Why we dropped Organic and Biodynamic certifications
Why did we drop our Organic and Biodynamic Certifications? The short of it can be summed up by a bit of American cinematic history in the memorable line of Big Tom Callahan, “Of course, I can get a hell of a good look at a T-Bone steak by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I'd rather take the butcher's word for it.” (Tommy Boy, 1995). It is hard to put it any more plainly. At the end of the day, a certification is nothing but a bare minimum. A certification does nothing to inform a consumer as to how an individual farmer or practitioner interprets, implements, adheres to, works around, or cheats the requirements laid out to achieve any such certification. There are many, many farms, and millions of acres of farmland, and only so many inspectors. At the end of the day, it all falls back to the individual farmer. Getting to know this farmer is the only way.
In today’s World of industrialized everything, the words Organic and sustainable have come to mean very little (despite having well intentioned beginnings). In certain instances, some of the world’s best farms are operating under these two buzz words (organic and/or sustainable), and yet, due to the sea of industrial acres that are also using the same exact words, it is not possible to “take the certification’s word for it” as a consumer looking at products on the shelf.
At its origin, Organic was a grassroots movement of passionate gardeners and farmers who were seeking more ecological solutions and more appropriate technologies compared to the industrialized Green Revolution that was sweeping the planet (The Green Revolution, despite its clever name and rhetoric for “feeding the world”, is responsible for the mass spreading of industrialized chemical farming). These “back to the land” early Organic farmers were largely inspired by the works of Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Belflour, and Rudolf Steiner, all of whom were popularized in the United States throughout the 50s-today in the Organic Farming and Gardening Journal published by J.J. Rodale, as well as through other channels, and all of whom were inspired by tens of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom and observational sciences that came prior.
In the early 1990s, the spirit of this growing Organic movement was very poorly codified into an official certification defined by the USDA through the National Organic Program. What was once an inspiring agrarian revolution quickly became a list of chemicals “to use or not use” with no larger ethos or methodology prescribed. The result: Industrial Organic, which dominates the Organic marketplace by a likely ratio of 9.9 to .1. Unfortunately, Industrial Organic fails people, products and planet in many of the same ways industrial chemical farming does--lack of biodiversity, lack of living soil, use of heavy machinery, heavy tillage, lower nutrient profiles, and so on.
The word sustainable has a similarly bastardized journey. Sustainable originally meant acting in a way that could continue for a long, long time without degrading the Earth. This concept has lost much of its meaning to clever marketing campaigns. For example, today, flying a private jet is sustainable if you plant trees to offset the carbon (care not if the tree is planted in a huge monoculture that leads to later landslides). There are hundreds of such examples, if not infinite.
Despite these critiques, we carried the Organic certification for several years, thinking it was a reasonable “stamp of approval”. As time went on, we decided that this association not only felt misaligned, but that we were never in-line with it to begin with. At no point have we ever allowed Certified Organic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides or fungicides onto the farm as they disrupt the natural cycles of soil health and fertility, despite being Organic in nature. I would rather have a direct discussion with any of our interested customers about how and why we grow our ingredients (or how our partners do) than rely on a governing body to improperly represent the true nature of our offerings.
As time went on, despite our enthusiastic adherence to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, we also decided to drop our Biodynamic certification. The Demeter Organization which certifies farms and vineyards as Biodynamic has the difficult task of painting a very amorphous process into a rather black-and-white box. In other words, in order to have a coherent system for defining and certifying Biodynamic farming practices, they have to take a somewhat undefinable internal thought and feeling process that a farmer/practitioner undergoes (biodynamics) and turn it into prescribed rhetoric. I will give you an anecdotal example, which, in our case, was the straw that turned on the camel’s lightbulb.
In the development of our third signature serum, the Ryokan Serum (made in honor of the Nobu Ryokan Hotel in Malibu), we were in search of a world class, Biodynamically grown, cold-pressed sweet almond oil–and by golly, we found one! We not only found it, but we found it within a few hours of our front door, being grown on one of California’s oldest, pioneering Biodynamic farms. In a world where just 0.002% of US farmland is certified Biodynamic (and most of that is wine grapes) I consider farmers/artisans like this person to be American heroes. So what was the rub?
As it turns out, this farmer had over 30 different crops certified by Demeter as Biodynamic, including a secondary certification which relates to her facilities (meaning, it is not only biodynamically grown, but it is certified biodynamic in its production methods as well). The only issue, however, is that she was not certified to cold-press the Almonds into Almond Oil (as this is a niche product and the cost was not justifiable on her end, or the need had never arisen). When I presented this story to Demeter in an attempt to have our Ryokan Serum certified as Biodynamic (and featuring her Oil which was clearly grown in the Biodynamic method and clearly processed in a facility that Demeter certifies as Biodynamic for various other products), they pointed out the issue that unfortunately her Sweet Almond Oil was not certified Biodynamic (despite all of the other context and facts which were present). They presented me with three options:
1) Pay the cost to certify her facility for sweet almond oil ($3,000). If that sum seems minor, it is not so to small farmers.
2) Choose an Organic Almond Oil instead of a Biodynamic one (there are allowances within the Biodynamic labeling certification to have up to a certain percentage of non-Biodynamic ingredients present as long as there was no viable option to source Biodynamic and as long as it is certified Organic. This is an interesting loophole).
3) Source from another grower who is in fact certified Biodynamic for Almond Oil (upon researching the Demeter database the next closest person was located in Italy).
The lack of common sense associated with these recommendations made me realize that customers are best talking straight to us as opposed to relying on a certification. I realized at that time that “Be Here” on the label could mean more than any other shield.
From this point on we have offered complimentary video consultations with every single product sold to any client who purchases an item from our Collection to discuss our methods and to ask questions around how to get the most out of their purchase. With this in place, we no longer felt value in carrying certifications. And in truth, we have relished in not having to maintain the bureaucratic aspects of doing so.
At the end of the day, you (the individual consumer) has to become your greatest advocate. And that means understanding what you are putting in and on your body, who made it, how and why, and where their ingredients came from, and how they got there (or purchasing products from farmers and brands who you trust to do this for you, through research). If you are early on this journey of sourcing quality ingredients, I encourage you to check out my other journal post “When Veganism is not Regenerative: The Underbelly of American Vegetable Production”, which anecdotally breaks down my experience of observing and engaging in various different farming methods, noting their environmental impacts, and navigating how to source the best quality ingredients for my family.