Signs of agricultural sustainability: A global assessment of sustainability governance initiatives and their indicators in crop farming

Jason Konefal, Evelien M. de Olde*, Maki Hatanaka, Peter J.M. Oosterveer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


CONTEXT: To address sustainability challenges in agriculture, private and multi-stakeholder initiatives increasingly use sustainability indicators to monitor the sustainability impact of farms. These indicators can be part of standards for certification or assessment tools to measure farm performance. While these initiatives play an important role in navigating the sustainability transition, insight in how these governance initiatives operationalize sustainability in crop farming is lacking. OBJECTIVE: This paper examines how private and multi-stakeholder governance initiatives, which increasingly regulate the sustainability of a sizeable portion of agriculture globally, operationalize the concept of sustainability. It provides understanding into which sustainability themes are commonly included in sustainability initiatives, and those that are not, which can give insight into the direction these initiatives are steering crop production worldwide. METHODS: We developed an overview of governance initiatives using databases and existing research on sustainable agriculture initiatives. Documentation about these initiatives was gathered and used to systematically review descriptive and institutional characteristics of the 29 sustainability assessment and standard initiatives. Moreover, we analyzed the kinds of indicators (i.e., performance, practice, and target) and the themes that are prioritized in the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: The analysis shows that the 29 initiatives are very diverse in their characteristics. While some specifically focus on one crop or country, others operate across production chains and at a global scale. Within specific sectors or countries, certain standards are quite influential, for instance, the Better Cotton Initiative covers 22% of global cotton production, while in Ireland, 70% of horticulture farmers are Origin Green certified. Globally, 2% of the crop land is certified under one of the 14 standards that reported land use. Our analysis of sustainability themes show an imbalance across environmental, social, an economic sustainability, with environmental sustainability being prioritized. In particular, social themes such as quality of life, food sovereignty and fair trading practices were less often included (38, 24 and 21% respectively). SIGNIFICANCE: Sustainability standard and assessment initiatives govern a substantial and growing portion of global cropland. They play a central role in determining what is considered sustainable and thereby influence which farming practices are applied worldwide. The impact of these initiatives is likely to continue to grow as sustainability assessments and standards become more widely adopted. In examining a large sample of standard and assessment initiatives, this study presents a comprehensive overview of the current state of sustainability indicators for crop farming globally.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103658
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • Agriculture
  • Governance
  • Indicators
  • Metric
  • Standard
  • Sustainability


Dive into the research topics of 'Signs of agricultural sustainability: A global assessment of sustainability governance initiatives and their indicators in crop farming'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this