ExpO N&C – 2/2000

  • Report on Experimental Circle conference (Nov 99 at Hapstead) – Alan Brockman

25 members for the pithily titled: “Impulses for the renewal of of BD Farming at the Threshold of the 3rd millennium – Quality, Production and Collaboration in Economic Management” Hazel on Friday evening. Henry Goulden on Ehrenfried Pfeiffers life and work. Anthony Kaye on the healthy social life. Sue Bradley on the soil capital via Triodos at Hungary Lane. Hugh Sharpthorne Barnet on Emerson’s courses, Veg box scheme report from Exeter. Tour of Hapstead. Felix Lambe: the ExpO os a continuation of the Arthurian stream. The eclipse. The future of the Moon. The internet

  • The common Dandelion – Felix Lambe
  • Contemplation of the Starry World- Hazel Straker
  • Richard Thornton-Smith to Paul van Midden on research issues

18th November 1999

Dear Paul

Following the recent meeting of the Experimental Circle at Buckfastleigh it was agreed that I write to you concerning the matter of experimental work at your site in Scotland. Although we did not have time to give this topic the attention it so obviously deserves, certainly 30-40 minutes in total were spent discussing it. I should say that there was healthy interest in the idea of conducting fresh research, and particularly concerning the effectiveness of the biodynamic vitalizers (preparations).

There are clearly many aspects to be considered, some of which you outline. The actual type of experimentation, the layouts involved, who would be responsible for setting up and for day to day running, and what sorts of analysis / evaluation would be carried out, including statistical analysis. Most of these issues have, of course, a requirement for funding, and this itself demands that the whole programme be well set up. This we all realise.

But in biodynamic research there are other questions which it is worth giving thought to and allowing further time to ponder in order to avoid a repeat of situations which have arisen before. These are issues which to my mind override the question of what the experiments should be on

Firstly, we know that among biodynamic adherents there are those who feel that experiments to ‘prove’ biodynamic influences are unnecessary. This is a personal matter. The benefit of experimental results, if any, is for those who want to be able to show to the outside world that there are demonstrable effects of biodynamic practices. It may still be the case that only a limited number of these effects are demonstrable but nevertheless, experiments are, I would argue, fully justified.

Secondly, and more seriously in the present context, is people’s attitude to plot-based research. In conventional agricultural trials, plots represent the best means of limiting the sources of variability with which one is confronted in field research. In biodynamics too, as for example in the responses of wheat to preparations stirred in different ways, conducted by Freya Schikorr, discrete sets of significant results have been obtained. Despite this evidence, there are those in biodynamics who argue that this is an artificial situation, separated from the real influence of the farmer. Quite so, but this has always been, for different reasons, a limitation of replicated plot experimentation. Such experimentation, as has already been stated, seeks to minimise influences other than those being studied in the trials. The fact that farmer-influence cannot be assessed makes biodynamic plots no different from conventional ones. In the latter, it has recently been argued that the influence of the experimenter could be significant.

Thirdly, for this very reason, trials in many types of agricultural as well as medical investigations are conducted blind, so that while the research design has to be set up by the principal investigator, the various stages of the research are codified and even conducted by other people. While we might agree that to avoid operator bias (a hidden factor equivalent to placebo ?) some such routines should be built in, it may occur to many involved with biodynamic work that operator influences are at the very heart of farming. This is surely the issue which we need to ponder and decide our position on. In particular, the opinions of Jimmy and Pauline Anderson should be obtained, since they were not with us at the meeting in Devon.

So what I would like to suggest is that any particular ideas for experimental work should firstly be put through these (and perhaps other) tests of acceptability before being launched.

If the idea of plot-based research should founder on one or more of the above criteria then the Biodynamic Association should re-examine the idea of co-ordinating farm-based testing which would eliminate some of the above anxieties and anchor the work within the rotation cycle of the farm organism. To the argument of lack of control in such a strategy it can be countered that multi-farm and regionally-based studies would have a greater immediate relevance to those just joining, while a larger population of studies would help to avoid the climatic limitations of a single site. Such farm-based work would also not have the same needs of funding as centralised research.

While many points were raised either by myself or others at the Devon meeting, the ideas expressed in the last paragraph struck me afterwards when I had thought further. My only current wish is that whatever happens, we go into the matter with eyes open, realising that we are a unique organization with difficult ideals to satisfy. We have therefore to decide whether we must sacrifice some principles in order to join the conventional scientific community or stand by principles to which we hold strongly, base any experimental work on these and be prepared to defend our position.

I hope these comments will be helpful to you in charting a way forward.

With best wishes

Yours Sincerely