An Introduction to Organic Research

by Barbara Bellows

Why is research on organic agriculture so important?

For many years, following the introduction of soluble fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, researchers at land-grant universities conducted very little research applicable to organic agriculture. Consequently, organic farmers were forced to rely on their own indigenous knowledge, anecdotal information from other farmers, and research from the pre-synthetic fertilizer era prior to the 1940s. Some innovative farmers were able to develop viable businesses based on this limited information. However, other farmers struggled or abandoned their attempts to use organic practices, because they had limited understanding of organics, tried to implement practices that were not appropriate for their environment, or simply substituted “organically acceptable inputs” for synthetic inputs, while using “conventional” management practices.

While consumer interest in organically-produced products is growing rapidly and steadily (OTA, 2004, USDA/ERS, 2002), the number of land-grant institutions with organically certified research land is increasing very slowly. Research studies on organic agriculture lag behind those of synthetic-materials based “conventional” agriculture. Because of its emphasis on working with the soil and ecology, organic agriculture tends to be site-specific in its response to local environmental conditions. Thus, research conducted in one area of the country cannot be used to provide management recommendations for producers in another area of the country. Faced with this lack of reliable, locally appropriate research, many Extension agents are reluctant to provide advice about or encourage producers to use organic methods.

Reliable, systems-based research on organic practices can provide insights into how soil health, plant-pest interactions, and environmental conditions work together in productive organic agro-ecosystems. Researchers can then develop and test management practices that promote these interactions. This research needs to be conducted both in the field and in the laboratory.(Drinkwater, 2002) Field-based experiments will identify which management practices work under a given set of environmental and management conditions, while the laboratory experiments will help explain why they work—or fail to work. Based on this research, technical service providers, and ultimately producers, can then identify and implement effective organic practices.

This short document is provided to assist producers and technical service providers—Extension agents, NRCS agents, and specialists with nonprofit sustainable agriculture organizations—find and critically evaluate research literature on organic agriculture. Unfortunately, not all research that claims to be applicable to “organic agriculture” is. Research on organic agriculture must be evaluated according to its adherence to the NOP regulations and its scientific merit. The section titled “A critical understanding of organic research” is designed to help people evaluate the validity of published research studies. It can also be used to provide researchers with guidelines for conducting valid organic research. Finally, this document contains some examples of research that has been—or is being—conducted on organic agriculture.

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