Since organic farming systems are based on the functional dynamic interaction between soil, plants, animals, humans, ecosystems and environment (IFOAM, 1996), an important premise for research in organic farming is to develop approaches that are as holistic as possible. By holistic we mean that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. An objective is to avoid dealing only with symptoms of problems, without analysing what causes them and without sufficiently taking into account the consequences of a subsequent problem solving action. Although we are aiming for completely holistic research, it is hardly realizable because of human and resource limitations.
What can we do to improve organic farming systems as much as possible in a holistic way? Research projects should be part of a development strategy that has its main goal to further develop the organic farming systems and starts at a high level of integration. This work analyses the need for additional research at lower levels of integration. Many different techniques can and should be used in the research work within organic farming. The questions asked by the investigators determine the techniques to a very large degree. These techniques may be based on two main research approaches. One approach explores the organic farming systems and is mainly descriptive. The other is analytic and includes experimental work. However, the two are very closely related. Descriptive research is needed to define problems and experimental work to test hypotheses. The results of the research should be implemented together with existing knowledge into the development projects.
Each scientist has his or her own cultural background, which determines to a certain extent the questions asked and the hypotheses tested in the investigations. In general, scientists work according to the dominating paradigm cf. Wynen (1996). Therefore, we have to realize that our science driven objectives are not independent of our value driven objectives. In organic farming we have chosen a set of values reflected by the IFOAM standards (IFOAM, 1996). However, a wide range of objectives on farm level can fulfil the requirements of these standards. That means it is very important for us as scientists to define the research objectives together with those involved (farmers, advisers, public, etc).
In addition to quantitative data, qualitative information and scarcely documented indigenous knowledge are of importance both in the initial and final phase of the research process. They play an eminent role in respectively defining the research hypotheses and the interpretation and application of the results. Examples of qualitative information that can be taken into account are for instance, the appearance of a landscape, the shape of a carrot or the farmers' emotions fearing that their sheep may suffer from an attack of carnivores.
At the Norwegian Centre for Ecological Agriculture we are aiming at developing a research strategy starting the work at higher levels of integration. Work at a lower level of integration will be elaborated in cooperation with specialized scientists, mainly at other research institutes. These research results will be validated and implemented together with existing knowledge, into the process of developing Norwegian organic farming. Major areas of interest for our Institute are soil, plant, animals and nutrient issues. Case studies and field experiments have so far been the dominating research methods.
There is a large methodological challenge in working with complex issues. One is to have a perspective that is broad enough to incorporate all necessary elements at a higher level of integration. At the same time, it should be narrow enough to get sufficiently deep into the elements with significant impact to be able to gain required new knowledge and improve the system. Thus, the approach is first to achieve a broad perspective through systematic gathering and analysis of information. This can be done through such means as literature review, systems analysis and preliminary investigations and then use this to choose areas of special interest. These areas might be quite narrow, but are put into a broad context. In order to achieve results that are relevant to practice, close interaction between farmers, advisers and researchers is essential.
IFOAM (1996): "Basic standards for organic agriculture and processing", IFOAM Head office, Ökozentrum Imsbach, D-66636 Tholey-Theley. 44 p.
Wynen, E. (1996): "Research implications of a paradigm shift in agriculture: The case of organic farming", Centre for resource and Environmental Studies, Canberry, Australia ANU, 58 p.