Organic Agricultural Research in Europe
- Current Status and Future Prospects -

Urs Niggli and Helga Willer

0 Introduction


1 The Beginnings of Research in Organic Agriculture


2 Current Research Structures

2.1 Funding

2.2 Private Research Institutes

2.3 University Chairs and Institutes

2.4 Public Research Institutions with Organic Farming Research Activities

.3 Coordination of Organic Farming Research

3.1 Coordination Activities on a Country Level

3.2 Regional Networks

3.3 Pan-European Coordination Activities

3.4 Worldwide Coordination Activities (IFOAM)

3.5 The Internet as a Tool for Information Exchange on Organic Agriculture Research


4 Further Stimulation by Research is Crucial


5 Conclusions and Recommendations


6 References


7 Organic Farming Research Projects funded by the European Commission

8 Authors



Organic agriculture has become a widely accepted sector of agricultural and food research. In Europe publicly funded research has shifted towards organic farming, while research funding for conventional farming has been cut considerably. This paper takes a closer look at how organic farming research is organised in Europe and at what challenges researchers will face in the future.


1 The Beginnings of Research in Organic Agriculture 

Organic farming research has developed over four stages: first through pioneer farmers and scientists; then through pioneer private research institutes; through organic farming chairs at universities; and, finally, through organic farming projects at state research institutes.

In the very beginning (from the 1930s onward), several scientists such as Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Rudolf Steiner, Hans Mueller and Jean Boucher as well as practitioners like Maria Mueller, Raoul Lemaire and Maria Thun developed ideas for or carried out many research activities.

Figure 1: Development of organic farming research in a historical context (Niggli/Willer, 2001)


Formal scientific research activities began in the 1970s. The following research institutions were founded within a very short space of time:

the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau FiBL) in Switzerland (1974)



the Louis Bolk Institute in the Netherlands (1976)



Elm Farm Research Centre in England (1982)

 the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) with its research station in Coventry, England (1984)


the Norwegian Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (NORSOK), now one of eight state institutes under the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture (1987)


.Biodynamic research has a longer history and has its beginnings in the 1920s. It is now carried out at:


2 Current Research Structures 

Organic farming research is organised differently in the various European countries. Compilations of the most important research institutions are provided by Willer and Zerger (1998) and Padel (1999).

A list of links to institutions active in organic farming research is available here and the address database of the internet site


2.1 Funding

According to recent reviews (Padel, 1999; Niggli, 1999; ADAS, 2000), the emphasis placed on organic farming research in a given country only partly reflects the density of organic farms.

Leading in organic farming research are the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Finland and, to a lesser extent, Sweden. Denmark has reserved 4-8% of its total research funds for organic farming projects. Organic farming research is also growing rapidly in Switzerland, where 3 to 4% of the total research budget of the Federal Office of Agriculture is allotted to the private Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitut fuer biologischen Landbau, FiBL), and another 2 to 3% are earmarked for organic farming projects at state research institutions.

In contrast, organic farming research is seriously under-funded in Italy, considering the density of organic farms there and the severe technical problems posed by the Mediterranean climate and horticultural crops. There is also a research deficit in other Mediterranean countries as well as in central and eastern European countries. In most other European countries, research funding corresponds to the proportion of organic farms to conventional ones.

Several research projects focusing on organic agriculture were funded under the EU’s Framework Programmes. (A list of EU-funded projects can be found at the end of the text.


2.2 Private Research Institutes

Today, private research institutes continue to play a prominent role in Switzerland (FiBL), the Netherlands (Louis Bolk Instituut), England (Elm Farm Research Centre, EFRC and Henry Doubleday Research Association, HDRA) and Austria (Ludwig Boltzmann Institut). They act as main centres of competence in organic farming research or provide experts on organic agriculture for projects carried out at conventional research institutes, thus forming links between these and the organic sector .

2.3 University Chairs and Institutes

In some countries, organic agriculture research is mainly funded at the university level. Germany has several chairs for organic agriculture (in Kassel-Witzenhausen, Bonn, Gießen, Nuertingen and Osnabrueck).

Research on organic farming is also mainly conducted at the university level in: Austria (University of Vienna), Denmark (University of Copenhagen), the Netherlands (University of Wageningen), Sweden (Swedish Agricultural University) and Wales (Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, Aberystwyth). This is also the case in the central eastern European countries of Hungary and Poland, where chairs for organic agriculture have been established (Universities of Budapest and Goedoelloe; University of Warsaw).

The scientific requirements for Ph.D. theses and the flux of doctoral students make it extremely difficult to transfer academic results into agricultural practice.

A recent development is that professorial chairs and institutes are sponsored by the private sector. The Tesco Organic Farming Centre at the University of Newcastle and the Chair of Organic Food Quality at the university of Kassel-Witzenhausen are two examples.


2.4 Public Research Institutions with Organic Farming Research Activities

Public research institutions specialising in organic farming exist in the following Scandinavian countries: Denmark (Danish Research Centre, DARCOF, Foulum); Finland (Agrifood Research Finland - Environmental Research - Ecological Production, Partala); Sweden (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Uppsala, CUL) and Norway (Norwegian Centre for Ecological Agriculture, NORSOK in Tingvoll Gard). With the exception of the Swedish CUL, which belongs to the Swedish Agricultural University, all centres are part of general agricultural research institutions.

In Denmark, for example, the Danish Research Centre of Organic Farming DARCOF in Foulum coordinates the research projects of 15 research institutes with 100 researchers. The Danish call DARCOF the "research centre without walls". For DARCOF II 22 million Euro were allocated for 2000 to 2005. In Norway organic agriculture research is coordinated by Norwegian Research Committee for Organic Agriculture, which is based at the Norsk senter for økologisk landbruk (NORSØK) - the Norwegian Centre For Organic Agriculture.

The French Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, INRA started to coordinate its organic farming research in 1999.

The German national agricultural research station (Bundesforschungsanstalt für Landwirtschaft FAL) will intensify its activities in the future. It set up an organic agriculture research institute in the north of Germany (Trenthorst) in autumn 2000. A list of state funded organic farming projects funded at a federal level in Germany is available via the project database of the Dainet.

In almost all European countries, minor organic farming research is taking place at universities and other research institutes not specialised in organic farming. In Italy and other southern European countries, organic farming research mainly depends on activities at such institutions. In Austria the state research institutes at Gumpenstein and Linz are conducting several research projects on organic farming. This is also the case in Switzerland, where organic farming research takes place at all six conventional federal research stations, chiefly at the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture (FAL).


3 Coordination of Organic Farming Research 


Because research in organic agriculture is now increasing and is therefore becoming more anonymous, it is very important that the efficiency of organic research and the exchange of preliminary results and project ideas be improved.

3.1. Coordination Activities on a Country Level

In the Scandinavian countries, research activities are efficiently coordinated by the state-funded centres for organic agriculture (see chapter 2.5), fostering a dialogue between the advisory services, practitioners and researchers.

In France the Institute Technique de l’Agriculture Biologique (ITAB) with its two regional organisations (the Groupe de Recherche en Agriculture Biologique (GRAB) in Avignon and the Groupement d’Agriculture Biologique du Nord, GABNORD in Lille) coordinates applied and on-farm activities. The Italian "Group of Researchers in Organic Farming" (Grupo di ricerca in agricoltura biologica, GRAB-IT) was founded in 1996. It aims to coordinate research efforts and organises workshops.

In Austria the Forschungsinitiative Biologischer Landbau, based at the institute of Organic Agriculture (IFÖL) at at the University of Vienna, provides a forum for all institutions active in organic agriculture research.

Germany has no national coordination of organic farming research. The coordination of the scientific conference on organic farming in the German language region is, however, based in Germany (by Stiftung Ökologie & Landbau). With its proceedings much of the ongoing research is documented. Applied research which is mainly taking place at the research stations of the lander is coordinated by the Arbeitsgruppe der Versuchsansteller im ökologischen Landbau.

In order to better structure and coordinate research in organic farming the Dutch Platform Biologica jointly with Wageningen university coordinates organic farming research. It undertook the project "Research agenda organic farming and food 2000-2004" in cooperation with Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR). The aim of the project was to determine a research agenda for the entire organic sector. The research agenda produced was presented to the Ministry of Agriculture on the 1st of February 2000 and was used for the new Action Plan for organic farming.

In Switzerland a working group comprised of members of FiBL and of the six federal research stations coordinates common projects.

In the UK the Colloquium of Organic Researchers (COR) has taken on the role of coordination organic farming research. It aims to improve the dialogue between organic researchers. Since 2002 onwards it regularly holds conferences.


3.2 Regional Networks

A scientific conference has taken place every two years since 1993 in the German-speaking countries. It is organised by an organic farming research institution in cooperation with the Stiftung Oekologie & Landbau (SOEL). The next conference will take place at University of Vienna in 2003, organised by the Institute of Organic Agriculture.

In the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic Research Network for Ecological Agriculture coordinates teaching activities at the university level. The network discusses multidisciplinary research for the development of the organic farming system and publishes a newsletter.

The Mediterranean countries are beginning to coordinate their research activities within the IFOAM Mediterranean group Agrobiomediterraneo, which was founded in 1990 to meet the very special requirements of the Mediterranean climate. The agronomic Institute of Bari (IAMB) maintains a network of Scientists active in Mediterranean organic farming research (International network on Mediterranean Organic Agriculture MOAN) .


3.3 Pan-European Coordination Activities

The EU has funded several concerted actions, such as the European Network for Scientific Research Coordination in Organic Farming (ENOF) and Documentation of Ecological Agriculture (DOCEA). The Network for Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Agriculture (NAHWOA) is a recent addition.

The FAO Regional Office for Europe (REU) has established a working group on "Research Methodologies in Organic Farming", a part of the SREN-ESCORENA network, which has met twice since 1998 (see Krell 1997 and Krell/Zanoli 1999).

ENOF has started to establish collaboration between all institutions working on the research, experimentation, demonstration or diffusion of organic farming techniques (see ENOF-White Book, 1999).


3.4 World-wide Coordination Activities (IFOAM)

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) promotes the dialogue between organic agricultural practice and research internationally. It has held thirteen scientific conferences since 1977 (

The Swiss FiBL and the German Institute of Organic Agriculture (University of Bonn) are presently initiating an international scientific society for organic farming, to be presented at the next IFOAM conference in August 2002 in Victoria, Canada.


3.5 The Internet as a Tool for Information Exchange on Organic Agriculture Research

The internet has recently gained importance as a medium for the exchange of information on organic farming research. Most institutes have their own homepages where they present their activities. A list of links to research institutions as well as a project and event database and other information related to organic farming research in Europe is available at:, an internet site maintained by FiBL and SOEL.

Another recent development is a review of current European research on organic farming compiled by the British ADAS (see: The internet site, maintained by CABI contains information on organic farming research.


4 Further Stimulation by Research is Crucial 

Several recent review papers have dealt with the needs and priorities of research activities in organic farming (Niggli and Willer 2000, Padel 1999, Willer and Zerger 1999, Wynen 1998, Hoeoek 1997, Niggli and Lockeretz 1996). Because agricultural research has neglected organic farming for decades, presentations of research needs turn out to be long lists of top priority.

Organic farmers face the same problems as conventional ones do. ‘Unfortunately’, however, organic farming takes a more integrative – and therefore more time consuming – approach to resolving them. Considerably less private-sector research support, such as from pesticide and seed companies, is allocated to organic farming. Therefore, research has the potential to be the crucial factor driving organic farming quickly and substantially forward. It is pure nonsense to discuss the productivity and economic and ecological performance of organic farming before stimulating its potential by strengthening and reassessing national and EU research activities. To judge research priorities properly, the following questions have to be considered:

  • What impedes the fast growth of organic conversion – locally, regionally and globally – most? Focus: Production techniques, economic optimisation strategies.

  • What could endanger the market success of organic food? Focus: Quality, food safety.

  • What is needed for the long-term and sustainable progress of organic farming? Focus: Ethics, animal welfare, genetic resources, landscape and biodiversity, social issues.


    Table: Future Priorities for Organic Farming Research (Niggli/Willer, 2001)

    Criteria, goals Fields where activities are need (1= highest priority)
    Fast growth to 20 or more percent of land area.
    1. Arable crops (reducing labour costs! weeding! plant protection! productivity!)
    2. Horticultural crops (plant protection! varieties! labour costs! quality and marketing!)
    3. Non-ruminants (nutrient cycles! protein supply! appropriate housing! breeding! free range systems!)
    4. Ruminants (tethering! utter diseases! endoparasites! breeding!)
    5. Grassland
    6. Economic Aspects
    7. Policy advice (optimal support instruments for organic agriculture; research into ecological, economic, social advantages of organic farming and optimisation strategies)
    Ensuring market success (food scares, good image, quality)
    1. Ruminants (BSE! Antibiotics! milk quality! Tethering!)
    2. Horticultural crops (plant protection! copper! High external input instead of closed cycles! N-management! Sensorial and cosmetic quality)
    3. Labour situation/fair trade issues (casual labourers from the South and the East!)
    4. Non-ruminants (nutrient cycles not closed! Protein feed supply! inappropriate housing! Intensive use of chemical remedies!)
    5. Arable crops (nitrates! mycotoxins! missing crop rotation! Soil compaction-> soil erosion!).
    6. Nature conservation (no minimal requirements in the standards).
    7. Grassland (too intensive use, no biodiversity)
    8. Processing (diversification of product range, sensorial quality; GMO)
    Long-term and sustainable progress of organic farming
    1. Ruminants: Ethical questions, breeding, holistic approach to animal health.
    2. Non-ruminants (nutrient cycles! Breeding! Consequent free range and fattening systems).
    3. Nature conservation: Organic farms must become partners of nature conservation. 
    4. Rural development: Potential of organic farming for rural regions, landscape maintenance and development, jobs, decentralised economic growth, social work of farmers. 
    5. Organic produce in Supermarkets (fair trade! convenience!) 
    6. Plant production (breeding, optimisation of ecological plant protection and fertilisation systems) 
    7. Energy (use of on-farm-generated/renewable energies, reduction of energy consumption, optimisation of packaging, transport, life cycle assessment) 
    8. Processing (ingredients, energy) 
    9. Soil management (soil life, appropriate (use of) machinery) 
    10. Progress in fields related to organic farming, textiles, forest, aquaculture, ecological production of farm and processing inputs



    5 Recommendations and conclusions

    • On national as well as on EU-level, research funds should be directed substantially towards organic farming in order to improve the economic and ecological performance of organic farming. The impact of research funds is very high in this field of food production, because the potential of organic farming is only slightly exploited by research.

    • Integrating organic farming research into conventional research structures means disintegrating organic farming itself. Therefore, special attention should be given to how research activities are organised. National or regional centres of competence (hubs) are needed in order to provide and to maintain an appropriate quality of research. These hubs can be organised as real or virtual centres.

    • Evaluation procedures for most national and EU research funds do not consider adequately the unique approach and methodology of organic farming research. These procedures have to be amended and evaluators have to be trained. A separate programme for organic farming R&D within the future EU frameworks is strongly recommended.


6 References


ADAS 2000: A Review of Current European Research on Organic Farming. Keatinge, R., Cormack, W., Padel, S. and Wolfe, M. A review prepared for MAFF Rural and Marine Environment Division, February 2000, 107 pp

European Network for Scientific Research Coordination in Organic Farming, 1999: ENOF White Book. Barcelona 1999.

Krell, Rainer / FAO (ed.): Biological Farming Research in Europe. REU Technical Series No. 54. FAO Regional Office for Europe, Rome, 1997,

Niggli, Urs and William Lockeretz, 1996: Development of research in organic agriculture. In: Oestergaard, (Ed.): Fundamentals of Organic Agriculture. IFOAM, Tholey-Theley, pp. 9-23.

Niggli, Urs and Helga Willer, 2001: Stimulating the potential for innovation in organic farming by research. Paper held at the European Conference - Organic Food and Farming 10.-11. May 2001, Copenhagen, Denmark

Niggli, Urs and Helga Willer, 2000: Organic Agricultural Research in Europe – Present State and Future Prospects. In: Alföldi, Thomas, William Lockeretz and Urs Niggli (Eds.): IFOAM 2000 – The World Grows Organic. Proceedings 13th IFOAM Scientific Conference. Zürich, 2000,

Padel, Susanne, 1999: Research in Organic Agriculture in Europe. In: The policy and regulatory environment for organic farming in Europe. Lampkin, Nicolas, Carolyn Foster, Susanne Padel, and Peter Midmore. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy, Vol. 1 University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart-Hohenheim

Tyburski, Józef, 1997: The present state and proposal for future research in the field of organic agriculture in the field of organic agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe. In: Krell, Rainer (Ed.): Biological farming Research in Europe. REU Technical Series No. 54. FAO Regional Office for Europe, Rome, 1997

Willer, Helga and Uli Zerger, 1999: Demand of Research and Development in Organic Farming in Europe. In: Zanoli, R. and R. Krell (Eds.): First SREN Workshop on Research Methodologies in Organic Farming. Proceedings. Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO, Rome 1999

Zanoli, Raffaele and Reiner Krell (Eds.), 1999: First SREN Workshop on Research Methodologies in Organic Farming. Workshop held at FiBL, Switzerland, October 1998. Proceedings. Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO, Rome 1999,

7 Organic Farming Research Projects funded by the European Commission


The information presented here is based on searches in the CORDIS-Project Database. It might not be complete. For projects which have a separate project homepage this is listed; for the other projects the entry in the CORDIS project database is listed.

The projects are presented in chronological order.



  • QLK5-2000-01124
    Organic Market Initiatives and Rural Development (OMIARD)
    c/o University of Wales, Aberystwyth: Institute of Rural Studies
    Dr. Peter Midmore
    Llanbadarn Fawr,  UK -   SY23 3AL Aberystwyth Ceredigion   Great Britain
    Tel: +44-1970-624471  Fax: +44-1970-611264
    Activities: EU-funded research project (RTD), Start Date: 2001-01-01; End Date: 2003-12-31

  • QLRT-1999-31112
    Overcoming barriers to conversion to organic farming in the European Union through markets for conversion products (CONVERSION)
    c/o The University of Reading
    Dr. Spencer Henson
    UK -   Reading   Great Britain
    Tel: +44 1189 316775  Fax: +44 1189 756467
    Activities: EU-funded research project (RTD); Starting date: 01-10-2000; Duration: 36 months

  • QLRT-1999-31065
    Development of a systems approach for the management of late blight in EU organic potato production (Blight-Mop)
    c/o Tesco Centre for Organic Agriculture; University Newcastle upon Tyne
    Prof. Dr. Carlo Leifert
    King George VI Building,  UK -   Newcastle upon Tyne   Great Britain
    Tel: +44 (0) 191 2226908  Fax: +44 (0) 191 2227811
    Activities: EU-funded research project; Starting date: 01-01-2001; Duration: 54 months

  • FAIR-98-4405
    Network for Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Agriculture (NAHWOA)
    c/o Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics Research
    Malla Hovi
    PO Box 236, Earley Gate,  UK - RG6 6  Reading   Great Britain
    Tel: +44 (0) 118 - 931 84  Fax: +44 (0) 118 - 926 2431
    Activities: EU-funded research project on animal health; concerted action, Start Date: 1999-01-04; End Date: 2002-01-03;
    Publications: News and information at internet site

  • FAIR 961794
    Effects of the CAP-reform and possible further developments on organic farming in the EU
    c/o Institut für landwirtschaftliche Betriebslehre
    Prof. Dr. Stephan Dabbert
    D - 70593  Stuttgart   Germany
    Tel: +49-711-4593523  Fax: +49-711-4592555
    Activities: EU-funded research project (RTD); Start Date: 1997-03-01; End Date: 2000-06-30; Completed.

  • AIR 1940
    Elaboration of standards for site-specified fertilization systems in organic farming in Europe based on long-term field experiments
    c/o  Institut für biologisch-dynamische Forschung e.V.
    Dr. Joachim Raupp
    Brandschneise 5,  D - 64295  Darmstadt   Germany
    Tel: 06155-84210  Fax: 06155-842125
    Activities: EU-funded research project (converted action); Start Date: 1995-01-01, End Date: 1997-12-31; Completed

  • AIR 32143
    European Network of Research in Organic Farming ENOF
    c/o Laboratory of Entomology and Environmental Analysis, LEEAM-Agroecology
    Prof. Dr.  Juan Isart
    Jordi Girona 18-26,  E - 08034  Barcelona   Spain
    Tel: +34-93-400-6100  Fax: +34-93-2045904
    Activities: EU-funded research project (concerted action); Start Date: 1995-01-01; End Date: 1998-12-31; Completed




8 Authors

Dr. Urs Niggli
Forschungsinstitut fuer biologischen Landbau, FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture)
Tel. +41-62-8657272, FAx +41-62-8657273
Ackerstrasse, CH-5070 Frick
e-mail:, Internet


Dr. Helga Willer
Forschungsinstitut fuer biologischen Landbau, FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture)
Tel. +41-62-8657272, FAx +41-62-8657273
Ackerstrasse, CH-5070 Frick
e-mail:, Internet

Last update 2 May 2002