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Biodynamic, Bio-Intensive, Organic... What does it all mean?

Updated: May 16, 2023

Young woman helping spred compost coming out of an orange tractor bucket on vegetable rows.
High quality compost and OMRI approved inputs are a part of VRDNT's bio intensive practices. Photo by Bill McCullough.

Confused by all these labels? I get it—navigating the world of produce marketing can be overwhelming. But don't worry! As an expert in the field, I'll break down these terms and explain what they really mean for your food.

What is Bio-Intensive Agriculture?

Let's start with "bio-intensive," the primary term I use to describe VRDNT. It means our farming system relies on biological processes rather than chemical inputs. We focus on cultivating a healthy ecosystem to prevent pests and diseases, aiming for an ecologically balanced and highly productive system!

We exclusively use OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved inputs. You might think, "Oh, so you're organic, right?" Although we use organic-approved inputs, we haven't been formally audited, so we can't call ourselves Organic (doing so risks USDA fines up to $11,000). But that's just a teaser for our next section on Organic.

The key difference between bio-intensive and other methods is our focus on the ecosystem supporting healthy plant growth. Many "Organic" farms can still use natural inputs destructively while complying with certification standards.

At VRDNT, we prioritize biodiversity as the foundation of a balanced ecosystem. Our spray regime is preventative, not curative. We apply a mix of neem, garlic, and rosemary oil weekly to deter insects and inject compost tea frequently to promote healthy soil biology, leading to well-nourished plants. Having worked in the Organic industry for 10+ years before starting a farm, I can confidently say our inputs are less toxic than any other commercial operation I've worked on. And if you're still skeptical or just love insect photos like me, here are some pictures I've taken on the farm showcasing our lively ecosystem in action! Here's a brief explanation of the action below:

What's Organic?

Next up, let's demystify the "Organic" label. As agriculture became industrialized, groups of like-minded individuals sought to produce food more sustainably and cleanly. Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring" raised mainstream awareness of the environmental and health risks associated with chemical agriculture. By 1990, the US Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which established the National Organic Program (NOP) within the USDA. The NOP now determines what is and isn't Organic. According to the USDA’s website: produce can be labeled organic if it's certified to have grown on soil free of prohibited substances (mostly synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for three years before harvest.

In short: Certification + No Synthetic Inputs = Organic

While we all want pesticide-free produce, choosing Organic isn't always simple. If an "organic" farm only substitutes natural inputs for synthetic ones without changing farming practices, the benefits may be limited. For instance, synthetic nitrates are prohibited in Organic systems, but mined nitrates are allowed. They have the same chemical structure as synthetic nitrates but come with ecological costs due to mining and shipping. Similarly, a chemical identical to one found in Raid is available to Organic farmers, derived from chrysanthemums. The key takeaway: natural doesn't always mean sustainable or non-toxic.

However, I don't want to be too harsh on Organics. Let's consider some alarming statistics: the USDA's Pesticide Data Program (PDP) reported that in 2019, 49.3% of produce samples had detectable pesticide residues. So, choosing Organic produce at least helps reduce most of that exposure. However, in my opinion, Organic standards don't go far enough to ensure sustainability or prevent fraud and greenwashing.

Here is a great NPR interview on the topic if you want to keep exploring this.

What is Biodynamics?

Alright, let's dive into Biodynamics. Most people are familiar with the concept of planting by the moon, as seen in farmers' almanacs, but Biodynamics goes way beyond that!

Biodynamic agriculture, established by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, is a farming approach rooted in the spiritual science of Anthroposophy. It views humans and nature as interconnected through cosmic, ethereal, and astral forces and aims to create a self-sufficient, diversified, and resilient agricultural system.

Biodynamic farming isn't about maximizing yields, but optimizing spiritual and cosmic forces through interactions between farm enterprises and their components. While biodynamics may seem unconventional or even strange to some, it's based on a unique approach that values a deep connection between humans, nature, and the cosmos.

I won't delve too deep into this subject, but understanding Biodynamics requires stepping outside the traditional scientific worldview. I actually wrote my senior thesis on this topic in college and worked and lived on a biodynamic farm for two years (yes, mixing biodynamic preparations involves wearing flower crowns!). If you’d like to read my 11 page exploration of World Views in Agriculture It actually has some really beautiful quotes in it

Young farmers mixing wine in a trashcan wearing flower crowns.
Farmer Becky, and flower crown, living and working on a biodynamic farm.

What is Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture?

Now, let's talk about Sustainable and Regenerative agriculture: what's the difference?

Sustainable agriculture aims to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Regenerative agriculture goes beyond sustainability by actively working to restore and improve ecosystem health and carbon sequestration.

Both terms can be a bit vague, but they generally serve as synonyms. The key difference between sustainable and regenerative agriculture is their primary objectives. Sustainable agriculture balances social, environmental, and economic concerns, while regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring soil health and increasing carbon sequestration.

Young woman farmer wearing daisy fanny pack injecting compost tea into irrigation line.
Grace, injecting compost tea into our drip irrigation system. Photo by Bill McCullough.


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