Organic, Sustainable and Biodynamic: The Basics

By Mary Orlin | October 01, 2013
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Organic, sustainable, biodynamic. We all hear these terms, and some of us even eat, drink and shop for foods and wines guided by these labels. But do you really know what each word means?

I thought I did. Not so. For example, a food product labeled “organic” may not be 100% organic. To sort this out, here are the basics of organic, sustainable and biodynamic, to help you make informed decisions when buying food and wine.

All three movements grew out of a response to the industrialization of agriculture, hybrid seeds and the growing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

What is Biodynamic?

In 1924 Rudolf Steiner founded biodynamic farming in Germany. His lectures influenced farmers across Europe and in 1928 the organization Demeter was formed to promote biodynamics through certification and education. Named after the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter has chapters in 45 countries, including the Demeter Association here in America. To be Demeter Certified Biodynamic, strict practices must be followed in both farming and processing.

Demeter logo

In biodynamics, the core principle revolves around the farm as a living organism. Many people say biodynamics is organics taken to a higher, holistic level. But biodynamics actually came first. One difference between a certified biodynamic farm and a certified organic farm is that the entire farm must be biodynamic to become Demeter certified; the entire farm does not need to be organic to be certified organic.

Some biodynamic rituals may seem like voodoo, especially burying a cow horn full of manure in the garden in the fall, and digging it up in the spring. But there’s a good reason for it. This manure ferments, and when made into a “tea” it’s sprayed on the crop as a fertilizer. Crops are planted, pruned and harvested according to lunar cycles.

Many farmers and winemakers will tell you that, while not certified, they follow some or all of the biodynamic practices on their farms and in their vineyards. That means planting cover crops and tilling them into the soil to add nutrients, having animals like goats and sheep “mow” between crop rows and creating environments to attract beneficial insects to battle the bad ones.

Locally, Love Apple Farm, the exclusive kitchen farm for Manresa in Los Gatos, is Demeter certified. Wineries can be Demeter Certified Biodynamic and Bonny Doon Vineyard is the only one so certified in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

What is Organic?

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Lord Northbourne of England coined the term “organic,” in his book Look to the Land, based on the biodynamic principle that the farm is a living organism. Organics started becoming popular in the United States in the 1950s thanks in part to a book by J. I. Rodale called The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.

CCOF logoCertified organic food and wine produced in California will be labeled USDA Organic and/or Certified Organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

Organic logoAccording to CCOF, certified organic food is grown or produced without harmful or toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from uncloned animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Sounds simple enough, right? But wait—there are four tiers of organics on the market. The first three label tiers require organic certification.

    • 100% Organic: Contains 100% organic ingredients.
    • Organic: Contains 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% must come from a list of approved non-organic ingredients.
    • Made with Organic Ingredients: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients.
    • Less than 70% Organic Ingredients: No certification required. You may see an ingredient listed as organic, such as organic flour.

Within San Mateo and Santa Clara counties you’ll find 32 farms and 15 processors carrying the CCOF label, including Webb Ranch, Full Circle Farm, Hidden Villa, Jacobs Farm and Veggielution. There are several wineries too, including Cooper-Garrod, Clos LaChance, Big Basin and Portola Vineyards. “Organic wine” has no added sulfites, is made with 100% certified organically grown grapes and is made in an organic-certified winery. If a wine is labeled “made with organic grapes” it may have added sulfites up to a certain limit, but otherwise is the same as an organic wine.

What is Sustainable?

“Sustainable” is the hardest of the three terms to define, because there is no legal definition, nor is there a federal or state certification program for food.

It’s generally agreed that sustainable food is made in a way that does not harm the Earth, creates a healthy soil and ecosystem and also takes worker welfare into consideration. It means no overcropping or overfishing, and respecting Mother Nature. In a sense, sustainable farming means being good stewards of the land, environment and community.

CCSW logoThe Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) program certifies wine producers. There are comprehensive guidelines governing practices concerning water use and conservation, soil health, air quality, recycling, preserving habitats, employee and community relationships and more. Clos LaChance Winery and Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards, both in Santa Clara County, carry CCSW certification. While you won’t see this seal on the wine label, you will see it posted at the winery and on the winery’s website.

About SIP:

There is another certification gaining recognition in California, SIP (Sustainability in Practice) SIPCertified.org. It considers the whole farm, verifying the farmer’s commitment to environmental stewardship, equitable treatment of employees, and business sustainability. It contains practice and performance based requirements—every Requirement and Management Enhancement is demonstrable and auditable, verified under strict guidelines. 

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