Biological (organic) foods and agriculture used to be a niche in the global food industry 30 years ago. Today, it’s a mainstream segment, especially in Germany, Europe’s largest organic food market. It may not be widely known that the modern organic food movement originated in Germany almost 100 years ago. As global demand for “bio” foods has grown to $190bn, there is a lot of confusion about the principles, different standards, safety, quality, as well as environmental, economic, and nutritious value underlying these foods. This “Get the Facts” article provides some clarity and useful links for the interested reader.
Looking to buy German health and wellness products right now? Visit our sister site TheTaste of Germany for a selection of German organic breads, teas, oils, pasta, condiments and more!
Biological vs bioengineering
Let’s start with the name: In Europe, “bio” means organic. This may not be well understood in North America, where the prefix “bio” is usually associated with bioengineered, aka genetically modified, crops and foods, the exact opposite. Another European term for “bio” is “Ecological” (or “Ökologisch” in German). So, when you see the German “Bio” seal or the European “Eco” seal on imported German food products in the US or Canada, you can be sure that these products are certified organic. Fortunately, the United States and the European Union agreed on a mutual recognition of each other’s standards in 2012, which means that organic products certified in Europe or in the United States may be sold as organic in either region.
The origins of bio-dynamic agriculture
In 1924, the Austrian philosopher and pioneer of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, held an agricultural course at Schloss Koberwitz in Silesia, Germany (now Kobierzyce, Poland) about the virtues and advantages of biodynamic farming. Nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides had just been developed a few decades before. Hailed as the solution to food insecurity, farmers used ample of industrial chemicals on their fields. However, as many farmers noticed diminishing yields and detrimental health effects on their workers, they looked for alternative, natural alternatives. Steiner’s biodynamic principles focused on a circular use of available natural resources at the farm, using manure and compost, along with certain sequences and rhythms, to grow food “biologisch” or organically. Despite resistance by the conventional farm industry, his ideas spread across the world and spawned a vast industry 100 years later. Read more about biodynamic farming here.
Over time, different organic farming and food production methods evolved in Europe and the United States, administered by competing organic food associations and cooperatives. The four biggest organic associations in Germany today are Bioland, Biopark, Naturland, and demeter. The latter is most closely aligned with Steiner’s original biodynamic principles). To remedy the growing confusion created by all these different standards and their respective labels, the leading German organic farming cooperatives and associations formed an umbrella organization known as “Bund Ökologischer Lebensmittelwirtschaft” (BÖLW). This organization developed and administers common quality control systems and effective communications structures between all stakeholders, from growers to the trade all the way to the consumers.
What does it mean to be “Bio”?
“Bio”farming practices include Organic farming practices ensure “crop rotation for an efficient use of resources, a ban of the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, very strict limits on livestock antibiotics, a general ban of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), use of on-site resources for natural fertilizers and animal feed, raising livestock in a free-range, open-air environment and the use of organic fodder, and tailored animal husbandry practices,” both in the EU and North America, with variations on both sides. Although “Bio” foods have about the same nutritional values and health effects as conventional foods, the farming practices are considered more sustainable, better for the environment, sustainability, and the economics of small farms.
In the early 2000s, the German governmental set a national standard for a common organic food label, based on the US Department of Agriculture initiative a few years before. The European organic standard logo followed shortly thereafter. All of these governmental seals mandate that organic products must contain 100% of certified organic ingredients. Today, close to 5,000 German farms, 900 German food producers are certified under the “Bio” seal regulations. Over 45% of the arable land crops in the EU are organic. More information: IFOAM – Organics International, | “Bio” Seal,| EU logo | USDA logo.
Where you’ll find organic foods in Germany
As is the case for organic farming, retailers specializing in natural and organic products also look back on a long history in Germany. The first health food and natural supplement stores, a common retail franchise called Reformhaus, opened in 1900. This was a result of a growing frustration with the rampant air and soil pollution resulting from the industrial revolution. The organic food trade remained a niche market for most of the century, though. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that conventional retail chains started selling organic goods. Today nearly every major retail chain in Germany offers at least a basic range of natural and organic products. Regular supermarkets currently carry on average about 200 organic products, while some of the organic-only supermarkets carry up to 8,000 different organic products. Among Germany’s leading organic and natural retailers are Alnatura,| Basic,| Tegut| and Reformhaus.
In keeping with the country’s love of healthy, organic products, Germany hosts the largest agricultural consumer show in the world. The International Green Week (IGW), which takes place each January in Berlin, has attracted around 400,000 visitors in recent years. More than 1,600 exhibitors from countries around the world present their agricultural products and culinary culture. Main themes include organic and natural farming methods, wellness, and renewable resources. Moreover, Germany is also home to the world’s largest organic food trade show, called BioFach, which is held each February in Nuremberg. Nearly 3,000 exhibitors get to present their organic products to international representatives from the industry and trade.
German organic products available in the US
What Germany brings to the global table is a strong commitment to organic farming, a state-of-the-art food industry with stringent quality control systems. Over 102,000 organic and natural products, from nutritious fruits and vegetables, to staples like organic wholegrain breads and muesli all the way to natural snacks and organic refreshment drinks, can be found at farms and retails shops all over Germany. And an increasing number of packaged delicacies are available in the US and Canada. Browse a selection at our store.