Crop diversity & agronomy

Key research questions

  • How do you generate crops that are adapted to reduced input conditions?
  • How can we expand the crop basket of an increasingly homogeneous agricultural system with underutilised crops?
  • How do you improve crop rotations with the optimisation of companion cropping, plant teams and subsidiary crops?

The importance of crop diversity and agronomy

Since its foundation, the ORC has consistently worked on crop science and has been a driving force in diversification in cropping systems and plant breeding. Cropping system research encompasses the way agricultural production is organised, including rotation and the management of crops and soils. Cropping system design is the basis of how agriculture provides ecosystem services, including the production of food and the regulation of climate, nutrient, water and carbon cycles, diseases and biodiversity. Organic cropping systems are a catalyser of agroecological innovation, and have a pivotal role in redesigning the whole of agriculture towards greater sustainability and resilience.

Plant breeding is the process by which human beings have made plants useful for agricultural production. It is one of the major challenges for organic farming as many current crop cultivars and varieties have been bred for conventional, highly standardised (monoculture) systems that rely on external inputs. Organic farming, instead, is characterised by conditions of low external inputs and high heterogeneity and unpredictability of agro-climatic conditions. This calls for a diversity-based and inclusive approach, and for deep integration of plant breeding and cropping system design.

Our general hypothesis is that crop performance is the result of the interplay between crop genetics, environmental conditions and crop management. To optimise this interplay, the key action is to diversify: broadening and optimising varietal choice, diversifying plant breeding strategies including use of genetically heterogeneous crops, expanding the range of available crop species, providing varied strategies for crop protection and weed control; optimising the use of subsidiary crops in rotations. 

Our research in this area aims to strengthen work on cropping system diversification by expanding the scope of on-farm data collection and analysis, driving improved decision-making in the light of complexity and supporting agroecological transition in this process.

Key elements of the theme

Functional biodiversity, plant breeding, crop rotation, intercropping, soil fertility, crop diversification, weed control, pest control.

Current projects

Feed the Soil: A research and knowledge exchange hub for novel organic waste management strategies to build healthy soils and healthy crops

The Feed the Soil project will build the knowledge base and develop practical advice for UK land managers on the best way to compost organic wastes and apply it (or its products) to produce a biologically active product to feed the soil.

REA on Plant and Soil Science Research in Regen Ag in the UK

This Rapid Evidence Assessment will map the actors working within the Regenerative Agriculture community in the UK. The final discussion paper will be presented at a plant and soil science conference in March 2024 that will set the scene for future research activities in regenerative agriculture.

Organic Hop Variety Trials

The Organic Hop Varieties Field Lab is a participatory approach to variety testing and evaluation including the whole supply chain. The aim is to secure and improve availability and choice of UK grown organic hops to tackle the rapid decline in UK hop production since the 1960’s.


LIVESEEDING aims to foster the growth of the organic sector and transition towards more sustainable local food systems by delivering high quality organic seed of diverse cultivars adjusted to organic farming for a wide range of crops.


H2021 European project OPER8 will share guidance and advice on effective alternative methods of weed control to herbicides, such as biological. cultural and mechanical techniques which are proven to be effective on farm against key weeds.

ORC Living Mulches

This project explores the potential of direct drilling cash crops into established stands of clover, also known as a living mulch and expanding our understanding and benefits of a living mulch.

ORC Researchers and staff

These ORC team members are working on Crop Diversity and Agronomy projects
Head of Research