The USDA organic certification process and standards have room for improvement, but in the United States, organic is still the primary standard for sustainable agriculture. Other systems, such as biodynamics, might be more sustainable, but without a regulated certification system, it’s not as easy to find and support. Not so in other parts of the world, where biodynamics reigns supreme.
A Biodynamic History
Americans usually only hear about biodynamic agriculture in connection with wine, but biodynamics is a widely applicable holistic agricultural system that is not limited to certain types of crops. The roots of biodynamic agriculture took hold in a series of lectures presented by Rudolf Steiner to German farmers in 1924. In these lectures, Steiner argued that the use of chemical inputs would harm farms in the long run. Steiner is a controversial figure, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant whose spiritual teachings have grown into the widely respected biodynamic agriculture and Waldorf education systems. But they are also tainted by suspect medical treatments and overt racism.
Shortly after Steiner’s introduction of biodynamic concepts, the Demeter label was introduced and registered as the first organic trademark. In the 1950s, French vintners began to adopt the principles of biodynamics, and within a few decades, it became the dominant approach to sustainability in wine growing. Although the system is still most famous for wine, all kinds of agricultural products are produced and certified as biodynamic, particularly in the European Union, where the movement is still most popular.
Demeter International is the global parent organization for biodynamic certification. In the U.S., the certification is offered by the not-for-profit Demeter Association, Inc. (which recently joined the educational Biodynamic Association under the Biodynamic Demeter Alliance). In the early decades of the movement, the terms biodynamic and organic were occasionally used interchangeably. But over time, the two movements diverged. Many organic farmers feel a deep spiritual connection to the earth, and it can be argued that certain aspects of organic agriculture are more philosophical than scientific. But the organic movement eschews Steiner’s more esoteric elements that biodynamic farmers maintain.
In many ways, biodynamic and organic practices are the same. Both forgo chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of a more holistic approach that emphasizes soil health. Any product that has achieved biodynamic certification will meet organic standards as well. Biodynamic products must also meet many additional requirements.
The following short video from the Biodynamic Association offers a quick overview of the philosophy behind biodynamics.
Is Biodynamic Better?
Consistent with regenerative agriculture practices – such as low or no-tillage and dedicating a percentage of total acreage to wilderness – many of these additional requirements are clearly superior to the basic organic rules. Other requirements are rooted in an expanded concept of terroir.
Familiar to wine enthusiasts, terroir encompasses the complete natural environment in which a particular crop is produced and is believed to impart a unique character to the crop. Biodynamic farmers attempt to protect terroir by maintaining a closed system in which the farm produces its own compost and feed on-site. It also has strict requirements for the maintenance of natural areas, such as riparian systems, within this enclosed system. Such requirements as these make intuitive sense. But organic farmers often reject them as “nice-to-haves” whose benefits do not justify the expense. Others argue that we should be thinking more broadly than our own property boundaries when attempting to heal an ecosystem.
Requirements that are more obviously rooted in Steiner’s theosophy cause most of the controversy. Biodynamics’ required “preparations” (specific recipes for compost and sprays) might be effective mycological inoculants. But they are scientifically untested and their preparation methods (such as packing manure into a cow’s horn and burying it for the winter) and other practices like lunar planting can also be off-puttingly mystical to pragmatists.
Biodynamic in the USA
You may feel skeptical about whether the lunar phase under which your produce was seeded makes it more sustainable. But if it doesn’t help, it’s unlikely to cause any harm. Any biodynamic certified product will meet organic standards. It may even exceed them – even if there is some question about how much value those extra standards actually create.
While biodynamic agriculture continues to wrestle with numerous controversies (as does organic) it is growing in popularity in the United States. Dozens of new brands are seeking the Demeter label in addition to or instead of USDA organic. Today you will find a lot more than biodynamic wine; from tea to garden seeds to wool, the biodynamic certification label is showing up in lots of new places.
Editor’s Note: Originally published on July 26, 2021, this article was updated in July 2023.