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The Working Group consisted of twelve members from nine countries with a strong bias towards plant rather than animal production. Of the four workshops in this Session, the Group felt that the task to be considered was less compatible with the organic ideal, seeking, as it was to apply reductionist techniques to organic research. Early in the discussions, it became clear that the Group were in danger of trying to brainstorm all possible techniques without considering or understanding how they might fit within a holistic approach. It was decided that the first priority should be to examine the decision-making process involved in evaluating suitable techniques, to guide selection and possible adaptation to organic research.


While holistic methods may be more difficult to apply to laboratory and field experiments, a holistic outlook is critical in deciding the context in which research should be undertaken. The holistic view must inform:

Specific experiments need to be derived from a full consideration of the research question, each forming a component towards greater understanding or solution of the problem. The process should be highly interactive, 'top to bottom', 'farmer back to farmer' and cross-referencing the relevance of the research at all levels.


Taken as a whole, organic and conventional experiments tend to have a different blend of characteristics, some of which are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Generalized characteristics of organic and conventional experiments



  • Inter (multi) disciplinary
  • Discipline based
  • Interdependence of activities
  • Singularity of activities
  • Role of value judgement/intuition
  • Objectivity
  • Longer-term
  • Short-term
  • Environmental interaction
  • Environmental control
  • Greater range of parameter studies
  • Fewer parameters evaluated
  • Based on farmer goals
  • Involve 'commercial' goals
  • Applied
  • Fundamental
  • An organic approach is based more on an acceptance of complexity, as an inherent part of the system rather than seeking to reduce or avoid complexity altogether. Control treatments will tend to be defined by the system, rather than artificially imposed. Environmental effects may be used positively, for example, to drive selection in organic plant breeding. Due to the greater range and interdependence of factors, there is likely to be a greater element of value judgement or intuition when setting up the experiment, compared to the conventional researcher who tends to be less involved.

    From these discussions the Group concluded that:


    Techniques were broadly classified according to:

    The requirements of holistically based research, will determine the approaches to be taken and the particular techniques (modified or otherwise) to be applied. Some possibilities are given in Table 2.

    Table 2. Approaches and techniques for organic laboratory and field experiments





    • Cooperation
    • Brain-storming

    Inputs from diverse sources e.g.

    • Social sciences
    • Molecular biology

    Interdependence of activities


    • Primary effects
    • Secondary effects
    • Computer modelling
    • Causal and flow analysis techniques

    Value judgement/intuition

    • Consultation
    • Observation
    • Non-traditional plant breeding techniques

    Range of parameters

    • Qualitative and quantitative methods
    • Macro and micro scale
    • Better developed food quality assessments
    • Soil biological activity
    • 'Picture building' techniques
    • Development of 'indices'

    Experimental control

    • Experimental design
    • Observation study
    • Novel statistical techniques

    Environmental interaction

    • Multi-site experiments
    • Multi-factorial design
    • GPS technology

    To accommodate more complex, interacting issues, greater emphasis will be given to consultation and observation studies, in formulating the research question and the experimental approach to be taken. The experience of a range of participants (farmers, researchers, retailers) from a variety of backgrounds (production, economics, social sciences) may be brought to bear, for example, to propose novel approaches to a particular problem. New and developing approaches in computer modelling, statistics or global positioning by satellite may be used to analyse data or improve experimental design. Even technologies such as molecular biology, normally thought to conflict with organic ideology may be used for example, to chart population dynamics within a non-traditional plant breeding programme.

    Specific scenarios were discussed, for example, the assessment of quality in organic food products. The whole food production, transport, processing and distribution chain may need to be considered. There may be further issues of supply and demand, seasonality of production, consumer attitudes and inputs. At the broadest level, environmental impacts or efficiency of energy use may provide additional dimensions to the research questions posed. Existing techniques may be used for example, analysis of mycotoxin of vitamin anti-oxidant levels, to support newer techniques, namely, the development of a 'chemical nose' to describe overall quality.

    The Group did not produce an exhaustive list of research techniques. Nor, did it produce a priority list, as the potential application and relative weighting of techniques could vary depending on the particular research problem.


    Laboratory and field experiments have an important contribution to make to the holistic evaluation of organic farming systems. This needs to be firmly driven from a holistic base. Having met this criterion, there are few limitations to the type of techniques which could be applied. It is not the choice of technique which is of primary importance but how and in what context it is applied.

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