This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Oxford Food Forum conference ‘Culture, Food, & the Environment: New Perspectives on Food Sovereignty and Security’ on 2 May. As it was written to be read, the original version does not include references, and I have not bothered to add them back in. Most edits are not marked here, but as a kind of experiment, instead of adding in footnotes where they might be appropriate in a more academic context, I have added in commentary in italics. I find scrolling up and down (even with links) to read footnotes annoying. The full title of the talk was: Waiting for the consumer to catch up: sustainability and the taste of wine in Austria.
The standard stories about food and sustainability, linked usually to globalisation, that many of us hear, tell and like on Facebook have a common theme. Mega-corporations and governments are more concerned about expanding their reach, whether as a means of increasing their profits, or their influence, than they are about the environment. In opposition to this stands the plucky consumer-activist, battling nefarious multinationals and indifferent governments. In the words of the economist Ernst Schumacher, the activists hold, small is beautiful. People do matter. This portrayal of the world has a lot to recommend it, and is a useful starting point to further analysis or action, but it is not the whole story.
What I want to do here is to take inspiration from Marx as a stander-of-Hegel-on-his-head. Sometimes, it is not the corporations or governments that are holding back progress in terms of sustainability or food security, but consumers, who often like things to taste a certain way, a way that may be radically at odds with what a sustainable food tastes like.
My goal in this brief presentation is to argue three points. First, we should be thinking more about how things taste when discussing sustainability and food security. The second is to complicate the usual good guy / bad guy view of such issues. (Anthropologists will know this is basically our job description: To say ‘It’s complicated’.) Following from these is that we may need to more radically rethink our standard models of what it means to be sustainable.
I will focus on one particular case – that of biodynamic wines in Austria. This apparently niche concern has some fairly fair-reaching implications for how we think of food security, policy and biodiversity. There are more ‘radical’ wines that are even more sustainable in how they are produced, but I’ve elected to talk about biodynamic wines simply because you are more likely to encounter them. Regular readers of this blog will probably realise I am referring to ‘natural’ wines. If you go into any decent wine merchants, they should be able to point you to a biodynamic wine or two among their stock. Assuming you drink wine, you may well have already had biodynamic wine, without even knowing it.
Sustainability is by no means limited to biodynamic or organic growing. Stift Klosterneuburg, for example, does not farm organically, but takes great pride in being carbon neutral. One can talk in the larger context about food miles, or fair deals for producers and so forth. The Austrian sustainability programme for wine production is as concerned, if not more so, with issues such as integrated pest management, than organic agriculture.
A wine-maker who oversees two wineries in the Wachau region of Austria recently explained his take on sustainability to us: he used various modern pesticides, but had a computerised system that allowed him to determine the optimal time to spray, thus limiting his total usage of pesticides. Who is more sustainable, he asked, him, or an organic or biodynamic who often sprays much more often, and with things such as Bordeaux mixture, which is quite toxic in the long run?
Nonetheless, I will focus on biodynamic wine, something of an extreme case, precisely because it highlights the interaction of ethical / environmental concerns and taste in a vivid manner. Before I explain why and how this is so, let me explain about biodynamics and why Austria.
In reverse order: Austria proudly promotes itself as Europe’s ‘greenest wine producer’, and over 80% of its vineyards are said to be farmed sustainably in some manner. There are EU and national-level programmes and incentives to farm sustainably. Three observations build on this:
First: despite the various programmes, I would say about half, if not more, of the winemakers we’ve spoken to claim some form of sustainable winemaking, have not pursued certification, even if such certification may entitle them to subsidies. The reasons are too complex to go into here, but this underscores the fact for many producers, it is about the ethics of sustainability, not any economic benefit of subsidies. To expand slightly – some think there’s too much paperwork involved, others think that it shifts the focus from the field to documentation, while others just don’t see the point. They know what they are doing, and why, and don’t need a stamp of approval.
Second: Most Austrian wine is not grown from what are known as the ‘international’ grapes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and so forth. The sort of names even the most casual wine drinker will probably know. These exist in Austria, but in relatively minor quantities. Rather, Austria has chosen to focus on local varieties, most famously the white wine grape Grüner Veltliner, (30% of Austria’s production) but also reds like Zweigelt (created in Austria in 1920s), Blaufränkisch, and Sankt Laurent. There is thus a local food / heritage angle to sustainability and Austrian wine.
The third point leads me to biodynamics. Austria is the home of biodynamics, developed by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. It was Steiner’s biodynamics that lead to the creation of the organic farming movement. One could make a good case that Austria is (or should be) the spiritual home of sustainable farming.
What then is biodynamic farming? Arising from farmers coming to him to ask what to do about decreasing crop yields, Steiner argued for an all-encompassing approach to agriculture. The growing process had to be treated as a whole. To quote from Steiner’s Agriculture Course:
There, for example, is the beetroot growing in the earth. To take it just for what it is within its narrow limits [ie, to consider the beetroot alone] is nonsense if in reality its growth depends on countless conditions, not even only of the Earth as a whole, but of the cosmic environment (p. 20).
It is, in other words, a particularly expansive approach to what we would today think of as the ecosystem. Most modern pesticides and fertilizers are not used, as in organic farming. Biodynamic farming adopts a form of integrated pest management, encouraging wildlife or farm animals to roam the vineyards and growing various plants between the rows of vines. The addition that biodynamic farming brings with it is the inclusion of cosmic or spiritual energies. A number of different ‘preparations’ are used, the most fundamental being a sort of spray of cow dung that had been buried in the field in a cow horn, and then later dug up, diluted, with particular forms of mixing taking place to ‘energise’ the mixture, which is then spread over the fields in homeopathic concentrations. In brief, biodynamics strikes the sceptic as organic farming with added astrology. (Although, genealogically, it is the reverse.)
Here’s the catch, and where the consumer comes back in. Scientific studies have not shown any difference in microbial life, diversity, or nutrient capabilities, etc. between organic and biodynamic soils. According to a discussion Julia had with one of the participants at the post-conference reception, there are indeed some studies showing differences. Yet biodynamic wines often, even according to critics of the movement, taste different. This is not a simple case of being, fuller-bodied, or thinner, more aromatic or less. Biodynamic wines – at least well-made ones – tend to be much more complex than conventionally produced wines. Some people would say the wines are more ‘interesting’ than others, and thus worth drinking, no matter what your take on biodynamics more generally. I’d include myself in this latter category.
This, however, is not a majority opinion among wine drinkers. Notes from blind tastings we’ve run and interviews with wine shop owners and clerks suggest that most people are more comfortable sticking with what they know, conventionally-produced wines. The unknown, even in wine, can be off-putting, or scary. Here there be oenological dragons.
In a recent conversation, a wine shop clerk in Vienna told Julia that there were two main types of customers when it came to biodynamic wine. The first, and larger category, were people who weren’t interested in biodynamic wine, since it tasted different, and they just wanted a wine that was familiar to them. The other group were people who were committed to the ideals of biodynamics, and to them, philosophy mattered more than a standard of taste. A smaller group, the clerk said, did exist, who were willing to try biodynamic wine, and come at its complexity with an open mind.
Drinking or eating what is familiar to you is, of course, not surprising, and there is nothing wrong with it. Nonetheless, it is at this point that governments (or at least the Austrian one) and some wine producers are waiting for the consumer to catch up.
Biodynamic farming is more sustainable than conventional farming in areas like soil impact. Yet, in some ways, this means nothing. In Austria, it is not the government that is holding back a move towards greater sustainability. It is the consumers.
In other words, for most people, it seems taste trumps environmental ethics. This I see as being substantially different from being a vegetarian or vegan from a taste perspective. The latter two are to me about being willing to exclude arenas of taste and smell based on ethics. What I am interested in is not exclusion, but accommodation: the Neville Chamberlain of the senses as it were.
I suspect that this is an under-considered aspect of the issues we are talking about today. Which is odd. Food keeps us alive, but it is much more than that. It is about taste and what is good, what is bad, and what it should be. In other words, different tastes among wine drinkers may sound like the ultimate First World problem, but it is symptomatic of wider and deeper issues.
Let me close on a broader note. I have argued that biodynamic wines (and others) invert the standard ethical food trope of governments, often said to be in the pockets of big corporations, standing in the way of environmentally and ethically sound food policies. In this instance, it is the consumer, through an adherence to what they know and like, that is holding back a move towards wider adoption of some sustainable approaches. (It is, of course, more complicated than that, but this simplification will work for now.) Julian Baggini in The Virtues of the Table also points out that, perhaps surprisingly, McDonalds, one of the archetypal villains of globalisation, does fairly well in terms of animal welfare (2014, 87-89). On how McDonald’s stance is determined by what the consumers want, see also pages 94-5 in Baggini.
Biodynamic farming takes us even a step further, suggesting we may want, or need, to rethink our standard ‘Western’ models for sustainability. We need to move beyond Schumacher’s small is beautiful, or local foods, or other flavours of food ethics and think more radically. Biodynamics has acted as an internal Other that has carried out a sustained critique of Western agricultural methods since the early twentieth century. It is not just about reduced dependence on pesticides and fungicides, or allowing sheep and chickens to roam the vineyards. It is also about ‘dynamising’ your preparations through specialised mixing techniques. It is about homeopathic dosages of fermented cow dung, quartz, or various flowers deployed under the correct phases of the moon.
Despite being viewed by many people as a form of superstition or astrology, biodynamic wine is increasingly demanding notice. So perhaps, in thinking about food ethics, security and sustainability, we haven’t been thinking radically enough. I want to suggest that, as elsewhere in the world of anthropological inquiry as say, in studies of shamanism it is time, in thinking about sustainability and taste, to take our informants a bit more seriously.
Baggini, Julian. 2014 The virtues of the table: how to eat and think. London, Grant Books.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1958  Agriculture culture: the birth of the biodynamic method. Forest Row, Rudolf Steiner Press.