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Sustainability assessment for decision-making in agriculture: a comparison of methods

Feola, G., Binder, C.R. Sustainability assessment for decision-making in agriculture: a comparison of methods. 18th Annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference, 24-26 June 2012, University of Hull, United Kingdom


For a long time, sustainability assessment in agriculture has focused mostly on environmental and technical issues, thus neglecting the economic and, above all, the social aspects of sustainability, the multi-functionality of agriculture and the applicability of the results. In response to these shortcomings, several integrative sustainability assessment methods have been developed for the agricultural sector.

This paper reviews seven of these that represent the diversity of tools developed in this area. This paper develops a framework for evaluating sustainability assessment methods by separately analyzing their normative, systemic and procedural dimensions. The framework is then used to characterize indicator-based sustainability assessment methods in agriculture.

The reviewed assessment methods can be categorized into three types: (i) top-down farm assessment methods; (ii) top-down regional assessment methods with some stakeholder participation; (iii) bottom-up, integrated participatory or transdisciplinary methods with stakeholder participation throughout the process. The results readily show the trade-offs encountered when selecting an assessment method. A clear, standardized, top down procedure allows for potentially benchmarking and comparing results across regions and sites. However, this comes at the cost of system specificity. As the top down methods often have low stakeholder involvement, the application and implementation of the results might be difficult.

Our analysis suggests that to include the aspects mentioned above in agricultural sustainability assessment, the bottom-up, integrated participatory or transdisciplinary methods are the most suitable ones.