What’s in a name? Everything to understand your choices of ecological food and wine Here is an overview of some of the most common designations you will see on agricultural products.

Sustainable. The legal definition of sustainable agriculture is found in the U.S. Code (Title 7, Section 3103), but translates to an integrated system of crop and animal production practices that takes into account environmental health, economic profitability and social and economic equity. The tangible manifestation is the production of food and fiber that “meets the needs of humanity”. But, more than a set of practices and physical functions, it is based on a kind of honor system – human resource stewardship and social responsibility: quality of life through the care and treatment of workers and rural communities and health / consumer safety.

The physical systems approach includes practices such as the integration of natural biological cycles, the limited or efficient use of non-renewable resources. Examples include reducing tillage and managing nutrient sources (natural or applied); building organic matter, pest control through beneficial plant and landscape diversity.

The social approach considers the ripple effect of an individual farm, on the local ecosystem and on the communities affected by an agricultural system.

Biological. National Organic Program standards have mandates for organic food operations of plant and animal origin. Biological operations must be produced without antibiotics, growth hormones or irradiation. Plant-based agriculture cannot use conventional pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum or sewage-based fertilizers, nor undergo genetic engineering. Organic cropland cannot be subjected to banned substances for at least three years before harvesting a crop to be labeled organic.

Animals cannot be fed antibiotics or growth hormones, must have 100% organic food and have access to the outdoors. In addition, breeders must respect animal welfare standards.

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

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

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

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

Based on the humanistic 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 an emphasis on renewing natural resources. For example, many biodynamic farms or gardens will have created a closed system of constantly renewed natural resources – a self-sustaining property that grows what it needs. Such an ecosystem can also use herbal sprays and natural solutions (for example, manure planted in corn horns and buried to improve 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 of wine).

Proponents such as the Biodynamic Demeter Alliance claim that biodynamic agriculture “holds the key to solving many of the problems facing our world today, from climate change and water scarcity to social injustice and the social and emotional well-being of individuals and communities”. Champions of biodynamic agriculture say it mitigates some aspects of climate change but promotes better resilience during drought and rising temperatures; many say that biodynamically produced food and beverages (wine) taste better.

More broadly, the movement promotes resilience, diversity, and earthly justice to support not only the environment, but also farmers, workers, end consumers, and society as a whole.

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