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Researchers define and measure “sustainability”

March 4, 2015

Leading specialists on the sustainable intensification of agriculture tried to hammer out indicators for assessing “sustainability,” a development term that refers roughly to the health and longevity of a system, at a 13 February workshop in San Jose, California.

Sustainability“Sustainable intensification seeks to increase farm productivity while conserving social and ecological resources, said Rishi Basak, consultant for CIMMYT’s Global Conservation Agriculture Program (GCAP) who took part in the event, held during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, 12-16 February.

Santiago López Ridaura, CIMMYT GCAP Systems Agronomist, also attending the workshop, said “We are all interested in understanding and quantifying the impact of our research for development activities on the sustainability of agriculture and rural livelihoods. This workshop brought donors and researchers from different disciplines to discuss a common framework, indicators and metrics to do so. I believe it is an important step forward towards a common goal.”

Measuring sustainability remains a challenge, as it involves complex biophysical, environmental and socioeconomic interactions. “There are no widely-accepted indicators for the various dimensions of neither sustainable intensification, nor thresholds or benchmarks for those indicators,” Basak explained. “Lacking unified metrics for comparisons across initiatives, specialists tend to focus on specific practices— for example, conservation agriculture or agroforestry — rather than overall outcomes of sustainable intensification.”

The framework developed at the AAAS workshop is intended to provide for standardized methods that can be adapted for large- and small-scale farms. It will facilitate cross-program learning and assessment based on a set of indicators that are widely monitored or can be easily integrated into existing programs, such as “factor productivity” and “resilience.” These indicators will be measured by returns to labor and land, and by the variance in gross margin, respectively.

“Thinking about key indicators brought us back to basics: what are we trying to achieve when undertaking sustainable intensification projects and how do we know if we are successful?” Basak stated. “What data should we collect, how do we tell our success stories, and how can we compare results between projects?”

Workshop participants agreed to begin testing the indicators in the field, broaden consultation on the draft indicators and hire someone to provide intellectual leadership and coordination going forward.

“Having a set of indicators to assess our progress towards desired goals is very important. These indicators should not only help us in assessing progress, but also capturing main synergies and tradeoffs involved in our interventions,” said Ridaura.

The workshop immediately preceded a special symposium entitled “Beyond Intensification: Measuring the ‘Sustainable’ in Sustainable Intensification” on 13 February. The symposium was organized by Jerry Glover, Senior Sustainable Agricultural Systems Advisor, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and included the participation of Tracy K. Powell, USAID Agricultural Research Advisor based in Ethiopia; Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London; Sieglinde S. Snapp, cropping systems and soil management specialist, Michigan State University; Peter Thorne, crop-livestock systems scientist, International Livestock Research Institute; Cheryl A. Palm, Senior Research Scientist and Director of Research, Earth Institute, Columbia University; and Bruno Gerard, Director, CIMMYT Global Conservation Agriculture Program.