Sustainable development of agriculture: contribution of farm-level assessment tools

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WUAcademic

Abstract

Current environmental, economic and social challenges urge agriculture to change to more sustainable modes of production. Insight in the impact of a system or a potential innovation on sustainability could support decision makers in identifying actions towards sustainable development. Over the past decade, therefore, a large number of tools have been developed to assess sustainability performance at farm level. Several concerns, however, have been raised whether assessment results provide reliable and valid conclusions about the sustainability performance of farms, and whether these conclusions can be implemented in practice. To evaluate the contribution of farm-level assessment tools to sustainable development of agriculture, this thesis analyzed current approaches to assessing sustainability. One of these approaches is the sustainability assessment tool RISE 2.0, which was used to assess the sustainability performance of 37 organic farms in Denmark. Analysis of the assessment results showed the impact of decisions, made during the development of a tool (e.g. selection of themes, indicators, reference values, scoring and aggregation method), on the assessment results. This emphasizes the importance of transparency in sustainability assessment tools to understand assessment results and identify actions to improve. Subsequently, a comparison of sustainability assessment tools in practice was made to gain insight into practical requirements, procedures and relevance perceived by farmers. Of 48 indicator-based sustainability assessment tools, only four tools (RISE, SAFA, PG and IDEA) complied to the selection criteria and were applied to assess the sustainability performance of five Danish farms. Characteristics including data requirements, assessment time, complexity, transparency and output accuracy varied between tools. Critical factors in farmers’ perception of tool relevance were context specificity, user-friendliness, complexity of the tool, language use, and a match between value judgements of tool developers and farmers. Farmers, moreover, indicated that implementing conclusions derived from sustainability assessments is challenging given the complex organization of agricultural systems. A more in-depth analysis of the four tools revealed a high diversity in selected indicators, themes, reference values, and scoring and aggregation methods. This results in different conclusions on the sustainability performance of farms, which does not only cause confusion but also affects the trust in, and reliability and implementation of, sustainability assessments. Variability in tools is caused by different perspectives on how to assess sustainability and is related to differences in context, priorities and value judgements of tool developers. These differences also play a role in the prioritization of criteria for indicator selection. To explore whether sustainability experts agreed on which criteria are most important in the selection of indicators and indicators sets for sustainability assessments, two ranking surveys were carried out. Both surveys showed a lack of consensus amongst experts about how best to measure agricultural sustainability. This thesis revealed variability in approaches to assess sustainability at farm level. This makes current assessment tools less suitable for functions that require a high reliability and validity, such as certification. Instead, current assessment tools present a useful starting point for discussion, reflection and learning on sustainable development of farming. To enhance the contribution of tools towards sustainable development of agriculture, more attention should be paid to increasing reliability and validity of tools, and improving transparency, harmonization, participation and implementation of assessments.

LanguageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • de Boer, Imke, Promotor
  • Bokkers, Eddy, Co-promotor
  • Oudshoorn, F.W., Co-promotor, External person
Award date28 Apr 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789463430685
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Fingerprint

sustainable development
sustainability
farm
agriculture
transparency
alternative agriculture
prioritization
environmental economics
certification
farming system
ranking
indicator
innovation
learning

Keywords

  • sustainable agriculture
  • sustainability
  • sustainability indicators
  • sustainability criteria
  • assessment
  • tools
  • reliability
  • validity
  • farming systems

Cite this

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title = "Sustainable development of agriculture: contribution of farm-level assessment tools",
abstract = "Current environmental, economic and social challenges urge agriculture to change to more sustainable modes of production. Insight in the impact of a system or a potential innovation on sustainability could support decision makers in identifying actions towards sustainable development. Over the past decade, therefore, a large number of tools have been developed to assess sustainability performance at farm level. Several concerns, however, have been raised whether assessment results provide reliable and valid conclusions about the sustainability performance of farms, and whether these conclusions can be implemented in practice. To evaluate the contribution of farm-level assessment tools to sustainable development of agriculture, this thesis analyzed current approaches to assessing sustainability. One of these approaches is the sustainability assessment tool RISE 2.0, which was used to assess the sustainability performance of 37 organic farms in Denmark. Analysis of the assessment results showed the impact of decisions, made during the development of a tool (e.g. selection of themes, indicators, reference values, scoring and aggregation method), on the assessment results. This emphasizes the importance of transparency in sustainability assessment tools to understand assessment results and identify actions to improve. Subsequently, a comparison of sustainability assessment tools in practice was made to gain insight into practical requirements, procedures and relevance perceived by farmers. Of 48 indicator-based sustainability assessment tools, only four tools (RISE, SAFA, PG and IDEA) complied to the selection criteria and were applied to assess the sustainability performance of five Danish farms. Characteristics including data requirements, assessment time, complexity, transparency and output accuracy varied between tools. Critical factors in farmers’ perception of tool relevance were context specificity, user-friendliness, complexity of the tool, language use, and a match between value judgements of tool developers and farmers. Farmers, moreover, indicated that implementing conclusions derived from sustainability assessments is challenging given the complex organization of agricultural systems. A more in-depth analysis of the four tools revealed a high diversity in selected indicators, themes, reference values, and scoring and aggregation methods. This results in different conclusions on the sustainability performance of farms, which does not only cause confusion but also affects the trust in, and reliability and implementation of, sustainability assessments. Variability in tools is caused by different perspectives on how to assess sustainability and is related to differences in context, priorities and value judgements of tool developers. These differences also play a role in the prioritization of criteria for indicator selection. To explore whether sustainability experts agreed on which criteria are most important in the selection of indicators and indicators sets for sustainability assessments, two ranking surveys were carried out. Both surveys showed a lack of consensus amongst experts about how best to measure agricultural sustainability. This thesis revealed variability in approaches to assess sustainability at farm level. This makes current assessment tools less suitable for functions that require a high reliability and validity, such as certification. Instead, current assessment tools present a useful starting point for discussion, reflection and learning on sustainable development of farming. To enhance the contribution of tools towards sustainable development of agriculture, more attention should be paid to increasing reliability and validity of tools, and improving transparency, harmonization, participation and implementation of assessments.",
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author = "{de Olde}, Evelien",
note = "WU thesis 6631 Includes bibliographic references. - With summaries in English, Dutch and Danish",
year = "2017",
doi = "10.18174/403334",
language = "English",
isbn = "9789463430685",
publisher = "Wageningen University",
school = "Wageningen University",

}

Sustainable development of agriculture: contribution of farm-level assessment tools. / de Olde, Evelien.

Wageningen : Wageningen University, 2017. 152 p.

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WUAcademic

TY - THES

T1 - Sustainable development of agriculture: contribution of farm-level assessment tools

AU - de Olde, Evelien

N1 - WU thesis 6631 Includes bibliographic references. - With summaries in English, Dutch and Danish

PY - 2017

Y1 - 2017

N2 - Current environmental, economic and social challenges urge agriculture to change to more sustainable modes of production. Insight in the impact of a system or a potential innovation on sustainability could support decision makers in identifying actions towards sustainable development. Over the past decade, therefore, a large number of tools have been developed to assess sustainability performance at farm level. Several concerns, however, have been raised whether assessment results provide reliable and valid conclusions about the sustainability performance of farms, and whether these conclusions can be implemented in practice. To evaluate the contribution of farm-level assessment tools to sustainable development of agriculture, this thesis analyzed current approaches to assessing sustainability. One of these approaches is the sustainability assessment tool RISE 2.0, which was used to assess the sustainability performance of 37 organic farms in Denmark. Analysis of the assessment results showed the impact of decisions, made during the development of a tool (e.g. selection of themes, indicators, reference values, scoring and aggregation method), on the assessment results. This emphasizes the importance of transparency in sustainability assessment tools to understand assessment results and identify actions to improve. Subsequently, a comparison of sustainability assessment tools in practice was made to gain insight into practical requirements, procedures and relevance perceived by farmers. Of 48 indicator-based sustainability assessment tools, only four tools (RISE, SAFA, PG and IDEA) complied to the selection criteria and were applied to assess the sustainability performance of five Danish farms. Characteristics including data requirements, assessment time, complexity, transparency and output accuracy varied between tools. Critical factors in farmers’ perception of tool relevance were context specificity, user-friendliness, complexity of the tool, language use, and a match between value judgements of tool developers and farmers. Farmers, moreover, indicated that implementing conclusions derived from sustainability assessments is challenging given the complex organization of agricultural systems. A more in-depth analysis of the four tools revealed a high diversity in selected indicators, themes, reference values, and scoring and aggregation methods. This results in different conclusions on the sustainability performance of farms, which does not only cause confusion but also affects the trust in, and reliability and implementation of, sustainability assessments. Variability in tools is caused by different perspectives on how to assess sustainability and is related to differences in context, priorities and value judgements of tool developers. These differences also play a role in the prioritization of criteria for indicator selection. To explore whether sustainability experts agreed on which criteria are most important in the selection of indicators and indicators sets for sustainability assessments, two ranking surveys were carried out. Both surveys showed a lack of consensus amongst experts about how best to measure agricultural sustainability. This thesis revealed variability in approaches to assess sustainability at farm level. This makes current assessment tools less suitable for functions that require a high reliability and validity, such as certification. Instead, current assessment tools present a useful starting point for discussion, reflection and learning on sustainable development of farming. To enhance the contribution of tools towards sustainable development of agriculture, more attention should be paid to increasing reliability and validity of tools, and improving transparency, harmonization, participation and implementation of assessments.

AB - Current environmental, economic and social challenges urge agriculture to change to more sustainable modes of production. Insight in the impact of a system or a potential innovation on sustainability could support decision makers in identifying actions towards sustainable development. Over the past decade, therefore, a large number of tools have been developed to assess sustainability performance at farm level. Several concerns, however, have been raised whether assessment results provide reliable and valid conclusions about the sustainability performance of farms, and whether these conclusions can be implemented in practice. To evaluate the contribution of farm-level assessment tools to sustainable development of agriculture, this thesis analyzed current approaches to assessing sustainability. One of these approaches is the sustainability assessment tool RISE 2.0, which was used to assess the sustainability performance of 37 organic farms in Denmark. Analysis of the assessment results showed the impact of decisions, made during the development of a tool (e.g. selection of themes, indicators, reference values, scoring and aggregation method), on the assessment results. This emphasizes the importance of transparency in sustainability assessment tools to understand assessment results and identify actions to improve. Subsequently, a comparison of sustainability assessment tools in practice was made to gain insight into practical requirements, procedures and relevance perceived by farmers. Of 48 indicator-based sustainability assessment tools, only four tools (RISE, SAFA, PG and IDEA) complied to the selection criteria and were applied to assess the sustainability performance of five Danish farms. Characteristics including data requirements, assessment time, complexity, transparency and output accuracy varied between tools. Critical factors in farmers’ perception of tool relevance were context specificity, user-friendliness, complexity of the tool, language use, and a match between value judgements of tool developers and farmers. Farmers, moreover, indicated that implementing conclusions derived from sustainability assessments is challenging given the complex organization of agricultural systems. A more in-depth analysis of the four tools revealed a high diversity in selected indicators, themes, reference values, and scoring and aggregation methods. This results in different conclusions on the sustainability performance of farms, which does not only cause confusion but also affects the trust in, and reliability and implementation of, sustainability assessments. Variability in tools is caused by different perspectives on how to assess sustainability and is related to differences in context, priorities and value judgements of tool developers. These differences also play a role in the prioritization of criteria for indicator selection. To explore whether sustainability experts agreed on which criteria are most important in the selection of indicators and indicators sets for sustainability assessments, two ranking surveys were carried out. Both surveys showed a lack of consensus amongst experts about how best to measure agricultural sustainability. This thesis revealed variability in approaches to assess sustainability at farm level. This makes current assessment tools less suitable for functions that require a high reliability and validity, such as certification. Instead, current assessment tools present a useful starting point for discussion, reflection and learning on sustainable development of farming. To enhance the contribution of tools towards sustainable development of agriculture, more attention should be paid to increasing reliability and validity of tools, and improving transparency, harmonization, participation and implementation of assessments.

KW - sustainable agriculture

KW - sustainability

KW - sustainability indicators

KW - sustainability criteria

KW - assessment

KW - tools

KW - reliability

KW - validity

KW - farming systems

KW - duurzame landbouw

KW - duurzaamheid (sustainability)

KW - duurzaamheidsindicatoren

KW - duurzaamheidscriteria

KW - beoordeling

KW - gereedschappen

KW - betrouwbaarheid

KW - geldigheid

KW - bedrijfssystemen

U2 - 10.18174/403334

DO - 10.18174/403334

M3 - internal PhD, WU

SN - 9789463430685

PB - Wageningen University

CY - Wageningen

ER -