Sustainability assessment

Further development of methodologies for sustainability assessment and monitoring in organic/ecological agriculture

The final report of the Ekhaga Sustainability Assessment project has been published

Padel, Susanne; Gerrard, Catherine L; Smith, Laurence; Schader, Christian; Baumgart, Lukas; Stolze, Matthias and Pearce, Bruce (2015) Further Development of Methodologies for Sustainability Assessment and Monitoring in Organic/Ecological Agriculture. ORC reports, no. 2015/1. Organic Research Centre, Newbury.

In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in assessing the sustainability of agriculture in terms of its social, environmental and economic impact and a number of indicators and tools are used. Measurements take place at the farm or product level and indicators can be outcome related e.g. number of butterfly species present, or management related e.g. percentage of fields with margins growing wildflowers to attract butterflies.

Given its underlying ethos, the organic/ecological agriculture sector should aim to be at the forefront of sustainability. The development of assessment approaches and recent discussions within the movement have identified continuous improvement towards best practice in sustainability to be one of the important features of the new direction. Positive effects in such areas as ‘environment’ are seen as one of the most important reasons for the financial support given to the organic sector, and as one of the reasons for consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for organic food. This project aimed to provide practical recommendations on the suitability of the available sustainability assessment frameworks, themes, tools and indicators for the organic sector and to help consider and further develop sustainability assessment approaches.

A review of tools, indicators, themes and sustainability assessment methods was carried out. The opinions of organisations and individuals from within the organic sector were obtained through an international workshop and an online survey. Synergies and trade-offs between indicators were investigated using the database of FiBL’s SMART sustainability assessment tool to investigate the relationships between themes.
Results from the project have illustrated that choosing the most promising indicators for the organic sector needs to be driven by the importance of the sustainability theme as well as using a suitable method. Choosing indicators solely on the basis of desirable goals may lead to a subjective and non-transparent indicator selection which cannot be externally verified. On the other hand, assessing the quality of indicators alone appears to be too much driven by method and the choice of tools will also need to be influenced by data availability and/or cost of data collection.

The inclusion of indicators that assess areas within social sustainability and good governance (e.g. corporate social responsibility) should be encouraged within existing tools. This development should build on recent frameworks provided by, for instance the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations FAO and OECD (e.g. SAFA, guidelines on social LCA, DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Framework). Indicator development should also consider stakeholder views and perspectives (perhaps using, for example, the European Innovation Partnership Programme to contact stakeholders) and decide on threshold values that indicate poor, acceptable and good performance.

The assessment of synergies and trade-offs has illustrated that farms with good performance with regards to governance are likely to have positive performance on most environmental, social and economic aspects. This highlights the importance of good corporate management at the farm level. Further work on synergies and trade-offs using samples of farms is urgently required. In addition, trade-offs between the economic dimension on the one hand and the environmental and social dimensions on the other hand, may need to be accepted at farm level. There is scope, however, for these to be addressed by policy makers, to help the farmers set the right priorities. Substantial trade-offs also exist within the environmental dimension (for example between greenhouse gas emissions and animal welfare) which might be more difficult to resolve. Priorities need to be set depending on the specific context of the farm.

Areas of sustainability that are perceived by those within the organic sector as being potential strengths were identified. These could be harnessed in terms of communicating the benefits of organic production. These key strengths include biodiversity, ecosystem diversity, soil quality and greenhouse gas emissions. Although such key strengths may seem obvious to those working within the sector and for several there is some good scientific evidence available, it is likely that the benefits are not widely-known or publicised and that further development of the evidence base is required.

Download the full report at

Sign up to our e-Bulletin

Sign up to ORC’s e-bulletin and be the first to receive updates from our in-the-field research and the latest organic and agroecological news and events. Delivered to your inbox monthly.

Newsletter signup

By submitting this form, you are agreeing for us to contact you by email about our research, knowledge exchange, policy support and fundraising. Your details will only be used by the Organic Research Centre (ORC) in adherence with our Privacy Policy.

If you would like to change how you receive communications from the ORC or update your contact details, please click the appropriate link at the footer of any email you receive from us, or contact: