An Opportunity for Research in Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture

by Frank van Steensel

Ideas developed in surveying the organic research literature for the report A Review of New Zealand and International Organic Land Management Research, 3rd edition 2004, Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association in New Zealand, Wellington.

Summary of this article:

The author discusses the development of participatory site-specific research, and its back ground in Europe. He offers suggestions of how this method would be of advantage to producers and researchers in New Zealand, and then discusses some specific problems of grapes, olives and apples where the participatory site specific approach would be of benefit. Also discussed is how the improvement of observation by producers could be related to the results of such research.

About the author:

Frank van Steensel is Chair of the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, and research manager for the project: A Review of New Zealand and International Organic Land Management Research, which was recently updated. His academic roots are in the Netherlands where his studies included ecological or alternative production systems, which include what English-speaking countries call organic and biodynamic farming. He has also worked as an extension officer in South America.

About the report:

Originally published in 2002, the Review has recently been updated for the second time. It is on the Internet at www.biodynamic.org.nz or available as a hard copy from the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association. The Ministry for the Environment’s Sustainable Management Fund, Dexcel and the Tindall Foundation funded the project. It aimed to answer the questions: what organic and biodynamic research has been done, where is it being done, how do you find it, and what needs to be done?

As well as a comprehensive section on soil management, there is a section on international organic dairy pasture management research, which concluded that there are still many research questions that need to be explored in a New Zealand context. A review of organic orchard management revealed useful research such as that on apple production by the Louis Bolk Institute in Holland. It emphasised the importance of research in a whole farm context in New Zealand.

A review of biodynamic research showed the large amount of research that has been done on the use and effects of the biodynamic preparations in Europe, and new complementary research methods being developed which could be very helpful for research in New Zealand, and where the thrust of developments overseas in organic biodynamic research puts much of the initiative back on to producers.

About the future:

The Research and Development Group of the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association is interested in discussing the questions in this article with interested persons or groups. If you would like to explore the possibilities, please contact the author or the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association office, PO Box 39045, Wellington, ph 0-4-589 5366.

Experienced organic producers know that there are details of site-specific challenges that require site-specific solutions. This is knowledge the academic lacks. On the other hand academics have strengths that may prevent an experimental producer from making obvious or expensive mistakes. It’s been suggested before that if academics and producers work together, then development could go more quickly – the idea is not new. Social scientists, especially those in rural development and extension, have produced a wealth of papers describing the benefits of a cooperative approach. Rudolf Steiner advanced this too and therefore it is not surprising to find some biodynamic research centres such as the Louis Bolk Institute (Netherlands) working with producers to improve farms, and using new research methodologies.

That is the main reason for this article: producer oriented site-specific practical research. But working on a report for the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association made me realise that from a technical point of view not a lot has changed. Books like Biodynamic Agriculture (Koepf, Pettersson and Schaumann, 1976); Organic Farming (Lampkin, 1992) and Ecology: A Bridge between Science and Society (Odum, 1997) have not been surpassed. The (ecological) principles are clearly spelled out and have not changed. There are however new results providing more details on topics like soil ecology and nutrient dynamics that have given us more and better understanding. For me the biggest gain is coming from those research centres that focus on organic and/or biodynamic production systems. Their new research methods, which involve the producers, seem to me to be a big step forward for both.

Other institutes are mentioned in the report as developing along similar lines with promising results. Participatory action research (as it is called by some academics) or participatory technology development (in aid, green and social justice programs) are buzzwords relating to these ideas. . The aim is to return the producer and his site-specific challenges, be they ecological social or economic, to the centre of sustainable development again.

So, good organic biodynamic research involves the producers. They stand for and promote a holistic, ecological, social and ethical approach. They are all very busy producing quality primary goods; this is what they are good at. Challenges arise and they would like to make improvements every year, but a busy life excuses knowledge gaps in certain areas. This is where they have to accept help; they cannot be good at everything. Work with academics with experience and knowledge in their area can be fruitful for both if well arranged. It’s clear to me now that organic research has a different emphasis from conventional research and that scientists, in for example, Western Europe have developed knowledge and experience that would be of benefit in New Zealand.

Assuming that the producer can find a skilled organic researcher, what are the benefits for the two of them? I think they include these points:

  • The scientist can acquire deeper insights into problems (and potential solutions) from the producer’s point of view and discover possibilities not previously contemplated. These can be investigated in jointly designed and managed trials.

  • Producers often have (partly) intuitive methods of problem solving, that the researcher can work on with them to develop them into more transparent and scientifically acceptable methods.

  • Each can gain greater awareness of the priorities and objectives of the other. Therefore criteria for content, design and evaluation of scientific trials can be adjusted to ensure that the producers’ priorities are met while still satisfying accepted research criteria.

  • Both parties can increase their understanding of local agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions and how introduced technologies can be better adapted to them.

  • All participants may be able to identify details to be studied more rigorously;

  • Researchers, by observing the ways producers modify introduced technologies and by discussing these modifications with them can develop new insights for further improvement.

This whole process can help focus formal research onto questions of practical importance and make more effective use of the scarce time and expertise of producers and scientists.

This involvement by producers in organic and biodynamic research complements other developments. One of these is greater use of ‘Goethean’ methods or ‘phenomenology’ by biodynamic research centres. This methodology emphasizes the development of observational and intuitive skills; skills, which farmers have been using for a long time but which tend to be neglected by modern science.

Because they have incorporated these approaches in their services, European institutes such as the Louis Bolk Institute (LBI) and the Swiss Organic Research Institute (FIBL) are a driving force behind the adoption of organic and biodynamic technology by producers. The specific knowledge and skill base available for organic and biodynamic production has increased significantly so that there is less risk for newcomers.

Their methods and systems could readily be transferred to New Zealand. . Basic organic farming starts with the soil (healthy soil, healthy plant, and healthy animals). Nevertheless, the first question many producers want answered is generally what they can do about specific pest and diseases. If you throw this question at academics the result will nearly always be research into the specific pest or diseases. But there may be a better way.

Black spot in apple orchards and botrytis in vineyards are examples of specific problems. Research usually concentrates on the lifecycle of the pest to determine where it can be interrupted. This has resulted in more environmentally friendly treatments such as fewer and less-disrupting sprays (for example, sulphur and copper based spays) or the use of antagonistic micro-organisms. It gives us more detailed and useable knowledge, but it is not the complete answer to our question, which could be “What are all the factors involved with the occurrence of black spot or botrytis?” The occurrence of both diseases is varietal and site specific, which should mean that factors falling under those two headings need to be addressed. The best example of one that is generally overlooked outside the organic biodynamic research centres is soil/nutrient dynamics. Unbalanced nutrition is generally the biggest contributing factor to plant pest and diseases; and one obvious contributor is excessive nitrogen in spring and summer. It encourages both black spot in orchards and botrytis in vineyards.

This is an example of a much more general idea – that questions about pests and diseases have to be partly answered by learning more about the soil. (That is, if you are interested in prevention rather thaen cure). Most newcomers would say, “We do not use fertiliser so how are we going to have excessive nitrogen?” Here we have the first research question they would ask the researcher who comes to work with them, because it is very site-specific. Informed academics know the processes involved, and how to encourage and discourage nitrogen release, but to find out the practical details they need to go onsite.

Going further into this example, nitrogen comes from soil organic matter mineralised by soil micro-organisms. Thus the amount of soil organic matter is important as it determines the potential amount of nitrogen that could be released. It also means that we need to have the right conditions in the soil to maintain suitable micro-organisms, and this is where the problem often lies. The micro-organism requires moisture, air, warmth, food, a certain pH etc, to be functionally active, and a change in the weather can cause a drop or an increase in activity within a few hours. Micro-organisms are also very susceptible to daily and seasonal rhythms. The use of external inputs can cause a (temporary) population shift and the use of harsh agro-chemical creates nearly lifeless soils. This means that every different management method has different effects on microbial activity. If we include the factors such as different soil type, different (micro) climates, and different crop requirements (for example, nitrogen demand in apples is higher than in grapes) you will easily see that nitrogen management is a site-specific challenge.

Let’s go further into the detail. Let’s say our soil has an organic matter content of 3% which would mean about 6000 kg of nitrogen per hectare. We know that in a healthy soil in temperate regions we will probably have 2-4% mineralisation per year. This means 120 to 220 kg of nitrogen per year can be available for crop growth. For the needs of olives or grapes, 220 kg would be on the high side and a warm, moist spring could result in higher peacock spot (in olives) and higher botrytis (in grapes). Apples would still be outside the risk zone since their demand for nitrogen is higher.

In a situation with 5% soil organic matter however, which would lead to 200 - 400 kg/ha available nitrogen, there would also be a risk of increased black spot. This is a theoretical example but it shows the importance of holistic organic biodynamic research, which is aimed at site-specific prevention rather than cure.

Research stations like LBI and the others mentioned in the report investigate nutrient dynamics (mineralisation, immobilisation, humification etc) on the farm and how they can be influenced to the grower’s benefit. We cannot just work with a rough estimate of 2-4 %mineralisation per year in a temperate climate. To make nutrient studies really useful we need clearer rates of mineralisation and for many regions in NZ they are not yet available.

Some of the research stations also use phenomenology or the Goethean approach as a tool here. Most of us do this anyway when we observe well. We develop a familiar idea: that plants, their forms and growth habits are an expression of the environment. In the nitrogen example we could say that a balanced growth pattern gives certain internode lengths, and that increased nitrogen uptake gives increased internode length. Determining the ideal internode size for each varietal crop could give the producer a useful analytical tool. Certainly there are other factors affecting internode lengths but this method has, the potential, through observation, to lead us to observe and understand them.

It is obvious in some orchards, vineyards and olive groves that I have visited that where crops had been over-fertilised, the plants had extended internodes and sometimes obvious signs of weakened tissues (wind deformation) compared with other sites where there are lower nutrient dynamics. Documenting (drawings, pictures) of growth spurts and ‘leaf sequences’ can become handy tools for the experienced observer. They can be especially valuable in comparative studies. That there is a growing interest in this method was shown by the interest in Joke Bloksma’s (visitor from LBI) New Zealand workshop in March 2002.

Far too often I have experienced scepticism from producers about the value of science. The science community is in its own way, not so different from the producer’s community. Like producers they are on a developmental road towards more holistic approaches to science and communities and some have progressed more than others. I hope that there will be increasing opportunities to guide farm and research in a “participatory” manner, to the benefit of both.

References

Koepf, H., Petterson, B., Schaumann, W. (1976). Bio-Dynamic Agriculture. US: Anthroposophic Press, Inc.

Lampkin, N. (1992). Organic Farming. Ipswich, UK: Farming Press Limited.

Odum, E.P. (1997). Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society. Sunderland, MA, US: Sinaauer Associates.

Veldhuizen, L. van., Waters-Bayer, A., Ramirez, R., Johnson, D., Thompson, Eds. (1997). Farmers' Research in Practice; Lessons from the Field. London, UK: Intermediate Technology Publications.