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Alternative Farming Systems Information Center of the National Agricultural Library
Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture


Organic Information Resources.
What are They? Where are They? How Can I Find Them?

Compiled by:
Mary V. Gold
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
National Agricultural Library
Agricultural Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture

October 2001


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.


On this Page...

Introduction
Who generates (and has generated) organic data? Original sources
Where is organic data and information? Print and non-print outlets
How is organic information available? Formats
What is the current status of organic information?
What are some of the problems related to searching for organic information?
What is the best way to search electronically on organic topics?
Where can I search to find just what I want in the least amount of time?
What are the best search "strings" for finding organic?
What can I do if I find too much or too little on my organic topic?
How can I "capture" and use what I find?
Related references


Introduction

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:

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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.

3. How is organic information available? Formats

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.

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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

Publication Years # of Citations Percent in English
1970-1975 95 64%
1976-1980 228 68%
1981-1985 256 73%
1986-1990 525 74%
1991-1995 927 69%
1996-2001 1314 64%

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.

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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 (http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/markres.html), was used as a benchmark to help evaluate relevance/order of items retrieved.]

Engine2 # of Hits The # 1 Hit
Google
http://www.google.com/
1320
MSN Search (Inktomi)
http://search.msn.com
1131
All The Web (Fast)
http://www.alltheweb.com/
906
Northern Light
http://www.northernlight.com/
836
AltaVista
http://www.altavista.com/
827
Yahoo
http://www.yahoo.com/
557

2Warning: Some Internet search engines provide preferential placement or ratings for advertisers.

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7. Where can I search to find just what I want in the least amount of time? Databases, directories, and the WWW

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)

Database Availability Full-Text # of Hits
ABI Inform Global
(business publications)
fee-based Yes 25
AgEcon Search: Research in Agricultural and Applied Economics
http://agecon.lib.umn.edu/
free Yes
PDF
11
AGRICOLA CDROM fee-based No 111
AGRICOLA Online
http://agricola.nal.usda.gov/
free No 13 books
53 articles
(simplified search)
Books in Print (BIP) fee-based No 5
Business Source Premier fee-based Yes 344
CAB Abstracts fee-based No 373
Dissertation Abstracts fee-based No 29
E-Answers (Extension publications)
http://e-answers.adec.edu/
free Some 459 (14 with 45%+ relevance rating)
EconLit fee-based No 17
FindArticles.com (LookSmart/Gale Group)
http://www.findarticles.com/PI/index.jhtml
free Yes 1074
Food Science & Technology Abstracts (FSTA) fee-based No 240
LexisNexis/Academic Universe: Business/Industry News (industry & trade resources) fee-based Yes 882 (2000-01only)
LexisNexis/Academic Universe: Business/Business & Finance (newspapers) fee-based Yes 882 (2000-01 only)
Proceedings First fee-based No 1
Readers Guide
(popular literature)
fee-based No 68
Sociological Abstracts fee-based No 7
Wilson Select fee-based Yes 119
Thomas Food Industry Register CDROM fee-based Not applicable 380 listings under "Foods - Natural, Organic"
Thomas Register Online
http://www.thomasregister.com/
(free login required)
free Not applicable 112 listings

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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:

keyword = "organic"; related element = Label
keyword = "herbs"; related element = Commodity
keyword = "consumer"; related element = Market Outlet
keyword = "Northeast"; related element = Geographic Location

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:

  Label Commodity Market Location
Pertinent terms organic*
biodynamic
herb(s) consumer* Northeast U.S.
Northeastern states
Relevant terms pesticide-free
natural
ecolabel*
specific herb names
medicinal plants
retail
farmers' markets
grocery/ies
supermarket(s)
state names
New England
Atlantic states
Mid-Atlantic
Related terms health foods
nutriceuticals
functional foods
spices market*
distribution
East/Eastern states
Database-specific codes3     E720
(AGRICOLA)
 

3The major agricultural databases offer added definition using subject codes. For instance, all documents indexed by AGRICOLA that are about "consumer economics" are assigned the code number E720.

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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]

Search Terms

Total "Hits"

"organic food markets" [phrase] 0
organic AND food AND markets [anywhere in text] 19
organic*AND food* AND market* [truncation] 100
(organic* OR biodynamic OR bio-dynamic) AND food* AND market* [+pertinent organic] 100
(organic* OR biodynamic OR bio-dynamic) AND (food* OR fruit* OR vegetable* OR grown OR production) AND market* [+pertinent food] 134
(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] 183

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.

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10. How can I "capture" and use what I find? Sorting, downloading, and printing search 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.

Copyright restrictions. Keep in mind that copyright law covers how you may download and distribute most publications. This often includes the abstracts.

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Related references:

  1. Agriculture: A Glossary of Terms, Programs, and Laws. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Jasper Womach, Coordinator. (Jun-2005) Available at http://ncseonline.org/NLE/CRSreports/05jun/97-905.pdf

  2. "Definitions." Basic Standards for Organic Production and Processing. (decided in Basel 2000) International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Available at http://www.ifoam.org/standard/index_neu.html

  3. Definitions and Terminology. Québec Organic Reference Standards (Nov. 1998) Available at http://www.caqbio.org/a/NBR.htm

  4. Glossary of Terms. Earthbound Farm Organic. Available at http://www.ebfarm.com/organic_glossary.html

  5. Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations. Organic Trade Association. Available at http://www.ota.com/rule_glossary_of_terms_and_abbreviati.htm

  6. A Glossary of Terms Used in Agroecology. Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems. Available at http://www.agroecology.org/glossary/index.htm

  7. Gold, Mary V., Electronic Databases and other Information Search Tools Available at the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. Beltsville, MD: Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 2001. Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/edtr/

  8. Gold, Mary V., The Language of Electronic Searching: A Search Terms Glossary. Beltsville, MD: Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 2001.

  9. Gold, Mary V., Organic Production: Terminology / Descriptive Phrases. Beltsville, MD: Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 2001. Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/orgterms.shtml

  10. Gold, Mary V., Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms (Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB99-02). Beltsville, MD: Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 1999 and 2007. Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/terms/srb9902.shtml

  11. Gold, Mary V., Where to Find Sustainable Agriculture Research Online. Beltsville, MD: Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agricultural Library, Updated May 2004. Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/agnic/susagresearch.shtml

  12. 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.

  13. U.S. Organic Agriculture. USDA Research Emphases, Harmony Between Agriculture and the Environment: Current Issues. USDA Economic Research Service. Available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/emphases/harmony/issues/organic/organic.html

  14. Weintraub, Irwin, "Holistic Literature Searching for a Holistic Agriculture." Quarterly Bulletin of the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists (IAALD), 42, 1 (1997): 10-15.

  15. 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.

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This Reference Guide was produced by the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC), National Agricultural Library (NAL). For more information, contact:

Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
National Agricultural Library
10301 Baltimore Ave., Room 123
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
Phone: 301-504-6559
E-mail form: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/contact-us
Web site: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov


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October 2001