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Natural is Good; Natural and Socially Just is Better
By Sandra Taylor
Aug 10, 2021
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Environmental responsibility has been a growing focal point in the wine industry over the last few decades and is certainly here to stay.  Yet a focus on social responsibility, racial injustice, and/or gender and racial inequities in the wine industry is not so apparent.  Growers and winemakers see commitments to climate action as a critical strategic priority.  But many are slow to recognize social justice as a critical risk factor.

Consumers themselves are increasingly aware of these environmental and social challenges and look to industry for solutions.  Their demand for sound agricultural production practices is increasing as they seek knowledge about what it is for their food and beverages to be sustainably produced and what that means for our environmental future.  

The wine industry is working to fulfill expectations of more environmental compliance, yet despite the potential, there is still much to be done with respect to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).

It has long been a concern of mine that organic and biodynamic certification criteria have no requirements or expectations for social responsibility, unlike regional certification programs like Napa Green and Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile for example, which do measure commitment to social responsibility.  

Vineyards that are certified organic and biodynamic should go further and include sustainable criteria among their practices.  While organic and biodynamic practices require elimination of all chemical use and conservation of biodiversity, they do not as a rule cover air quality, water conservation, emissions reduction or social justice.  An “organic” label is one way to judge a wine’s responsibility, but the life cycle impact of a bottle of wine goes beyond that, to include factors like carbon-sequestration, transportation, building logistics, renewable energy and wine packaging, along with human factors.

So, this week I was pleased to read about a new movement in the natural wine world focused on the human element of wine production to make “worker welfare as important to the natural wine conversation as sulfur use and native yeasts.” In an article entitled, “Fair Labor Practices Enter the Natural Wine Conversation” published on SevenFiftyDaily, I learned that some natural wine importers are examining more closely the practices of the producers in their portfolio and stressing the need for accountability regarding social responsibility, especially to workers and communities.  Though they don’t demand audits, these importers do express clearly their values, and some require an ethics pledge from producers.

Given the growing popularity of natural wine, it’s encouraging to witness this increased interest in the social aspects associated with production: health and social equity, human rights, labor rights, labor practices and decent working conditions, product safety and responsibility, rural economy, community engagement and well-being, as well as rural economic development and the conservation of cultural heritage.  

The wine industry has been slow to shed its identity as an exclusive all-white club.  Look at every sector of the industry, save the actual hard work in the vineyards, which is done largely by Hispanics, and you’ll find only a few African Americans here and there.  It’s not enough to be organic, biodynamic or natural; the industry must also work to improve working and living conditions for seasonal labor and farmworkers globally and be vocal advocates regarding policies that impact immigration restrictions on harvests.  

In the US the associations of biodynamic growers have announced commitments to Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DE&I).  In its statement released in 2019, the Biodynamic Demeter Association stated:  

“Our conscious intention is to infuse an understanding…with balanced effort in the spheres of culture, rights, and economy. ….  The Biodynamic Demeter Association will continue to nourish and draw from the deep spiritual roots of biodynamics, and cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout its work.”

“Just as diversity in our agricultural fields does not happen on its own, but needs to be planted, cultivated, and nurtured by the stewards of the land, so it is our responsibility to actively plant, cultivate, and nurture diversity, equity, inclusion, and right relationships in the biodynamic movement through our organizational culture, programs, and partnerships.”

Its announced mission is to "awaken and enliven co-creative relationships between humans and the earth, transforming the practice and culture of agriculture to renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities.  In order to fulfill this mission, we must recognize and play a key role in addressing the historical and contemporary injustices faced by both humans and the earth.”
“We seek to foster social justice and address and dismantle racism, patriarchy, and all forms of oppression through our work.  We seek to stand in solidarity with people who have been and continue to be systematically excluded from access to land, water, capital, education, organizational and political leadership, and the founding unalienable rights of the United States.”

“We commit to continually listening, learning, and deepening our understanding of social justice, equity, and inclusion.  We commit to engaging in open dialogue and collaboration.”
Bravo!  But the proof is in the doing.  The natural wine community, of which biodynamic growers are a critical part, would do well to act on these fine pronouncements and commitments.  A meaningful step would be to include labor practices in the biodynamic certification criteria.  

Other existing models to follow include Fair ‘n’ Green, a German sustainability certification of wineries, which includes criteria such as wages paid to harvest workers.  The Sustainable Austria certification for wine assesses social safeguards, job training, and fair wages, among other factors.

Consumers too must play their part.  It has become common practice for consumers to question the provenance of their food—but not their wine.  Diners interrogate servers about the ingredients in menu items to ensure their meals are organic or healthy, yet they wash it down with a conventionally made wine, often crafted with poor labor practices.

Consumers should make purchase decisions that favor wines that are environmentally and socially responsible, which will ultimately result in more resilient farming communities, healthier workers, balanced ecosystems, and economic vitality for producers.    

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