Research & Development
Our research programme is aimed at development of organic/agro-ecological food production and land management solutions to key global issues including climate change, soil and biodiversity conservation, and food security.
Plant breeding for crop resilience
Plant breeding is important to ensure that crops are well adapted to the environment in which they are grown and capable of resisting harmful pests and diseases, particularly if the use of fungicides and pesticides is to be reduced to protect the envi‐ ronment and improve sustainability. However, mainstream plant breeding methods can result in genetic monocultures that are susceptible to pests and diseases overcoming their resistance, and some breeding technologies such as GM are not accepted in organic farming.
The focus of our breeding programme is on increasing genetic diversity to produce crops that are more resilient to variations in climate and weather conditions; to weed, pest and disease pressures; and to other challenges. This can be achieved through the use of variety mixtures or composite cross populations with very high genetic diversity. As most modern varieties have been selected for high use of inputs not permitted in organic farming, we also aim to develop crop varieties specifically suited to organic production, e.g. which incorporate traits such as lower nitrogen requirements and higher competitive ability with weeds.
Soils and cropping systems
Conserving soils, building soil fertility and designing systems to produce healthy crops, sufficient yields and quality food are fundamental to ensuring food security and public health. The return of carbon‐rich crop residues to the soil, and the use of green manures and legumes for fertility‐building in crop rotations help to conserve and enhance organic matter levels in soils, soil structure and soil biological activity. Crop rotations and polycultures also help regulate weed, pest and disease incidence, particularly in systems where the use of chemical inputs is restricted.
Our work in this area is focused on the development of productive organic crop ping systems including the use of legumes, cover crops and reduced tillage systems without the use of herbicides. We have demonstrated that complex legume mixtures contribute to fertility building while supporting pollinators, and that reduced tillage can contribute to reduced energy consumption and enhanced soil protection.
Agroforestry is a concept of integrated land use that combines elements of agriculture and forestry in a sustainable production system. There are both ecological and economic interactions between the trees and crops and/or livestock elements in an agroforestry system. These interactions can lead to higher productivity compared to conventional systems, and provide a wide range of services including soil management, microclimate modification, weed control, natural fencing, carbon sequestration and nutrient recycling.
In its simplest form, agroforestry can be described as ‘growing trees on farms’ and includes the integration, both ecologically and economically, of the woody elements that may already be present in agricultural landscapes, such as hedgerows, windbreaks, buffer zones, trees in pasture, and small woodlands. At a greater level of complexity are agroforestry systems that are fully integrated structured systems where standard trees, orchard trees and/or coppice systems are grown in rows between crops or pasture in an alley-cropping design.
Food Quality and Health
One of the highest goals and claims of organic agriculture is to produces healthy and high quality food that differentiates itself through higher nutritional qualities, such as vitamins and minerals and lesser or no undesired compounds such as pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Food quality and health are core ideas and principles of organic farming.
One of our concept projects aims to create an international network of producers, advisors and scientists to jointly develop new and interdisciplinary approaches to health measurement and health research in organic agriculture, ultimately improving health effects in the entire food system.
- Biodiversity and agro-ecology
- Livestock systems
- Environment, sustainability and health
- Business and markets
Biodiversity and agro-ecology
Biodiversity and ecosystem health is integral to the organic approach; IFOAM’s Principle of Ecology states that “Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them”, while the Principle of Health highlights the importance of a healthy ecosystem to support healthy crops, animals and people, and equally, the role of organic agriculture in sustaining and enhancing the health of ecosystems and organisms. This integration of biodiversity and agriculture contrasts with the food production vs. biodiversity conflict arising from intensive/conventional production methods.
The biodiversity impacts of organic vs. conventional agricultural systems are now fairly well characterised, with wide acceptance of the biodiversity benefits of organic systems. The challenges now are to extend this research into the effects on ecosystem function, ecosystem services and associated valuation, and to develop further the idea of functional biodiversity as integral to organic systems.
Keeping livestock is an integral part of many organic farming systems. Ruminant livestock (in the UK mainly cattle and sheep) can utilise grass and roughage as a feed resource so they do not compete with human food needs. For monogastric livestock (pigs and poultry), the main challenges arise from securing sufficient supply of protein to meet their dietary needs without undue reliance on imported feedstuffs, particularly soya. Organic farming systems also aim to improve animal welfare through access to pasture and to promote health through good animal husbandry.
Our work in the area covers both ruminants (mainly cattle) and non-ruminants (pigs and poultry) with particular focus on forage production and utilisation, including the role of legumes as a home grown protein feed resource. We are also investigating animal nutrition, in particular minerals and trace elements in ruminants and key proteins in monogastrics. The impact of forage, supplementary nutrients, grass-land management and housing on animal health is also addressed.
Environment, sustainability and health
Food and agriculture have major impacts on the environment and health, both as a result of the production methods employed and the quality of the food produced. Research has shown that organic methods can conserve and enhance biodiversity and soils, reduce non-renewable energy and other input use, reduce pollution, protect water resources and mitigate climate change. Restricted pesticide and fertiliser inputs, more diverse crop rotations and the greater number of species grown all contribute. Our research focuses on the wider impacts of organic and other farming systems and the assessment of their sustainability and contribution to delivery of ecosystem services.
It also explores concepts of health applicable to individual organisms and ecosystems, reflecting that the interactions of soil, plant, animal, humans and the planet through ‘health’ is a key principle of organic agriculture. Human health is seen to be dependent on a healthy soil, healthy plants and healthy farm animals. This includes the provision of safe, nutritious, high quality food in sufficient quantities.
Business and markets
All farmers need to earn a living and sufficient income to ensure that their businesses are sustainable. The development of specialist markets for certified organic food provides a means by which consumers can access organic food and producers and food businesses can gain some financial return for adopting practices that yield environmental and other benefits not normally compensated by the market.
Despite not using yield-enhancing inputs, organic producers achieve similar incomes to comparable non-organic farms, thanks to consumer willingness to pay a premium for products with legally-backed certification of organic authenticity. As part of this, producers have developed innovative marketing and processing initiatives and close links with consumers in new business models such as community supported agriculture.
This programme focuses on the analysis of farm incomes and costs of production, the availability and quality of organic market data, sector/ market development as well as consumer attitudes, behaviour and willingness to pay, helping producers, food businesses and policy-makers to make better informed decisions.