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Know Your Eco-Definitions

What’s in a name? Everything when it comes to understanding your eco-food and wine choices Here’s a rundown of some of the more common designations you’ll see on agricultural products.

Sustainable. The legal definition of sustainable agriculture is in U.S. Code (Title 7, Section 3103), but translates to an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that consider environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. The tangible manifestation is food and fiber production that “meets humanity’s needs.” But, more than a set of physical practices and functions, it relies on a sort of honor system—stewardship of human resources and social responsibility: quality of life through care and treatment of workers and rural communities and consumer health/safety.

The physical systems approach includes practices such as integrating natural biological cycles, limited or efficient use of nonrenewable resources. Examples include reducing tilling and managing nutrient sources (natural or applied); building organic matter, controlling pests via beneficial plant and landscape diversity.

The social approach considers the ripple effect from an individual farm, to the local ecosystem, and to communities affected by a farming system.

Organic. National Organic Program standards have mandates for plant and animal-based organic food operations. Organic operations must to be produced free of antibiotics, growth hormones, or irradiation. Plant-based agriculture cannot use conventional pesticides, herbicides and petroleum- or sewage-based fertilizers, or undergo genetic engineering. Organic cropland cannot have any prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of a crop to be labeled organic.

Animals cannot be fed antibiotics or growth hormones, must have 100% organic feed, and be provided access to the outdoors. Additionally, animal farmers must meet animal health welfare standards.

To display the “USDA Organic” seal, participating farms/ranches and intermediate handling operations must be certified organic by a state or USDA-accredited private agency. Farmers submit annual plans and undergo annual inspections to ensure they are in compliance.

In addition to the national standards for organic certification, farming practices may include reduced tillage, beneficial plants or native perennials to increase biodiversity, crop cover as a natural weed control, building of organic matter (mulch, green harvest and/or composting), and reduced mechanisms in gardens or fields to enhance soil respiration and use of animals for weed control and natural fertilizer.

Biodynamic. Like organic farming, biodynamic agriculture—celebrating its centennial in 2024—eschews synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, opting for organic or homemade remedies to aid in plant growth and soil health. (There are no biodynamic animals.)

It borrows tools from organic practices such as poly-agriculture, cover crops and other beneficial plantings, natural fertilizers, mulch and green harvest, the use of animals, birds, fowl, and insects to naturally manage gardens, orchards, farmlands and vineyards. But the underlying foundation of the biodynamic movement a holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming, food and nutrition.

Based in the humanist teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925), an Austrian mystic and polymath who pioneered the movement, it encourages a relationship between humans and the earth with a focus on renewal of natural resources. For example, many biodynamic farms or gardens will have created a closed system of constantly renewing natural resources—a self-contained property that grows what it needs. Such an ecosystem also may use herbal sprays and natural solutions (e.g., manure planted in corn horns and buried to enhance soil health). The farming practice uses a specific calendar developed by German farmer Maria Thun (1922 – 2012), who used constellations and planetary alignments to plan events such as planting, sowing and harvesting (or in the case of wine producers, racking and bottling wine).

Proponents such as the Biodynamic Demeter Alliance say biodynamic agriculture “holds the key to solving many of the issues facing our world today, from climate change to water scarcity, social injustice and the social and emotional well-being of people and communities.” Champions of biodynamic farming says it mitigates some aspects of climate change but promoting better resilience during drought and rising temperatures; many say biodynamically produced food and beverage (wine) products have better flavors.

More broadly, the movement encourages resilience, diversity and earth justice to support not only the environment, but farmers, workers, end consumers and all of society.

Founded in 1928, Demeter is the leading biodynamic certification and is the world’s first ecological food and farming trademark. Recognized in more than 60 countries, the certification verifies that products bearing the label have met international standards in the production and processing of sustainable food. Certification is a rigorous three-year effort.

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