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Indicators of Sustainable Agriculture: A Scoping Analysis

Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Six

Installment 6 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future explores the methods and analysis of a scoping exercise to identify a preliminary list of indicators related to agriculture and the environment.

This working paper concludes by proposing next steps for developing indicators that measure the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

Quantifiable indicators of the environmental sustainability of agriculture—by which we mean minimizing the environmental impacts of agriculture—are an important tool for helping move the world toward a sustainable food future. Indicators enable policymakers, farmers, businesses, and civil society to better understand current conditions, identify trends, set targets, monitor progress, and compare performance among regions and countries.

What indicators are most appropriate for tracking progress and motivating actors toward a sustainable food future?

To address this question, the World Resources Institute (WRI) conducted a scoping exercise to identify a preliminary list of candidate indicators at the nexus of agriculture and environment. This working paper describes the methods and results of this analysis.

  • First, we identified, analyzed, and profiled the landscape of existing indicators, indices, and datasets relevant to the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

  • Second, we selected the most relevant “thematic areas” for environmental sustainability in agriculture. These areas are water, climate change, land conversion, soil health, and pollution.

  • Third, we identified three generic stages of the “causal chain” of action that indicators can represent or seek to influence. These stages are public policy, farmer practice, and biophysical performance.

  • Fourth, we selected seven screening criteria against which to assess candidate indicators. These screening criteria are availability of data, accuracy of data, consistency in how data is gathered, frequency of data, data’s proximity to reality, relevancy of data, and ability for data to differentiate among countries.

  • Fifth, we identified a “long list” of candidate indicators of environmental sustainability in agriculture for each of the five thematic areas and for each of the three stages in the causal chain. Indicators came from our analysis of existing sources, as well as WRI expert input. We then evaluated each of these possible indicators against the seven screening criteria. Those that fared best became the “short list” of candidate indicators.

  • Sixth, we explored options for how to integrate the indicators into an overall index on the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

We conclude by proposing a set of next-step activities for creating and establishing indicators of the environmental sustainability of agriculture. These include refining the selection of indicators, assessing the feasibility of successfully collecting currently missing data, and road testing the indicators. International organizations focusing on or investing in agriculture would be the natural implementers of these next steps.

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