Farm-level Sustainability Measures & Indicators: Assessing Causes or Measuring Effects?

Sustainability “measures and indictors”…or ” scorecards”…or whatever you wish to call the methods and processes to get a quantified grip on the sustainability performance or status of a farm…has become the really big, and rather confused, part of pretty much all sustainable agriculture programs and initiatives.

Here are some thoughts on the subject based on our work in this field that can hopefully be helpful:


On farmer buy-in:

  • Research shows that farmers don’t measure where they cannot see an economic advantage from undertaking the measurement. Economic advantage derives from the measurement reducing an uncertainty – enabling them to make a more informed decision(and therefore one with an improved chance of achieving an economic pay- off).
  • Given the above – don’t expect farmers to invest time, energy and cost where the payoff is obscure or not there at all. Where you cannot provide this, but still need the measures ( for some reason that makes sense to you), then capture the required data yourself…and at your expense!
  • Yes you can force them…but we all know where that ends in terms of positive buy-in and lasting change.

On the difference between ” assessing causes” and “measuring effects”:

  • There is a world of difference between the two – and it is most often not recognised or just overlooked…and is, in my view, the cause of much confusion.
  • Food safety and G.A.P standards schemes stand on the “assessing causes” side of the fence. What this means is that the emphasis is on assessing compliance against a set of prescribed practices or behaviours ( the causes) on the assumption that the practice will lead to the desired result (or effect). In other words, the cause-effect relationship is confidently understood and, by-and-large, pretty solid.
  • Once we enter the field of sustainability, however, the scope of our subject becomes significantly broader and orders-of-magnitude more complex – and with that, the assumptions about which causes will lead to what effects become very shaky; there is just too much uncertainty and too many trade-offs between different elements of the subject to know with any confidence that, once finding evidence of a particular practice (even a so called “best practice”), a confident conclusion can be drawn about the overall (and true) sustainability of the farming system under review.
  • The key mistake in many/most sustainability assessment models is that they are approached like conventional standards models – all the emphasis is on identifying the best practices up front and then assessing and/or scoring farms against these. This is where they go wrong.
  • The answer in large part, is to stop focussing on the practices…the assumed causes. Rather, let the focus of our attention be on measuring the impacts, or effects, of our current suit of practices…learn from this feedback…and only then start to challenge and modify the practices.

To do this we need the following;

  • A framework of generally accepted principles that we can agree are consistent with sustainable agriculture…these are the minimum set of “necessary conditions” (NOT practices) that need to be fulfilled if sustainable agriculture is to be achieved. Common sense is the guide here!
  • An agreed measure or proxy defined for each principles that we can track across multiple sites and over time – providing us objective feedback on the degree to which each principle is being upheld or not. Practicality and ease of measurement is the guide here!
  • A mechanism to report and compare (benchmark) results within a “safe” group – this is NOT about passing judgement, this is about challenging thinking and stimulating learning. Assuring confidentiality and anonymity is key here.

So what’s the “theory of change” (now there is the latest buzz word!)

  • learning and change – that which delivers real and lasting benefit – takes place in an environment of trust.
  • By approaching sustainability measurement or score carding from the “cause” side of the equation leads to an approach that is perceived by farmers as highly presumptuous and judgemental…trust goes…and with it an openness to be challenged, to enquire and to learn.
  • By approaching the analysis through agreed principles and focussing on objectively measuring the “effects” of practices against these principles, we remove all preconceived “best practices” and any sense of judgementalism that goes with it – in fact all practices are valued – who knows, perhaps there is some specific local knowledge, expressed through some bespoke method, that we can all learn from and which can be the basis of significant learning and breakthrough?
  • Benchmarking of results across groups of farmers is the final component of the process – exploring the reasoning behind the differences in scores by the growers themselves unearths the particular attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, methods and practices underlying a particular score. People are talking, comparing notes, learning, adopting…and changing. That’s where the “rubber hits the road”…that’s the theory of change!

This thinking is integral to how we at Blue North approach sustainability programs in agri supply-chain, contact us if you would like to find out more.