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Addendum: The following paper was presented at the European Workshop on “Research Methodologies in Organic Farming” - Frick (Switzerland): 30 September - 3 October 1998 and was inadvertedly omitted from the REU Technical Series 58, Research Methodologies in Organic Farming, 1999. It should be cited as part of that Volume 58, p.179-185).


Organic farming as an agricultural practice cannot be distinguished from conventional farming in any clear way. Some forms of organic farming are very similar to conventional farms from an agronomic point of view, especially farms with a fair share of ruminants and pasture. However, the vision behind organic farming is distinctly different from modern industrial agriculture.

Organic farming organizations (including biodynamic agriculture) in Nordic countries have endorsed the following description of organic farming.

Organic farming is a self-reliant enduring agro-ecosystem in a balanced state. The system is based mainly on local and renewable resources. Organic farming is built on an holistic view, encompassing both the environmental, economic and social aspects of agricultural production in a local as well as in a global perspective. In organic farming, nature is considered a unified whole with its own value and man has a moral responsibility for farming in a manner which makes arable land a valuable part of nature (Anonym., 1995).

Some questions to be considered are: How can research in organic farming correspond to the holistic vision behind organic farming? Do we need holistic research? If so, what exactly is holistic research?


In order to approach these questions we first need to understand what research is. Karl Popper said science was characterized by being public, both in terms of being open to criticism and examination and in terms of being in pursuit of a common goal. We shall look closer at these characteristics from the point of view, that research is a common learning process (Figure 1).

First of all research is a learning process within the scientific community. As such, there are certain criteria which research has to meet in order to be open to criticism and examination within the scientific community. These internal criteria are connected to the conventional scientific criteria: objectivity, falsifiability, documentation of methods, reproducible results, etc. However, these are not the only criteria of quality for research as a learning process.

Research is not a separate activity isolated from the rest of society, as it is evident in agricultural science and other applied sciences. Research is an integrated part of society and as such, we may look upon research as a learning process for society in general. In this perspective, good research is characterized by being relevant and useable, by addressing relevant problems and questions. This is the background for emphasizing an additional set of criteria for research, which is concerned with the external relations of research as part of society.

Figure 1. Research as a learning process

Society is not a uniform entity; society is made up of different groups, with different interests, goals and values. The different groups of society not only have different goals, but they argue differently. There are different kinds of reasons, different discussions at work in society and because of this, there is more to these additional criteria than simply relevance; we shall return to the criteria later.


We may look upon the meaning of sustainability as an example of different interest groups and different discussions at work. Douglass (1984) distinguishes between three different meanings of sustainability in agriculture, used by different groups with different views and values.

Food sufficiency looks at population growth and discusses sustainability in terms of sufficient food production, with the necessary use of technology and resources. Agriculture is an instrument for feeding the world and economic cost-benefit analysis is the instruction that guides application of that instrument.

Stewardship is concerned with the ecological balance and the biophysical limits to agricultural production. From the ecological point of view, sustainability constrains the production and determines desirable population levels.

Community resembles the ecological point of view, but with special attention to the effects of different agricultural systems on the social organization and culture of rural life. Cultural practices are as important as the products of science to sustainability and the values of stewardship, self-reliance, humility and holism are destroyed by modern agriculture.

The alternative forms of agriculture, including organic farming, are found in the community group, while discussions of sustainability in connection with conventional agriculture, focusing on production of food and economic sustainability, come under the heading of food sufficiency.

Each of these different understandings of sustainability carries a different view point. In the planning and performance of agricultural research, it will make a difference which view point is taken as the point of departure. Research carried out from a food sufficiency point of view, might well be irrelevant to the questions asked from a community point of view.


With the above-mentioned example of sustainability in mind, taking research to be a learning process, we can state that learning as a process must always take place from a certain point of departure and this point of departure entails certain goals and values. If research is to be a common learning process, it has to involve an outside view on this point of departure, a distancing which allows for an explicit description which can be made public and subject to criticism.

This kind of distancing, of taking an outside view of oneself, is similar to the kind of reflection involved in human conscious learning. Human self-conscious reflection is a mental ability to take a step out and to look upon oneself from the outside. Conscious learning involves a process of distancing, taking an outside view and using this view in later action (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Learning as a reflection, moving from an inner to an outer point of view and back (Alrøe and Kristensen, 1998)

Research as a learning process thus involves two different points of view, a view from within, having to do with the goals and values of any goal-directed entity and an outside view, the conventional viewpoint of the scientific observer.


Thompson (1997) suggests that there are only two different philosophical meanings of sustainability: resource sufficiency and functional integrity.

Resource sufficiency is concerned with the foreseeable use of resources, food production and food distribution. Sustainability in this sense implies that agriculture can fulfil present and future generations' needs for food, fibre, etc.

In the functional integrity view, agriculture is viewed as a complex system of production practices, social values and ecological relations, the functional integrity of which may be nurtured or disrupted by human practice. This view of sustainability supports strategies for increasing the resilience of the system and avoidance of irreversible changes.

In a systems approach, Thompson’s two different meanings of sustainability can be seen as entailing different points of view. Resource sufficiency maintains an outside point of view, the viewpoint of the observer, while functional integrity acknowledges an inside point of view, the viewpoint of the player, acting in accordance with certain goals.

This difference in viewpoint entails different attitudes towards ignorance. Viewed from without, distanced from the system, sustainability is discussed from what may be predicted of future inputs and outputs. This involves a focus on accessible knowledge, and there is no specific room for ignorance to play a part. Seen from within, where the observer is a part of the system, sustainability must be discussed as a strategy for survival. Here protection against the unforeseen and general resilience is in focus and ignorance plays an important role.


From this perspective on research, we can question some of the conventional criteria of quality. Has research ever been objective in any strong sense, in the sense of being value-free?

No, research must always move from a specific standpoint, with a certain point of view. If research is to be objective in any sense, it has to be explicit not only about the methods used and the results achieved, but also about the point of view entailed in the particular research project. It has to be explicit about the meaning, the goals and the values involved in making the necessary research decisions on which questions to address and how to do it.

Even experimental research involves these kinds of non-objective decisions. Behind every objective experiment, the outcome of which is independent of what you, anybody else or I may think of it, is a range of decisions of what to investigate and how to construct the experiment, etc. These decisions are made from a certain point of view, which entails certain goals and values.

As far as objectivity in the conventional sense has been a guideline for research, it has prevented some forms of research from gaining scientific recognition. In particular, those forms of research where the researcher plays a role in the system to be investigated in a way which cannot be ignored, such as different forms of research in farming systems.


This perspective on research and the recognition that applied research cannot be a neutral, value-free observer, suggests additional criteria of quality for research, addressing the external relations of research in society and relations to other interest groups and discussions.

Proposals for additional external criteria of quality for research:

1. Research should investigate and explicitly describe its own standpoint, the point of view entailed in the research project.

2. Research should engage in the problems to be investigated, working explicitly with the goals and values involved.

3. Research should describe the choices made, the delimitations and constraints involved and the areas of ignorance uncovered in the particular project, as a necessary context of the results produced.

4. Research should place itself in a larger perspective, allowing different users to fit the results into a coherent overall picture.

The individual researcher is not individually responsible for meeting these criteria. Just as the openness to criticism and examination depends on structures of communication within the research community, the responsibility for meeting the external criteria above is to some degree to be placed within the research system at large. Many of the choices involved in research are not made by the individual researcher, but somewhere in the research system, in a way that is not particularly open or clear. This does not, however, absolve the individual researcher from reflecting upon the research he/she is doing.


Usually, in a systems approach, we speak of agriculture as a hierarchy of systems at different levels, from elementary particles and molecules at one end to plants, fields and agro-ecosystems at the other end.

Analytic research is concerned with explaining events on one level from mechanisms on lower levels and making predictions on foreseeable consequences of different actions. In light of the above considerations, this analytic method is part of a specific kind of discussion, which provides certain kinds of answers to questions of sustainability.

One way of illustrating the idea of research as a learning process is to use an extra dimension for the degree of involvement or detachment of different kinds of research. Within this triangular view of research we can place different kinds of research methods, with respect to the level in focus and whether the emphasis is on general knowledge or specific action (Figure 3).

We may take the considerations presented here as a suggestion of what holistic research can be: self-reflecting research concerned with the choices made in research, on what to look at and how to do it and how these choices are related to the different interest groups and discussions in society. For some practical examples of research performed within a systems approach, see Kristensen and Halberg (1997).

Figure 3. A triangular view of research methods

Among the tasks for future consideration are:

- establishing a coherent set of criteria of quality, fitting the different areas and methods of research; and

- finding ways to integrate and benefit from a range of different research methods.


The latest initiative in Denmark is the formation of the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming, including a new research station, which started in 1996. The objective of this centre is to promote research with a starting point in the organic concept and the agricultural problems in organic farming, for the benefit of developing sustainable agriculture in Denmark. The purpose is to coordinate the research activities in organic farming on the basis of the existing research groups in Denmark.

For some years, increasing collaboration between systems oriented researchers working with commercial farmers and discipline oriented scientists working with controlled experiments has inspired to seek greater coordination of research tasks. Thus, for example, nutrient turnover is studied on a number of private farms and more detailed registrations on selected farms and research stations. This type of collaboration stimulated the idea of an attempt to coordinate a whole new research programme where experiments on research stations and registrations on private farms are combined.

This idea has influenced two major research programmes, which are conducted as the basis for the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming. At the moment, approximately 100 researchers from 14 different institutes are participating in the centre, covering many different levels in the agricultural systems, from the individual animal and properties of the soil to consequences of organic farming for the society as a whole.

The basic idea has been to put together the research group so that all relevant disciplines and research methods were covered. The research effort has been coordinated with respect to the existing expertise and geography but in a way that leads to high stimulation and reflection in the different research groups. This is considered important in order to make more innovative research and to encourage making the understanding of sustainable agriculture involved as explicit as possible.

Finally, introducing systems thinking as a core of the research programme draws the attention to the idea that research in organic farming and sustainability issues is not only a question of getting more knowledge of mechanisms and structures as provided by conventional analytical methods of research. The research programme must include other kinds of research as well, focusing on systems function and development, with due consideration of the goals and values behind farming practices, in order to give suitable and coherent information about the possible role of organic farming in relation to questions of sustainability.


Alrøe, H.F. and Kristensen, E.S. (1998) Sustainability and organic farming. Landbruksøkonomisk Forum, no. 3 (Published in Danish).

Anonymous (1995) Action plan for promoting organic food production in Denmark. Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Copenhagen (Published in Danish).

Douglass, G.K. (1984) The meanings of agricultural sustainability. In: Douglass, G.K. (ed.): Agricultural sustainability in a changing world order. 1-29. Westview Press, Boulder, Colerado.

Kristensen, E.S. and Halberg, N. (1997) A systems approach for assessing sustainability in livestock farms. In: Sørensen, J.T. (ed.): Livestock farming systems - More than food production. Proc. of the fourth international symposium on livestock farming systems. EAAP Publ. No. 89: 16-30 pp.

Thompson, P.B. (1997) The varieties of sustainability in livestock farming. In: Sørensen, J.T. (ed.): Livestock farming systems - More than food production. Proc. of the fourth international symposium on livestock farming systems. EAAP Publ. No. 89: 5-15 pp.

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