This resource is part of our Organic Production/Organic Food: Information Access Tools tutorial which
identifies outstanding sources that address organic agriculture, research and information sources, contacts and experts, research funding sources, educational and career opportunities,
and upcoming events.
Ten years ago it was easy to direct people to information about organic agriculture. Resources
were limited, and reference to a few books and articles was often all that could be offered. Today,
electronic and print information overwhelms the seeker of organic-related information.
Organic food and fiber production is presently one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in
the United States, both in terms of annual sales and farmed acreage. [U.S. Organic Farming
Emerges in the 1990s: Adoption of Certified Systems, by Catherine R. Greene. USDA Economic
Research Service, June 2001. ERS AIB No. 770. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib770/]
By all indications, accompanying information resources have multiplied in similar fashion.
Organic is very much a "hot topic."
This document will present background information on the organic knowledge base in terms of history, quality, and quantity, and it will present resources and techniques that may be used for
optimal retrieval of organic resources and data. It will address the following questions:
Who generates (and has generated) organic data? Original sources
Where is organic data and information available? Print and non-print outlets
1. Who generates (and has generated) organic data? Original sources
A wide array of players are researching the agronomic and horticultural aspects of organic
production, as well as the marketing, consumer, environmental, social, and economic aspects.
These sources include government, non-profit, and commercial agricultural researchers;
advanced degree candidates at colleges and universities, Cooperative Extension educators and
farm consultants; environmental, nutritional, and food safety groups; marketing and trade
organizations; and commercial and non-profit consumer entities.
During much of its history, organic farming has relied on farmer-generated data. Experiments
and observations in the field were, for many years, a prime resource for organic production. This
information, often discounted as unscientific and/or irrelevant to large-scale agriculture by
professional agricultural researchers, was shared through farmer networks and organizations.
The data did not make it into mainstream information resources; what did appear in print was
published in what information specialists call "gray literature" -- local and organizational
newsletters, conference proceedings, and other alternative outlets.
2. Where is organic data and information? Print and non-print outlets
Currently, organic-related documentation can be found in many kinds of resources and publications. These include traditional science and research journals (peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed), conference proceedings, college and university dissertations, agricultural production and marketing reports, newsletters and magazines, news feeds and newspapers, as well as literature and research databases.
As with other types of information resources, organic-related information has become increasingly available in electronic formats: online full-text documents (both free and fee-based); email listservs; agency, commercial, and organizational Web sites, and more. Pertinent information is also abundant in traditional print articles, newsletters, and books; videos and other non-print media available through subscription or libraries.
4. What is the current status of organic information? Organic information's rapid growth
Gone are the days when just a few Web sites, journals, and books provided organic data. The pioneer information providers are now augmented by not only brand-new organic-specific resources, but by organic research, reports and articles that are folded into the conventional agriculture and business data.
As an example of organic information's growth, here are the results of a combined search on the
two largest agricultural databases: AGRICOLA and CAB ABSTRACTS:1
# of Citations
Percent in English
1Search terms/ Boolean operators used: (organic*OR biodynamic* OR bio-dynamic*) AND (food OR foods OR fruit OR fruits OR vegetable* OR grown OR production) AND (market* OR
sales OR price OR prices OR industry OR business OR retail* OR wholesale* OR consumer*)
5. What are some of the problems related to searching for organic information? The "organic" challenge
The unique nature of organic production and marketing makes searching on organic topics difficult.
There are many unrelated topics connected with the word organic, such as organic
chemistry, organic acids, and soil organic matter, that preclude searching on just the word
organic with the expectation of meaningful results.
There is the confusing nomenclature associated with organic production: organics,
organically grown, biodyamic, biological farming, ecological agriculture, and more - a host of almost synonymous terms. There are also many organic practices and organic commodities that may not always be labeled as such, but that may be relevant to a particular search, e.g. biological pest control, or natural foods. See also: Finding "Organic": Search Strategies and Terminology.
There is the holistic nature of organic production itself. Particularly in the area of
organic farming, one may need to consider the whole-farm, economic, political, philosophical, and economic aspects of organic. This is not easy to do, especially on discipline-focused databases.
6. What is the best way to search electronically on organic topics? Search engine options
Where ever you are searching, whether it is on the Internet via a search engine like Google or Yahoo, on a specific site using the site-designated search engine, or when searching a literature database online, be aware that different search engines have different formats, capabilities, and limitations. Here are some examples of search engine idiosyncrasies to consider.
Single word searches: Some search engines automatically perform stem searching - they are smart enough to know that when you type in the word organic they also look for organically or organics (e.g. MSN Search). Most are not. Others may allow for truncation or wildcards, that is, by placing a * or ? at the end of the word, as in organic*, all terms that start with organic will
be retrieved including organics and organically (e.g. AltaVista and NorthernLight).
Multiple word searches: There are several ways that an engine may handle multiple word searches. Searching on organic markets will elicit different results, depending on the engine you
use. It may find: 1.) all the items that contain organic OR markets - thousands of hits (e.g.
AltaVista); 2.) it may elicit items where organic AND markets appear, either together or paragraphs apart (e.g. Google); or 3.) it may elicit only items where the exact phrase appears (e.g. SilverPlatter CDROM databases). Of course, the results will also vary on engines that allow stemming as discussed above.
Phrase searching: Most search engines allow phrase (words adjacent and in given order)
searching through the use of quotation marks: "organic markets"
Other options that may be available: 1.) Boolean searching - allows searching multiple
terms/phrases at one time through the use of AND, OR, AND NOT. [The "AND NOT" function removes items with defined terms (example: organic AND NOT "organic compounds").] 2.) Field searching - searching for terms in titles only or just in URLs (e.g. organic in ti; .edu in URL).
Most people can improve their searching success exponentially simply by reading the Help
screens, and using the "Simple" and/or "Advanced" options effectively.
Warning: Internet search engines evolve constantly. What worked well last year may be out-of-date. While it is nice to have a tried-and-true favorite engine, do try others every now and then. You many find something you like better. There is a helpful Web site that regularly evaluates and compares Web search engines: The Greg Notess Web Site: Home of Search Engine Showdown (http://notess.com/)
Quick comparison of search engine results: Popular Internet search engine results: "organic
marketing" (the phrase) on Thursday, July 18, 2001 [The Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) recent publication, Organic Marketing Resources
(https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=185), was used as a benchmark to help evaluate relevance/order of items retrieved.]
Many people have now discovered the joys and frustrations of Internet searching. Despite the
Internet's relative newness, it is easy to believe that all the information one needs is free and
online on the World Wide Web. This may or may not be true. Particularly when it comes to
marketing-related information, the Internet is very limited. For one thing, most good
information is proprietary. The vast majority of relevant reports and journals are not available
for free downloading on the Internet. And you can't find them by searching on the Internet.
For a more complete picture of a marketing issue, check out traditional literature databases (some
are available online free, some for a fee), and mainstream marketing journals and directories.
Sampling a range of databases and search results. Search query used, unless otherwise noted:
organic AND (food OR foods) AND (market OR markets OR marketing OR consumer OR
consumers) AND (1995-2001)
8. What are the best search "strings" for finding organic? Keywords and phrases
In thinking about a search string or "strategy" that will help retrieve the best information in the
shortest amount of time, first define exactly what it is you want to know. Then work to define
the concept elements in the question you want answered. For instance, the question, "What can
you tell me about consumer markets for organic herbs in the U.S. Northwest?" might be broken
down in the following elements:
Develop a list of keywords and phrases for each category, starting with the most pertinent -
synonymous and to the point; working down to relevant - close in meaning; and then related -
potentially applicable. For inspiration, try some sample searches, read the titles and texts that
look most likely, and borrow words that describe them. For the above question, the list might
look like this:
9. What can I do if I find too much or too little on my organic topic? Optimizing the search through use of keywords and search engine options
Broadening a search to get more "hits." Here is an example of how widening a search through
adding relevant and related terms, and by optimizing the search engine's searching capabilities,
can help find additional information. [Sample search: Wilson Select database
(academic/business/general/full text articles online) 1995 - 2001 publications]
"organic food markets" [phrase]
organic AND food AND markets [anywhere in text]
organic*AND food* AND market* [truncation]
(organic* OR biodynamic OR bio-dynamic) AND food* AND market* [+pertinent organic]
(organic* OR biodynamic OR bio-dynamic) AND (food* OR fruit* OR vegetable* OR grown OR production) AND market* [+pertinent food]
(organic* OR biodynamic OR bio-dynamic) AND (food* OR fruit* OR vegetable* OR grown OR production) AND (market* OR sales OR price* OR wholesale* OR retail* OR consumer*) [+pertinent markets]
Narrowing a search with too many hits. In just the way that a search can be "exploded," it can
be "imploded," that is, narrowed. If you have started your search with the broad term, natural
foods, for instance, look for more restrictive labels. But beware using the "AND NOT" option
on a search engine. You may remove a great article about your topic if the author or indexer has
mentioned the taboo term anywhere in the title, keywords, text, or abstract. For instance, if the
abstract explains, "this research centers on organic alternatives to conventional agriculture" and
you tell the engine to "NOT" out all documents with phrase, "conventional agriculture," you will
never see this article! So use the option carefully. It is better to concentrate on the terms you
DO want to appear in your results.
Making order out of search results. Search engines present a variety of options when it comes to
sorting. You may be able to arrange your results alphabetically, chronologically, by full-text
results only, by relevance, by WWW site, by peer-reviewed articles only, etc. There are also
options for formatting download files or printed pages. Help screens can help (!) you find the
sort option that puts the items most relevant to your search first.
Obtaining full-text reports and articles. Depending on the database that you have searched, you
may still be only halfway home. If your search was on the Internet, and turned up all the full-text
articles you desire, you are fortunate. Alternatively, you may only have a detailed list of
publications in your hand, and not whole text documents. While abstracts can be very
informative, having the complete article or book may be required.
First, check the Internet, using the title of the article (phrase search) and/or the journal name. Even though you may not have originally retrieved the citation from a Web search,
you may be pleasantly surprised to find it available. Some journal publishers are offering
older articles for free online, and requiring fees only for the most recent issues.
Occasionally, a special interest group has permission to post selected articles for free
downloading on their Web sites.
General library services. Searching at large academic libraries offers the added bonus of
on-site availability of the full-text articles and books. The process of searching expensive
databases that are linked to expensive online journals can provide instant gratification:
searching, selecting titles from your search that look promising, and downloading or
printing the full text article in one seamless operation. No more trips to the stacks, or
waiting at the desk for someone else to go, much less waiting a week or more for
InterLibrary Loan delivery.
InterLibrary Loan. If you fail to find the needed full-text documents cited on your list,
ask local library staff about obtaining loans or photocopies from other institutions. Even
the smallest libraries are usually connected to a state-wide system that facilitates this.
Copyright restrictions. Keep in mind that copyright law covers how you may download and
distribute most publications. This often includes the abstracts.
Lipson, Mark and the Organic Farming Research Foundation., Searching for the "O-Word":
Analyzing the USDA Current Research Information System for Pertinence to Organic Farming.
Santa Cruz, CA: Organic Farming Research Foundation, 1997.
Weintraub, Irwin, "Holistic Literature Searching for a Holistic Agriculture." Quarterly Bulletin of the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists (IAALD), 42, 1 (1997):
Weintraub, Irwin., "The Terminology of Alternative Agriculture Searching AGRICOLA, CAB
and AGRIS." Quarterly Bulletin of the International Association of Agricultural Information
Specialists (IAALD), 37, 4 (1992): 209-13.