The Science Behind Biodynamic Preparations:
A Literature Review
ADDITIONAL INDEX WORDS. alternative agriculture, DOK studies, homeodynamic,
homeopathic, organic, Rudolph Steiner
SUMMARY. Biodynamics is a form of organic agriculture ﬁrst described in the 1920s
by Rudolph Steiner, and practitioners can become certiﬁed biodynamic farmers by
following speciﬁed practices. What distinguishes biodynamic from organic certiﬁ-
cation is the required use of nine preparations thought to improve soils and increase
crop yields. This literature review focuses on the published, peer-reviewed science
behind the use of biodynamic preparations, with the goal of providing objective
information to extension educators, including Master Gardeners.
Major news outlets includ-
ing National Public Radio
(Musiker,2008), Time mag-
azine (McLaughlin, 2007), and the
New York Times (Halweil, 2004) have
featured biodynamic agriculture (or
biodynamics) as the newest version of
organic agriculture. With the high
visibility and promotion of biody-
namic products such as wines (Smith
and Barquin, 2007), farmers and
gardeners alike are increasingly inter-
ested in biodynamics as an alternative
agricultural practice. Extension educa-
tors and Master Gardener volunteers
who receive questions from curious
clients on the topic need science-based
answers—the focus of this literature
THE ORIGINS OF BIODYNAMIC
AGRICULTURE.Biodynamics is an ag-
ricultural management system based
on a series of lectures given by Rudolf
Steiner in 1924 (Steiner, 1958). Over
his lifetime, Steiner became con-
cerned with the degradation of food
produced through farming practices
that increasingly relied on additions
of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.
Biodynamics were thought to be one
of the ﬁrst alternative approaches to
modern agriculture, and in 1942 it
was listed by Lord Northborne as
one of three alternative or ‘‘organic’’
agricultural methodologies (Paull,
A philosopher by training, Steiner
sought to inﬂuence organic life on
earth through cosmic and terrestrial
forces via nine preparations (Table 1)
that would stimulate vitalizing and
harmonizing processes in the soil
(Kirchmann, 1994). For example,
Preparations 500 and 501 are made
by packing cow manure or silica, re-
spectively, into cow horns and burying
them for a number of months before
use. Steiner believed that cow horns,
by virtue of their shape, functioned as
antennae for receiving and focusing
cosmic forces, transferring them to
the materials inside. After exhuma-
tion, the contents are diluted with an
unspeciﬁed amount of water to create
a homeopathic solution, which when
applied to soil (Preparation 500) or
crops (Preparation 501), was thought
to inﬂuence root or leaf growth. Six
other compounds (Preparations 502–
507) are extracts of various plants
packed into either the skulls or organs
of animals (e.g., deer bladders, cow
peritonea and intestines) or peat or
manure, where they are aged before
being diluted and applied to compost.
Steiner believed that the chemical
elements contained in these prepara-
tions were carriers of terrestrial and
cosmic forces and would impart these
forces to crops and thus to the humans
that consume them.
Steiner did not believe plants
suffered from disease, but merely
appeared diseased when ‘‘moon in-
ﬂuences’’ in the soil become too strong
(Smith and Barquin, 2007); never-
theless, he recommended a weak in-
fusion of dried horsetail (Equisetum
arvense) for treating soil and crop
fungal diseases (Preparation 508).
For other pests, Steiner recommended
‘‘pest ashing,’’ a practice whereby
the offending insect, weed, or rodent
species was burnt. The ashes were
then scattered over the ﬁelds as a way
of preventing future infestation. Per-
haps, Steiner believed these prepara-
tions and practices would make crops
more resistant to pests and diseases,
reducing the need for pesticides. Un-
fortunately, he gave no rationale for
most of these processes.
In his article, Kirchmann (1994)
states that as Steiner developed his
biodynamic philosophy through med-
itation and clairvoyance, he rejected
scientiﬁc inquiry because his methods
were ‘‘true and correct unto them-
selves.’’ Nevertheless, both proponents
and critics of Steiner’s teachings have
attempted to demonstrate the effec-
tiveness of biodynamic preparations
through scientiﬁc testing. Much of
the published research has focused on
these nine preparations, possibly be-
cause their use is required by any
farmer wishing to become biodynami-
cally certiﬁed (Demeter Association,
The science behind
Over the last century, biody-
namic agriculture has evolved to in-
clude many nonconventional farming
practices, such as crop rotation, poly-
culture, and cover cropping (Table 2),
which have demonstrable beneﬁts
on land use and crop production.
Steiner’s original teachings did not
include these methodologies, which
along with other practices are the
basis of organic farming as proposed
by Lord Northborne in 1942 (Paull,
2011). In fact, the biodynamic certi-
ﬁcation standards (Demeter Associa-
tion, 2013) and those for organic
farming (International Federation of
Organic Agriculture Movements,
2011) are nearly identical except
for the required inclusion of Steiner’s
nine preparations in the former.
These post–Steiner additions
have confounded scientiﬁc study of
biodynamics, as many researchers com-
pare biodynamic and conventional
methods to one another. Since mod-
ern biodynamic agriculture includes
well-established organic practices that
improve the soil by adding organic
matter or decreasing compaction, the
comparison may not be valid as the
efﬁcacy of biodynamic preparations
themselves can be masked by these
additional practices. Many organic
methods have signiﬁcant, positive im-
pacts on such qualities as soil porosity
Department of Horticulture, Washington State Uni-
versity Puyallup Research and Extension Center, 2606
West Pioneer Way, Puyallup, WA 98371-4998
Corresponding author. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
814 •December 2013 23(6)
and fertility, beneﬁcial insect and mi-
crobe diversity, pest and disease sup-
pression, and crop quality and yield.
The beneﬁts of these methods have
been reviewed in the scientiﬁc litera-
ture (e.g., Dima and Odero,1997;
Gasser and Berg, 2011; Kaval, 2004;
Mason and Spaner, 2006; Pandian
et al., 2005; Turner et al., 2007).
Essentially, the only difference be-
tween organic and modern biody-
namic farming lies in the application
of Steiner’s preparations (Carpenter-
Boggs et al., 2000a; Giannattasio
et al., 2013), which must be ‘‘applied
in minute doses, much like homeo-
pathic remedies are for humans’’ (De-
meter Association, 2013). Therefore,
this review is limited to those studies
that compare organic and biodynamic
systems to one another in which the
only variable is the presence or ab-
sence of biodynamic preparations.
A review of the relevant
PREVIOUS REVIEWS.Even after
several decades of research, there are
relatively few refereed, easily accessi-
ble articles on biodynamics. The ear-
liest studies were published in Germany
and other European countries and
had limited international distribu-
tion. Reganold (1995) found many
of these to be of questionable scien-
tiﬁc quality and called for more peer-
reviewed publications on the efﬁcacy
of biodynamic preparations. Leiber
et al. (2006) provide an overview of
modern biodynamics and a call to
develop ‘‘a complex, holistic, systemic
form of science . . . appropriate to
biodynamic farming’’ as opposed to
the inconclusive assessment of ‘‘the
effect of individual biodynamic prac-
tices in isolation from the overall
method.’’ More recently, Turinek
et al. (2009) published an update on
biodynamic research progress, but
much of the focus was on long-term
trials and case studies. As a result, their
review of scientiﬁc literature was in-
complete and neglected a number of
articles by researchers not associated
with these particular ﬁeld trials (e.g.,
Carpenter-Boggs et al., 2000b; Jayas-
ree and George, 2006; Stepien and
Adamiak, 2007; Tung and Fernandez,
2007a,b; Valdez and Fernandez,
2008). A review of these latter articles
was incorporated into a book chapter
targeted to gardeners and other non-
scientists (Chalker-Scott, 2010).
THE DOK TRIALS.Much of the
published research on biodynamics
has arisen from the DOK trials, a de-
cades-long ﬁeld experiment in Ther-
wil, Switzerland, whereby biodynamic
(D), organic (O), and conventional (K
from ‘‘konventional’’) agricultural prac-
tices could be continually compared
¨der et al., 2002). This study has
provided a rich trove of scientiﬁc in-
formation delineating the differences
between conventional and organic
methodologies. Unfortunately, a ﬂawed
experimental design makes compari-
sons between biodynamic and organic
methods in the DOK trials untenable.
Speciﬁcally, the biodynamic treatment
receives farm-sourced, aerobically com-
posted manure along with Steiner’s
biodynamic preparations, whereas
the organic treatment receives
slightly rotted manure from a differ-
ent farm source (Heinze et al., 2010)
and additions of rockdust, potas-
sium, and magnesia (Fliessbach
et al., 2007). Even more signiﬁcantly,
copper sulfate was used as a broad
spectrum fungicide in the organic treat-
ment until 1991, undoubtedly altering
the microbial community compared
with that found in the biodynamic
treatment. This uncontrolled variation
in experimental treatment calls into
question any purported beneﬁt of bio-
dynamic preparations in the DOK tri-
als, as others have also pointed out
(Carpenter-Boggs et al., 2000a; Heinze
et al., 2010).
Nevertheless, several insights may
be gleaned from the DOK system. Al -
though signiﬁcant differences were
generally found when comparing
conventional treatments to organic and
biodynamic methods, few differences
have been reported between the latter
two treatments. Presence and abundance
Table 1. Components of biodynamic preparations.
500 Cow manure packed into a cow’s horn
501 Silica from ﬁnely ground quartz, mixed with rain water, packed into
a cow’s horn
502 Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) ﬂower heads packed into a stag’s
503 Chamomile (Matricaria sp.) ﬂower heads fermented in soil
504 Stinging nettle (Urtica sp.) tea
505 Oak (Quercus sp.) bark packed into the skull of a domestic animal
506 Dandelion (Taraxacum ofﬁcianale) ﬂower heads packed into cow
507 Extract from valerian (Valeriana ofﬁcinalis) ﬂowers
508 Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) tea
Species of plants used differ with global geography.
Table 2. A comparison of practices and products used in organic and/or
Practice or product Organic Biodynamic
Crop rotation X X
Polyculture/intercropping X X
Cover cropping X X
Low-till or no-till X X
Green manures and compost X X
Biological, cultural, mechanical, and physical
means of pest control
Lunar and astrological calendars for
planting, managing, and harvesting crops
Involves alchemy and homeopathy.
Stones used for channeling cosmic energy and radiant ﬁelds through geo-acupuncture.
Also called ‘‘D8’’ solution.
Includes image-forming practices variously called biocrystallization, capillary dynamolysis, morphochromatog-
raphy, sensitive crystallization, and the Steigbild method.
•December 2013 23(6) 815
of 11 earthworm species [Lumbricidae
(Pﬁffner and Ma
¨der, 1997)] and carabid
beetle (Carabidae) diversity and number
(Pﬁffner and Niggli, 1996) were the
same; wheat quality [Triticum aesti-
vum (Langenkamper et al., 2006)]
and disease incidence [Fusarium
head blight (Fusarium poae), micro-
dochium patch (Microdochium nivale);
(Gunst et al., 2006)] were unaffected.
Neither were differences found in
microbial parameters (Heinze et al.,
2010, 2011; Joergensen et al., 2010)
or any soil characteristics (Heinze
et al., 2010), though others research-
ing the DOK plots found increases in
total hydrolysable protein amino
acids (Scheller and Raupp, 2005)
and pH (Birkhofer et al., 2008) in
the biodynamic plots compared with
the organic plots. The practical signif-
icance of these last two ﬁndings is not
apparent, nor did the authors specu-
late on possible beneﬁts.
The DOK trials represent a sys-
tems approach to biodynamic re-
search, which has not lent itself well
to traditional scientiﬁc experimenta-
tion where variability is controlled. In
the last few decades, other researchers
have studied biodynamic preparations
under more controlled conditions.
SOILS.In the words of one re-
search team (Carpenter-Boggs et al.,
2000a,b), ‘‘no signiﬁcant differences
were found between soils fertilized
with biodynamic [Preparations 500–
508] vs. nonbiodynamic compost.’’
Other studies conﬁrm a lack of efﬁ-
cacy on soil fertility [Preparations
500–507 (Berner et al., 2008)] and
quality (Reeve et al., 2005), though
the combined application of Prepara-
tions 500–507 and other biodynamic
ﬁeld sprays were found to be ‘‘mod-
erately effective’’ in increasing soil pH
(Reeve et al., 2011). On the other
hand, organic matter in organically
treated soils (with manure incorpo-
rated as a fertilizer) was higher than
that in unmanured soils treated with
biodynamic Preparations 500–504
(Tung and Fernandez, 2007a), which
may explain why earthworm popula-
tions were also greater than those
under biodynamic treatment (Tung
and Fernandez, 2007a). Similarly,
Foissner (1992) reported enhanced soil
life in organically managed ﬁelds com-
pared with those under biodynamic
management, which he attributed to
the quality and quantity of organic
matter in the former plots.
COMPOST.Only a few studies
have looked at the effect of biody-
namic preparations (Preparations
502–507) speciﬁcally meant for use
on compost. Carpenter-Boggs et al.
(2000c) reported a consistently higher
pile temperature and more nitrate in
the ﬁnished compost using these prep-
arations. However, there were no dif-
ferences in several other variables
measured, including pH, cation ex-
change capacity, moisture content,
and ammonium, potassium, and phos-
phate levels. The signiﬁcance of these
few differences is unclear. In contrast,
Reeve et al. (2010) found that bio-
dynamic preparations reduced both
compost pile temperature and nitrate
MICROBES.Researchers have con-
sistently found no differences in micro-
bial activity (Heinze et al., 2011; Reeve
et al., 2011), biomass (Heinze et al.,
2011), or fungal colonization (Heinze
et al., 2011) in biodynamically treated
soils compared with organically man-
aged soils. Nor have differences been
seen in microbial efﬁciencies, deﬁned
as dehydrogenase activity per unit
carbon dioxide respiration, dehydro-
genase activity per unit readily miner-
alizable carbon, and respiration per
unit microbial biomass (Reeve et al.,
2005). A single report of greater de-
hydrogenase activity in biodynamically
treated compost linked to greater mi-
crobial activity (Reeve et al., 2010) was
several tested parameters and whose
potential signiﬁcance was unexplained.
When Preparation 500 was analyzed
for bioactivity in the laboratory, re-
searchers concluded that the product
was unlikely to be either a structural
organic fertilizer or microbial inoculant
at the dosages used in ﬁeld settings
(Giannattasio et al., 2013).
CROPS.When added to organi-
cally grown crops, biodynamic prepa-
rations have been uniformly ineffective.
Compared with organically managed
systems, additions of biodynamic prep-
arations did not affect yields of cover
crops (Berner et al., 2008), forage
grasses (Reeve et al., 2011), lentil [Lens
culinaris (Carpenter-Boggs et al.,
2000b)], rice [Oryza sativa,Prepara-
tions 500–501 (Garcia-Yzaguirre et al.,
2011)], spelt [Triticum spelta (Berner
et al., 2008)], sunﬂower [Helianthus
annuus (Berner et al., 2008)], or wheat
(Berner et al., 2008; Carpenter-Boggs
et al., 2000b). At the plant level,
a similar lack of efﬁcacy can be found
in wheat seedling root and shoot
growth (Reeve et al., 2010) or in lettuce
(Lactuca sativa, Preparations 500–501)
nitrogen uptake and usage (Bacchus,
2010). Perhaps not surprisingly, organ-
ically grown soybeans (Glycine max)
fertilized with cow manure were supe-
rior in yield and quality than those
tions 500–504 (Tung and Fernandez,
2007a,b). But both organically grown
rice (Valdez and Fernandez, 2008) and
cabbage [Brassica oleracea var. capitata
(Bavec et al., 2012)] were ranked
higher in cost-effectiveness (Valdez
and Fernandez, 2008) and consumer
preference (Bavec et al., 2012) than
organic treatments with additional bio-
dynamic preparations. Organically
raised mangoes had signiﬁcantly greater
phenolics, ﬂavonoids, and antioxidant
activity than those from biodynamic
ﬁelds (Maciel et al., 2010), which may
be of importance from a nutritional
Wine makers are particularly in-
terested in biodynamic grapes (Vitis
vinifera), and researchers have pro-
vided some insight into the effective-
ness of the preparations. In a thorough
analysis, Reeve et al. (2005) found
no difference in leaf nutrients or clus-
ter numbers, weights, or yield of
California-grown cultivar Merlot.
Though some small differences were
found in grape chemistry, they were
of ‘‘doubtful practical signiﬁcance’’
according to the authors (Reeve et al.,
2005), leading them to conclude that
‘‘there is little evidence the biody-
namic preparations contribute to grape
quality.’’ In fact, the ﬁnished product
may be negatively affected; in one trial
organically grown California merlot
was notably more preferred by tasters
than the biodynamically grown prod-
uct (Ross et al., 2009).
PESTS AND PATHOGENS.No dif-
ferences were found in weed con-
trol using Preparations 500–508
(Carpenter-Boggs et al., 2000b) or
in cover, species richness, diversity,
and evenness of weed species (Sans
et al., 2011). In one long-term study,
biodynamic Preparations 501 and,
especially, 502 increased disease in-
tensity in organically grown wheat
(Stepien and Adamiak, 2007).
ECONOMICS.Addition of biody-
namic preparations did not increase
economic return (Jayasree and George,
2006) or improve yield (Bacchus,
816 •December 2013 23(6)
2010; Stepien and Adamiak, 2007)
over organic methods. In fact, organ-
ically produced soybeans (Tung and
Fernandez, 2007a) and rice (Valdez
and Fernandez, 2008) were more
proﬁtable than those produced using
biodynamic methods, both in terms
of yield and of production costs.
Addition of biodynamic preparations
not only increases labor and materials
costs but also widens the ecological
footprint of the practice because of
higher machinery use for applying the
preparations (Turinek et al., 2010).
In summary, the peer-reviewed
research published thus far provides
little evidence that biodynamic prep-
arations improve soils, enhance mi-
crobes, increase crop quality or yields,
or control pests or pathogens. Given
the homeopathic nature of the ap-
plied preparations (i.e., extremely low
concentrations of nutrients), it is not
surprising to see a general lack of
efﬁcacy over the beneﬁts provided by
organic methods. Finally, the addi-
tional costs associated with formulat-
ing and applying the preparations
represents an economic loss over and
above that found in an organically
maintained farm or garden.
Evaluating the literature
In considering the current body
of literature on biodynamic agricul-
ture, there are some points to keep in
mind. First, when the number of
comparisons made among treatments
increases, the likelihood of ﬁnding
a signiﬁcant difference also increases,
if only by chance. The way to reduce
this sort of systematic error is to use
a statistical correction factor, which
sets a higher bar for what is consid-
ered ‘‘signiﬁcant.’’ None of the au-
thors who reported some effect of
biodynamic preparations corrected
for multiple comparisons. This does
not necessarily discount their ﬁnd-
ings: it simply points out a possible
source of statistical error.
Second, it is tempting for re-
searchers to focus on isolated positive
results: in other words, they highlight
the signiﬁcant results and have little
to say about the rest, especially in the
article’s abstract or conclusion. Reading
the entire article, not just a summary,
will provide a more complete picture.
Finally, more peer-reviewed re-
search is speciﬁcally needed on the
effectiveness of biodynamic prepara-
tions, pest ashing, lunar planting, and
other experimentally testable prac-
tices originally recommended by
Steiner. These studies must be con-
ducted and reviewed with appropriate
scientiﬁc rigor to avoid the pitfalls of
faulty experimental design and in-
complete statistical analysis. Without
a robust body of knowledge to con-
sider, it is impossible to judge the
effectiveness of biodynamics as an
alternative agricultural practice.
Much of the work on biody-
namics has been published by just
a few research groups. Scientiﬁc ad-
vancement in any topic is strongest
when many researchers work collabo-
ratively as well as independently, con-
ducting exploratory studies in other
crops and in different locations around
the world, and publishing the results
(both positive and negative).
Education without alienation
Extension educators have a ﬁne
line to walk. They need to provide
current, science-based information to
their clients, but they must also be
sensitive to those in their audience
who have opted for value-based belief
systems. Beyfuss and Pritts (1994)
summarized it well: the popularity of
nonscience-based practices has cre-
ated hostility between the scientiﬁc
community and many proponents of
biodynamic gardening. Alda (2007)
agrees, stating we’re in a culture that
increasingly holds science as just an-
other belief. Although part of the
tension between science and society
is a cultural shift, the other part is
a failure of agricultural researchers
and educators to draw clear lines
between methods that have been rig-
orously tested and supported, and
those that have not. For example,
a survey administered to agricultural
faculty and practitioners measured
attitudes regarding attributes associ-
ated with conventional and alterna-
tive agricultural practices (Beus and
Dunlap, 1990, 1991). Unfortunately,
‘‘alternative agriculture’’ in this sur-
vey combined science-based practices
(e.g., organic, sustainable, and low-
input agriculture) with those more
spiritually or philosophically based
(e.g., biodynamics and permaculture).
Thus, the comparisons of attitudes
(and the survey conclusions drawn
from the study) were ﬂawed. If the
comparisons of attitudes had been
made among three categories (con-
ventional, science-based alternative,
and other alternative systems), the
study results would have enabled an
accurate comparison of ‘‘apples to
apples’’ rather than ‘‘apples to or-
anges.’’ The point of this rather lengthy
example is that if academic researchers
do not fully understand the differ-
ences between management systems
that are science based and those that
are not, we can hardly be surprised
when the general public is confused
To date, there are no clear, con-
sistent, or conclusive effects of bio-
dynamic preparations on organically
managed systems. Other alternative
practices not discussed in this review
have become part of the biodynamic
movement, including use of cosmic
rhythms to schedule various farm
activities and image formation to vi-
sualize nutritional quality of plants.
These practices do not lend them-
selves to rigorous experimental test-
ing, nor do they provide practical
scientiﬁc information for improving
crop production. Given the thinness
of the scientiﬁc literature and the lack
of clear data supporting the efﬁcacy of
biodynamic preparations, biodynamic
agriculture is not measurably distinct
from organic agriculture and should
not be recommended as a science-based
practice at this time.
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