Organic Farming | 2017 | Volume 3 | Issue 1 | Pages 1–2
DOI: 10.12924/of2017.03010001
ISSN: 2297–6485
How Scientific Is Organic Farming Research?
Thomas F. D
Editor-in-Chief of Organic Farming, Librello, Basel, Switzerland
Faculty of Life Science, Humboldt Universit
at zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany; E-Mail:
Published: 13 February 2017
Opening the third volume of this journal provides a re-
newed opportunity to reflect on the current developments
within the world of organic farming. As the most recent
international data show, the organic sector continues to
grow on a global scale, in terms of organic area, mar-
ket share and number of producers [
]. Yet, for organic
farming—as for any movement—expansion always en-
tails the difficulty of maintaining identity. Achieving both,
i.e. becoming ‘bigger and ‘better’, is the explicit goal
of Organic 3.0 [
], the international initiative to advance
and evolve organic farming. Launched in 2014, Organic
3.0 is now gaining increasing momentum, e.g. as a key
topic at the upcoming Organic World Congress in India
this autumn. The Organic 3.0 initiative proposes an am-
bitious plan for promoting “a widespread uptake of truly
sustainable farming systems” [
]. One of the suggested
pathways to achieve the goals of Organic 3.0 is improved
and extended research and development.
So what kind of research is needed for the ambitious de-
velopment goals of organic farming? A recently published
comprehensive review of this question concludes that a mul-
titude of research approaches will be needed for advancing
organic farming [
]. In particular, while it is recognized that
holistic, interdisciplinary system research will need to play
the lead role (e.g. [
]), also component research, following
more specialized and reductionist approaches, is seen as
necessary. Interactions between researchers and farmers
will need to span the full range, including classical on-farm
research and participatory action research.
However, the organic sector is not isolated in the re-
search world. Choosing which research approach is to be
pursued, and, in fact, which questions should be asked,
is not a boundless process. In particular, these choices
are often influenced by interactions with colleagues who
work in non-organic fields. Such interactions are often
determined by competition for research resources, e.g.
when it comes to defining the denomination of academic
chairs, setting up strategic plans for the future direction of
research institutes, or allocating funds to, or within, public
research programmes.
This struggle is particularly difficult when it is poisoned
by the underlying view still pertinent outside the organic
sector that organic farming research is somehow ‘unsci-
entific’. Over the past few decades, organic research has
responded to such critique, partly by moving towards more
established research, and away from heterodox methodolo-
gies, by expanding and professionalising, by increasing its
research output, and by progressively focussing more on
peer-reviewed articles [
]. Organic research, at least partly,
has also followed the trend towards increased disciplinary
specialization. So over the past decades, organic scientists
have engaged in the mainstream of scientific publication,
and this has partly resulted in increased reputation and
credibility from outside.
At the same time, agricultural science from outside the
organic sector is—at least in part—becoming aware of the
importance of applied participatory and farmer-led research,
calling for research to become more practice-oriented, and
partly adopting organic research approaches. In addition,
research outcomes and innovations, generated in the or-
ganic sector, e.g. in the area of legume cropping, are being
taken up in non-organic systems. But for a minority, little can
be more perplexing than when its goals become pursued
by the mainstream.
More recently the earlier critique against the organic
heterodoxy has been turned on its head: Now the argument
2017 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
has become that because organic methodologies are more
or less fully transferable to other systems, organic research
has no methodologies of its own, and has therefore no iden-
tity or right of existence as a separate branch of science. In
this view, organic can be subsumed under bigger headings,
because innovations and methodologies generated by or-
ganic research are transferable to other systems. Issues
concerning organic farming are suggested to be taken up
by specialists of mainstream science. The parts of organic
research deemed as scientific enough can be swallowed
whole. What was once a department of organic farming, to
all intents and purposes, soon becomes occupied with other
things, and is pulled away from concentrating its attention
on solutions for the organic sector. Organic issues become
hidden and diluted. The gain in credibility and reputation
through mainstreaming organic research is followed by an
embrace that is not always a friendly one.
Reasons for these developments are manifold. One
of them lies in the disincentives against organic research
imbued in current research evaluation [
]. Systems in-
vestigated by organic farming researchers are typically
highly complex meaning that research can take longer
so that research output per unit time is lower than for
simpler systems. Further, the interdisciplinary nature of
organic research is often not favoured by the gatekeepers
of specialised disciplinary science. However, there are
also various developments that are slowly bringing about
significant changes in the practice of research evaluation,
including the open access movement, which has particular
relevance for organic agriculture [6].
There are now opportunities to bring these various
movements together (open access, critique on inappropri-
ate science evaluation) and it is likely that organic farming
in particular will benefit from these new developments. It is
now necessary to take action, and seize the opportunity to
diversify the research evaluation system. More generally,
the organic community will need to develop strategies for
expanding organic research while maintaining its organic
identity, similar to, and beyond Organic 3.0. One of these
strategies will be the provision of free breathing space
for organic researchers outside existing pressures on re-
search, to promote sustainable innovations for and within
the organic sector.
References and Notes
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Arbenz M, Gould D, Stopes C. Organic 3.0—For truly sustainable
farming and consumption. Bonn, Germany: Organics International
(IFOAM); 2016. Available from:
organic3.0 web.pdf.
Niggli U, Willer H, Baker B. A Global Vision and Strategy for
Organic Farming Research. Frick, Switzerland: Technology Inno-
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