Assessing sustainability at farm-level: Lessons learned from a comparison of tools in practice

Evelien M. De Olde*, Frank W. Oudshoorn, Claus A.G. Sørensen, A.M. Bokkers, Imke J.M. De Boer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

167 Citations (Scopus)


In the past decades a wide variety of tools have been developed to assess the sustainability performance of farms. Although multiple studies have compared tools on a theoretical basis, little attention has been paid to the comparing tools in practice. This research compared indicator-based sustainability assessment tools to gain insight in practical requirements, procedures and complexity involved in applying sustainability assessment tools. In addition, the relevance of the tools, as perceived by farmers, was evaluated. An overview of 48 indicator-based sustainability assessment tools was developed to, subsequently, select tools that address the environmental, social and economic dimension of sustainability, are issued in a scientific publication and suitable for assessing the sustainability performance of livestock and arable farms in Denmark. Only four tools (RISE, SAFA, PG and IDEA) complied with the selection criteria and were used to assess the sustainability performance of five Danish farms. The tools vary widely in their scoring and aggregation method, time requirement and data input. The farmers perceived RISE as the most relevant tool to gain insight in the sustainability performance of their farm. The findings emphasize the importance of context specificity, user-friendliness, complexity of the tool, language use, and a match between value judgements of tool developers and farmers. Even though RISE was considered as the most relevant tool, the farmers expressed a hesitation to apply the outcomes of the four tools in their decision making and management. Furthermore, they identified limitations in their options to improve their sustainability performance. Additional efforts are needed to support farmers in using the outcomes in their decision making. The outcomes of sustainability assessment tools should therefore be considered as a starting point for discussion, reflection and learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)391-404
JournalEcological Indicators
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Agricultural production
  • Farm level
  • Livestock
  • Relevance
  • Sustainability assessment tools


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