Sometimes it seems that every time you visit the store a new certification or claim (either mission-driven or ingredient-driven) is featured on a product label. One industry leader who has seen — and in some cases helped spread — them all is Errol Schweizer, a strategic advisor for natural product companies and formerly the Executive Global Grocery Coordinator for Whole Foods Market. During his career, Schweizer has seen the rise (and sometimes fall) in the popularity of numerous claims and certifications.
If there’s one certification Schweizer has come to feel especially passionate about in recent years, it’s biodynamic. So he’s taking his involvement beyond advocacy and has joined the Board of Directors for Demeter, the U.S. certifying body for biodynamic farms and products.
To some, the organization may be unknown, but Demeter has existed since 1928. Biodynamic practices date back even farther and refer to a type of “holistic agricultural” method that is similar to organic farming but also includes focus on soil, pollinators, wildlife protection and more “mystical” techniques.
In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Schweizer spoke with NOSH about why he joined the organization, why he wants to see more biodynamic products and what challenges the movement faces.
Project NOSH: How would you explain what biodynamic is?
Schweizer: It’s one of the oldest regenerative agricultural systems in the world and it predates, and actually gave rise to, organic. It’s a holistic, deeper form of organic that treats the whole farm as an organism and it has a focus, not just on high quality food production and humans’ health, but the continued improvement in farming sustainability.
Each generation should be healthier, each farming cycle should be more sustainable — that’s what I think encapsulates biodynamic and that’s what attracted me to it. It’s a 360 degree approach to food and agriculture.
Whatever else you can say about biodynamic, some of it is a little esoteric and I can’t say that I understand all of it, but you know what, it works. And it’s really cool.
What’s the history of biodynamic products and farming in America?
We have many decades of biodynamic food production in certain categories in the United States. It obviously started in Germany and Central Europe so folks there not only have a bigger head start but there’s also more widespread adoption of it. But I think that’s primarily marketing and market access, which we can get to eventually.
What drew you to biodynamic and made you want to join the board of Demeter?
It works: it produces high quality products, it creates more resilient farms from drought, disease and pests, and it is a fundamentally humane form of production. And I love every biodynamic product that I’ve tried.
And the other thing is, it’s so relevant right now, especially when you talk about carbon sequestration and ways to mitigate, not only to deal with, climate change, to deal with fluctuations within the climate that make it harder to grow.
You have a more resilient form of agriculture that’s not necessarily scalable, but is replicable. You can have a lot of people doing it. I think that’s important, because that sort of speaks to my own personal leanings and business model. I like small- to mid-scale production systems. It’s accessible not only as business owner and entrepreneur but as a consumer.
Wendell Berry said that it all hinges on affection. And that’s what you feel [with biodynamic production]. There’s an affection towards the Earth, the animals, towards customers, and that makes it really relevant.
So biodynamic can be a little hard to explain, especially to consumers. Has this hurdle been a struggle for biodynamic brands?
No, because who understands organic? I don’t understand everything about how a lot of these systems work. But the proof is in the pudding. And that’s the important thing that you can market and there just hasn’t been enough effort put in and market visibility.
Some of the more complex practices of biodynamic, those are going to be there and those are important. That’s how the sausage is made. But what’s important to the customer is the sausage.
I think biodynamic produces great products and what we have to do is start from a place that’s accessible and reasonable to the consumer. “Hey that was a great jar of tomato sauce that you just put on your pasta, here’s some other cool stuff about it. The earthworms are very happy on biodynamic farms, etcetera.” You just have to get from a starting point that a consumer can relate to, that’s really what it’s about. Organic has done a really good job of that.
How big do you think the biodynamic market can get?
We have a goal of within a few decades, biodynamic should be 10 percent of organic sales. That’s an expressed goal that the board has. It’s important to realize that biodynamic has picked up incredibly in the last few years.
It’s also important that retailers try these products, get them on shelves, price them appropriately, and message them. They are going to be produced in a growing system that isn’t lower cost, this isn’t going to be the cheapest product on shelf, but it’s going to be your best. And there’s always a niche for that in all categories.