Picture a family farm. You probably see sunshine, green pastures, happy and free-grazing cows, bright red tomatoes, and a cheery old farmer who works day and night to tend to the place. What you probably aren't picturing: the cheery old farmer spraying crops down with pesticides and tilling soil with artificial fertilizers and chemicals, or sprinkling antibiotics into his cows' feed before squishing them into a too-small stall.
The sad truth is that when the world became industrialized, our food system became industrialized too. This might sound like a good thing. (Hey, it means we can get avocados year-round, whatever specific apple hybrid we want, and enough beef to satisfy our burger cravings, right?) But nowadays, most farms look more like factories than like sources of freshly grown nutrition.
And that's where biodynamic farming comes in—it's taking food production back to the roots.
What Is Biodynamic Farming?
Biodynamic farming is a way of viewing a farm as "a living organism, self-contained, self-sustaining, and following the cycles of nature," says Elizabeth Candelario, managing director at Demeter, the world's only certifier of biodynamic farms and products. Think of it as organic—but better.
This all might sound super hippy dippy, but it's really just taking farming back to its basics: no fancy antibiotics, pesticides, or artificial fertilizers. "Pest control, disease control, weed control, fertility—all of these things are addressed through the farming system itself instead of importing the solutions from the outside," says Candelario. For example, instead of using an artificial nitrogen fertilizer, farmers will alternate crop cycles, incorporate the use of animal manure, or plant certain fertilizing plants to maintain the richness of the soil. It's like Little House on the Prairie but in modern times.
In biodynamic farms, farmers strive to maintain a diversified, balanced ecosystem with ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Theoretically, a perfect biodynamic farm could exist inside its own little bubble. (And sustainability isn't just for food—it's for your workout clothes too!)
Biodynamic farming might just be gaining steam in the U.S. now, but it's been around for almost a century. Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, the "father" of biodynamic farming practices, first introduced it in the 1920s, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It spread to the U.S. in 1938, when the Biodynamic Association started as the oldest sustainable agriculture nonprofit organization in North America.
Some of the first adopters were vineyards, says Candelario, because they saw some of the best wines in the world coming from biodynamic vineyards in France and Italy. Fast forward, and other farmers are starting to catch on—today, Candelario says Demeter is focused on building national product brands so biodynamic goods make it to consumers.
"It's a nascent but emerging trend in the natural food industry, and it's kind of like organic was 30 years ago," she says. "I'd say the same is going to happen for biodynamic—the difference is we already have the organic industry to learn from, and we don't want to take 35 years to get us there."
How Is Biodynamic Different from Organic?
Think of organic as a halfway point between conventional, industrialized farming and biodynamic farming. In fact, biodynamic farming is really the original version of organic farming, says Candelario. But that doesn't mean they're the same—biodynamic includes all the processing and farming standards of organic, but builds on them. (P.S. These are both different from Fair Trade.)
For starters, because the USDA Organic program is regulated by the U.S. government, it's only nation-wide, while biodynamic is internationally recognized. (It has chapters in 22 countries and operates in more than 50.)
Second, an entire farm doesn't need to be organic for it to produce and sell some certified organic products; a farm could section off 10 percent of its acreage for organic-style farming. But an entire farm must be certified biodynamic in order to produce certified biodynamic goods. Plus, to be certified biodynamic, 10 percent of the acreage must be set aside for biodiversity (forest, wetland, insectary, etc.).
Third, organic has one processing standard for all products (here's a fact sheet on the general organic farming practices), while biodynamic has 16 different processing standards for different types of products (wine, dairy, meat, produce, etc.).
In the end, they're both about eliminating the scary stuff from our food. An organic certification means there are no synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering used in the food, and farm animals must be fed organic feed, etc. Biodynamic includes those guidelines, as well as making the farm even more self-reliant. For example, instead of simply requiring organic feed for animals, most of the feed must originate from other processes and resources on the farm.
Why Should You Care About Buying Biodynamic?
You know how you feel crappy when you eat crappy food? Ex: that chocolate binge or the three servings of French fries you didn't really need, but left you bloated for days? Well just like eating healthier can make you feel better, eating food that's grown in a healthier way can make you feel better.
"Food is medicine," says Candelario. "And before we even start thinking about buying vitamin-supplemented fruit juices, getting a membership to the gym, doing all of those things that we do because we want to be healthier, the number-one place we have to start is our diet. Food products are only as good as the farming that stands behind them."
Here, four more reasons you should consider buying biodynamic:
1. The Quality. Higher-quality production means higher-quality products—like how a tomato that you picked up from your local farmers' market (or, better yet, picked from the vine yourself) seems to have so much more flavor than ones from the big-box grocery store.
2. The Nutrition. "They are deeply nutritious," say Candelario. By building healthy microbiota in the soil, biodynamic farms are building healthy plants, which is what goes directly into your body.
3. The Farmers. By buying biodynamic, "you're supporting farmers who are really making an investment in their farm in order to bring these products to market, in a way that's really healthy for the farmer, the farm workers, and the community that this farm is in," she says.
4. The Planet. "Biodynamic is a beautifully regenerative agriculture standard," says Candelario. It doesn't contribute to climate change, and may even be a remedy for it.
Sooo Where Can I Get This Stuff?
Demeter has 200 certified entities in the country. About 160 are farms and the rest are brands, growing by about 10 percent per year, says Candelario. This means the availability of biodynamic products is still relatively limited—you need to know exactly what you're looking for and where to look. You aren't going to stumble over them on your next Trader Joe's run or at ShopRite. But it's worth investing some time and energy into finding them. You can use this biodynamic product locator to find farms and retailers near you. (Plus, it's the magical age of the internet, so you can buy stuff online.)
"We need consumers to be patient because it's going to take a while to develop these products, because we have to develop the agriculture," says Candelario. "But when they do see these products and seek them out, they're basically voting with their dollars about supporting [this] form of farming ... while at the same time purchasing for their families the most delicious and nutritious products."
It will take some time to grow the biodynamic food marketplace, but Candelario says she thinks biodynamic will follow in the footsteps of the organic label's success: "I'm hoping that as a base, consumers will want organic instead of conventional, and then at the top of the pyramid, biodynamic will be the new organic." (It took about 35 years for organic to become what it is today—that's why "transitional" organic products were a thing for a while.)
And one last caveat: As with organic products and produce, biodynamic foods will result in a slightly larger grocery bill. "They're priced like any artisan product would be," says Candelario. But if you're willing to spend half a paycheck on that ~fancy~ hipster ring from Brooklyn, why can't you shell out a few extra bucks for the stuff that's supplying nutrients to your body?