Just when you thought you had organics down, there's another term to learn: biodynamics. It probably sounds familiar; the farming method has been around since 1924. Europeans were earlier adopters of biodynamics; only recently has it come into vogue with Americans. Currently, the U.S. has about 135 certified-biodynamic farms, up threefold since 2004, according to Jim Fullmer, director of biodynamic certifier Demeter USA. "Each year, we get more and more inquiries," Fullmer says. Here's what all the buzz is about.
What is biodynamics?
Biodynamics was the brainchild of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, Ph.D., who held a series of lectures in 1924 in response to the growing use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and the subsequent decline in crop vitality. Steiner argued that if farmers kept using petrochemicals, food would get to the point that it no longer nourished bodies. It was quite a spot-on prediction, considering today's soil has less selenium, zinc, magnesium, calcium and other vital minerals due to soil degra?dation and the "mining" of soil fertility by industrial agriculture. Nutrient-rich food doesn't grow from nutrient-depleted soil. Plus, most food travels a long way—on average 1,500 miles—and produce starts to lose nutrients the moment it gets picked. Steiner saw sustainable agriculture as the key to the health of individuals and the planet.
Biodynamics vs. organics
"Biodynamics is the original foundation of the organic movement," Fullmer says. "People want to separate the two. But they're really the same origin." Today, many organic farmers have adapted to the surging market demand for their products by becoming more industrialized. For example, they may fortify their land with fertilizers and other materials—albeit organic ones—which allows them to produce more. Biodynamic farmers, on the other hand, consider their land a self-contained ecosystem and tend to put quality ahead of quantity, adhering to stricter standards than those required for organic certification. "Biodynamics takes everything organic does to the next level," says Jill Price Marshall, spokeswoman for Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, which uses biodynamic ingredients.
The principles of biodynamics
Rather than having a faraway manager who makes decisions based on computer models, a biodynamic farm is run by a local farmer making decisions and taking actions based on keen observations of natural phenomena. He or she manages the farm as a self-contained living organism.
Recycling the farm's organic material increases the land's fertility. Rather than mining the Earth's natural resources, the farm contributes to it. Farmers may rotate in crops like nitrogen-rich legumes to enhance the soil, or raise a herd of sheep to provide manure. Those animals are fed from the farm. Farmers combine natural plant and animal materials in compost heaps, and the resulting "black gold" feeds the soil. Water is cycled through the system to prevent waste. "You're molding the landscape toward sustainability," Fullmer says.
As on most farms, seasons and weather patterns dictate operations on biodynamic farms. But biodynamic farmers also consider the larger landscape that surrounds the farm, such as forests and drainage systems, and even take into account the farm's place in the greater solar system. They might plant or pick according to the position of the planets or the phases of the moon. In this regard, biodynamics smacks of a woo-wooness that may not sit well with everyone. But the practice seems to be sustainable, at least on a small, localized scale, and the results—from wine to beauty products—have won rave reviews.
In 1928, Demeter certification began in Europe. Demeter is an international assembly, and each member country has a representative company (for example, there's Demeter Germany, and so on). In 1987, Demeter migrated to the U.S., where the nonprofit organization exists as the only U.S. certifier of biodynamic farms. "As much as a certifier, we're an educator of consumers and producers because it's a new concept to Americans," Fullmer says.
"Biodynamic" is a trademarked term. Certified-biodynamic farms are free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers just like certified organic farms, and must meet the same three-year transition that the National Organic Program requires. Farmers must also manage their land according to Demeter standards—meaning as a self-contained living organism—for at least two years. More than an assemblage of methods and techniques, Demeter certification requires that a farm evolve toward its maximum potential as a self-contained individuality given its unique set of circumstances.
Each year, the representative organizations from each country gather to review the international standard. Some countries adopt even stricter requirements, like the preservation of 10 percent "wild" lands, which applies only in the U.S..
Even though biodynamic is a stricter standard, biodynamic farms aren't automatically U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic unless the farm also gains approval through the NOP.
The benefits of biodynamics
Biodynamics is arguably the most sustainable farming method. "If you're an organic farm and import Peruvian bird poop, or if you put food on airplanes and trucks to ship elsewhere, organic isn't much different from industrial," Fullmer says. "It might even have a bigger carbon footprint." Biodynamic farms don't import quick fixes for pests or deadened soil. Rather, the answers are within the farm, and farmers who study the land closely will find them. But biodynamic products could conceivably be shipped across the globe, and thus, can suffer the same carbon fate as shipped organic products.
Some experts also make the case that biodynamic farming is synonymous with quality. Although proof is hard to come by, the agricultural method has caught the attention of the media. National Public Radio ran a story on biodynamic wines in 2006, and Food and Wine magazine covered biodynamics as a new trend in July 2006, featuring high-end biodynamic wine producers. "The wine industry is realizing that the best wines come from biodynamic farms," Fullmer says.
Since the company's inception 50 years ago, Dr. Hauschka has infused its skin care products with mostly biodynamic ingredients. "We have always recognized that skin is an organ of absorption and elimination," Price Marshall says. "By using biodynamics, we know that customers are getting the best nourishment possible and then they'll see this effect on their skin."
Other brands, such as Weleda and Jurlique, also offer cosmetics featuring biodynamic materials. And even former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun has launched a line of biodynamic coffees, teas and spices under the name Ambassador Organics. "Biodynamics is becoming a buzz word," Price Marshall says. "Moving into the future, I hope it will be seen as a gold standard of agriculture."
Competition with organics?
The biodynamic certification process weeds out many farmers because meeting the standard is no small feat and it takes time to develop a compliant farm. A neglected farm can take up to a decade to be revived, Fullmer says. "Organic is definitely what moved things in the U.S. It's huge and it's good," he says. "We're here to complement organic and remind people of the foundations of sustainable agriculture."
Pamela Bond is a freelance writer in Eldorado Springs, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 64