganisms to balance the soil and build soil fertility.

These 500 preparations are stirred in a certain way (a story within itself) for an hour to act

ivate the potent micro-organisms in several litres of water and then sprayed out on the moist warm soil, where the bacteria multiply and break down all of the old root systems, leaves, manures and compost them in the soil.

We all know how compost benefits the soil, but by adding 500 (to the right soil conditions) we create the same action as a compost heap, without all the heaping, turning and spreading out.The way we add organic matter to the soil is to grow many different cover crops to inject deep root systems into the soil to be composted. The microbes are then added and move in association with the plant, deep into the subsoil. The plants can be slashed or dug into the soil and the microbes then digest the plants thus creating a carbon rich humus. The plants can be either existing or introduced varieties.

What is humus?

The fungi and bacteria in the soil interacts with the minerals, plants, air and water. Then, as a part of their natural life cycle take elements into their bodies. These elements are held in the biomass and are still not available to the plants. Then the larger predatory microbes such as protozoa and worms come along and eat the smaller microbes which are rich in nutrient. These excess nutrients pass right through the predators and create a colloid called humus. This is indicated when you see dark brown moist

Bio-dynamic Soil

A cross section of humus rich bio-dynamic soil from a Demeter certified biodynamic farm.

material in the soil and this is a naturally balanced water-soluble plant food as seen in the image to the right.

Humus and 500 are like a perfectly digested compost that doesn’t smell and is full of moisture. If you were to roll it in a ball tightly, no moisture will come off into your hand, it’s colloidal (like a jelly or butter). There are many other vital techniques used by bio-dynamics to create ideal soil conditions in association with the spraying out of the 500. Without the understanding of these techniques and principles, the 500 may not work or may become less efficient.

So, how can I tell if my food is fed through water-soluble fertilizers?

There are some key indications to look out for if a plant has been overfed with water soluble fertilizers. Water soluble plants all look the same (factory like), with oversized, dark green and floppy leaves and root systems that have big taproots. The produce only lasts a short time in the fridge and may be lacking in flavor. You just have to take a leisurely stroll down your local supermarket aisle and you will see this in action.

This is compared to non-water-soluble plants. Non-water-soluble plants all look individual, are naturally sized, lighter green in colour and have upright leaves. The root system is mostly small and hairy and the produce lasts a long time in the fridge.

So, there you have it. Hopefully this article has been given you a greater understanding of the key differences between biodynamic and organic. I challenge you all to seek out some certified Demeter biodynamic produce at your local organic retailer or farmers’ market and do the taste test. You are sure to be pleasantly surprised. The proof is in the (biodynamic) pudding. FLAVOUR!

About the Author – Mark Rathbone:

Mark Rathbone runs Save Our Soil on 23 hectares at Wyuna East, near Kyabram in nor

thern Victoria, a biodynamic vegetable farm with 40 crops harvested throughout the year.

The Rathbones sell their produce at four farmers’ markets in Melbourne, attending one each Saturday.

Mark took over the family farm, which was one of the first biodynamic farms in Australia, converted by his father, Don, in 1965

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