Farmland biodiversity and food webs were compared in conventional and genetically modified herbicide–tolerant (GMHT) crops of beet (Beta vulgaris L.), maize (Zea mays L.) and both spring and winter oilseed rape (Brassica napus L.). GMHT and conventional varieties were sown in a split–field experimental design, at 60–70 sites for each crop, spread over three starting years beginning in 2000. This paper provides a background to the study and the rationale for its design and interpretation. It shows how data on environment, field management and the biota are used to assess the current state of the ecosystem, to define the typical arable field and to devise criteria for selecting, sampling and auditing experimental sites in the Farm Scale Evaluations. The main functional and taxonomic groups in the habitat are ranked according to their likely sensitivity to GMHT cropping, and the most responsive target organisms are defined. The value of the seedbank as a baseline and as an indicator of historical trends is proposed. Evidence from experiments during the twentieth century is analysed to show that large changes in field management have affected sensitive groups in the biota by ca. 50% during a year or short run of years — a figure against which to assess any positive or negative effects of GMHT cropping. The analysis leads to a summary of factors that were, and were not, examined in the first 3 years of the study and points to where modelling can be used to extrapolate the effects to the landscape and the agricultural region.