Organic farming is often subject of heated scientific and public debates. This raises
question: How can scientists working in organic farming research achieve being impartial
while simultaneously sharing enthusiasm about organic farming and promoting it as
solution to many of the problems of agricultural and food systems? Science needs to
unbiased and detached from its object of investigation. It should be hesitant to draw
conclusions. Public statements must wait until evidence is strong and reproducible.
matters need to be communicated in a differentiated way that acknowledges pros and
Finally, science needs to follow a strict separation of facts and opinion. In which
does this culture go hand in hand with a burning passion for organic farming?
In many cases, the conflict between scientific neutrality on the one hand and a vocal
commitment and advocacy for change remains under the surface. In organic farming science,
the slow and tedious daily business of evidence-based improvement of organic systems
mostly unaffected by questions of neutrality. However, studies with the potential
to have a
larger impact on politics, may quickly become drawn into this conflict. A recent example
the study on massive insect decline published by Hallmann et al.
. Based on long-term collection of insects the study showed
how insect biomass has strongly decreased over the past decades. While the trend,
of previously published work, as recently reviewed , was
not so surprising to many experts, the suddenness and intensity of the ensuing
international public response was astonishing . Another example
is the discussion about the appropriateness of new plant breeding techniques for the
organic sector [4,5,6].
Paradoxically, the fight over the correct interpretation of scientific results and
forward seems to intensify even as scientifically gained ‘knowledge’ accumulates.
discussions become particularly polarised when they cultivate an image of an unbiased
scientific expert who imparts his or her view exclusively based on facts. Fundamentally,
however, most agricultural scientific enquiries contain strong normative elements.
concept of ‘pure facts’, which are completely separate from any valuations or value-based
choices, may make sense in some branches of fundamental science. In agriculture, however,
facts are almost always wrapped in multiple layers of value-laden contexts. This is
particularly relevant for organic farming, and for its relationship with non-organic
As a practice and a movement, but also as an object of scientific enquiry, organic
is inextricably connected to several high-level aims, such as the promotion of health,
expressed in the IFOAM principles . Too often, however, instead of
asking what really contributes to these aims and principles, the aims we are studying
those we can measure easily. Further, once we start thinking about how high-level
principles can be translated into measureable outcomes, it becomes clear that this
always entailing value-based choices.
My expectation is that many of the global problems agriculture is facing do possibly
become a lot easier to solve with new scientifically established facts (nor with novel
technologies, regardless of their compatibility with organic farming). Instead, they
fundamentally problems of clashing values and need a thorough and honest societal
how we want to live. The many trade-offs (e.g. between productivity and biodiversity)
are likely to remain largely intractable by technological or ecological advances  will force us to make choices—evidence-based, of course,
but building on values and principles. Therefore, the agricultural sciences need to
stronger culture of normative education and debate. Significant progress needs to
with regard to several questions: If there are limits to endless growth, what are
willing to sacrifice to achieve a more sustainable way of life and what is so essential
need to keep it? Is there a set and hierarchy of aims relevant for (organic) agriculture
can agree on, including those outside the organic sector? How do we best discuss our
and arrive at acceptable, and accepted conclusions? How are these aims and principles
integrated in research, in agricultural advice, in practice, and in policy making?
we assess aims and outcomes across multiple, potentially conflicting aims?
While scientific methods have been developed to address many of these questions , there is a lack of implementation by regularly and
systematically integrating these into agricultural research. The organic movement
already long-term experience in dealing with these issues and it could therefore become
motor for innovation and change in this important area.