This post is part of WRI's blog series, Creating a Sustainable Food Future. The series explores strategies to sustainably feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. All pieces are based on research being conducted for the 2013-2014 World Resources Report.

How does the world feed more than 9 billion people in the year 2050 in a manner that not only advances economic development but also reduces agriculture’s impact on the environment? This is the big question my colleagues and I are tackling in the current World Resources Report.

But an important follow-up question is “How will we know if we’re on the right path?”

Unless decision-makers have access to indicators of agriculture’s impact on the environment, they will not be able to make informed choices about the public policies and farmer practices needed to achieve a sustainable food future. Indicators are statistical measures that enable policymakers, farmers, businesses, and civil society to better understand conditions, identify trends, set targets, monitor progress, and compare performance among regions and countries.

WRI recently reviewed a number of existing indicators on the environmental sustainability of agriculture and identified gaps. Our analysis uncovers a need for improvements in indicators as well as the data underlying them—in particular, what we call the “3Ps, 5 themes, and 7 criteria.”

The 3 Ps: Policies, Practices, and Performance

Indicators should seek to reflect and ultimately influence policies, practices, and performance. These three “Ps” form a causal chain of action. Government policies can influence farmer practices, which in turn can determine on-the-ground biophysical performance. For example, a regulation (a policy) that requires a farmer to measure the water she withdraws for crop irrigation can create an incentive for her to shift to drip irrigation (a practice) which, in turn, can improve the water-use efficiency of production (performance).

Ideally, a portfolio of indicators on the environmental sustainability of agriculture should reflect all three parts of the causal chain. Policy indicators reflect the policies that could create the right enabling conditions or incentives for sustainable agriculture. Practice indicators reflect the on-farm practices that help realize sustainable agriculture. Performance indicators reflect the desired, on-the-ground, biophysical state associated with sustainable agriculture.

5 Themes to Cover

Indicators should cover at least five themes, each relating to a major impact that agriculture has on the environment, including:

  • Water: Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals and for 80 to 90 percent of its freshwater consumption.

  • Climate Change: About 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from agricultural production in 2010, mainly from cows and sheep, manure, fertilizers, rice, and on-farm energy use. Land use change, most of which is triggered by agriculture, contributed another 11 percent of global emissions.

  • Land Conversion: Today, half of the world’s vegetated land is dedicated to growing food. The majority of land-use change in the world is forests, wetlands, and grasslands being converted into farms and grazing pastures—all of which can cause biodiversity and habitat loss.

  • Soil Health: Soil is being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, which poses a threat to long-term human food security.

  • Pollution (nutrients, pesticides): A deficiency in nutrients can reduce soil fertility and limit production, while surplus nutrients can lead to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Chemical pesticides―while beneficial for preventing crop losses to insects and other pests―can negatively affect human health, wildlife, and water quality depending on their toxicity and use.

7 Criteria for Effective Indicators

Indicators and the data underlying them should follow certain criteria, including:

  • Available: Underlying data should be accessible for most countries

  • Accurate: The data should be reliable and representative of on-the-ground conditions

  • Consistent: Data collection methods should be consistent and the data comparable across countries

  • Frequent: The data should be regularly collected or updated

  • Proximate: The indicator should be a good “proxy” or representation of reality

  • Relevant: The indicator should be pertinent to the policy, practice, or performance it seeks to represent

  • Differentiating: The indicator should show distinctions among countries.

Creating a Framework of Indicators

With these three dimensions in mind, we screened a long list of national-level indicators that are currently in use or have been proposed by various sources. We found that countries today are gathering data on too few indicators to do the job properly.

So what’s needed now?

  • First, at least an initial set of countries or international organizations need to agree on an appropriate set of indicators. We put together a list of candidate indicators (see Tables 1a and 1b, below). While they’ll need further analysis and vetting, they’re a good starting place for decision-makers in the environment and agricultural spaces.

  • Second, government statistics offices, research institutions, and intergovernmental organizations working on agriculture and sustainability need to gather the necessary data. Advances in remote-sensing technologies and crowd-sourcing methods could potentially help in this regard.

  • Third, demand for indicators needs to grow—especially from governments, development agencies, the private sector, and civil society. The supply of data will follow the demand for it. Perhaps a set of post-2015 sustainable development goals can help trigger this demand.

With the right indicators, we can better measure and make progress toward a sustainable food future.