In 2016, the Sustainable Food Trust convened a small group of farmers and land managers to begin developing a harmonised framework and common language for assessing the sustainability of all farming systems. The overall objective of this project was to catalyse an international architecture with a common framework for measuring and valuing the sustainability of food and farming systems.

At present, most farmers and land managers participate in multiple and overlapping sustainability assessment schemes, required to satisfy several different stakeholders including government, certification bodies and food companies. It has been estimated that worldwide there are more than 100 different on-farm sustainability assessment tools in existence, and consequently, food producers are subjected to unnecessary expenses and time-consuming bureaucracy in meeting these compliance requirements.

Such a framework could take the form of a tailored whole farm management plan with a suite of categories and measures, aligned and compatible with existing initiatives such as the TEEBAgriFood valuation framework, Natural Capital Protocol and FAO’s SAFA framework. With this in place, the enabling conditions will exist for both government and market intervention, the combination of which will accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems.

This report provides an update on our progress on the project and our plans for the year ahead.

Gap analysis and pilot studies

In the summer of 2017, the SFT along with our producer working group commissioned the Organic Research Centre to undertake a gap analysis and a number of pilot studies, with the aim of evaluating the effectiveness of the assessment schemes currently in use. The study was also extended to include a review of where the data required by sustainability assessment schemes is already collected by farmers, such as for government grant applications and certification audits. It was found that, of the 1000 data points required, over half were already collected, therefore overlapping hugely and creating a significant time burden for farmers. A link to this report can be found here.

Synthesis of a harmonised framework

Following this initial round of pilot studies, the producer group decided to take what they felt were the best elements of the schemes they had piloted, along with the other audits they complete each year and began developing a draft framework of converged sustainability metrics. Ten headings were agreed as high-level categories of assessment (see diagram), with sub categories, including indicators and measurements, also listed underneath (see appendix). This progress was undertaken almost completely by the farmers, but with help and guidance from experts in the field.

Second phase pilot studies

To test the effectiveness of this draft framework and applicability in the field, Dr Harpinder Sandhu, Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University, visited the UK in March 2018 to undertake six pilot studies using the framework as a basis for his assessment. In addition to the ten categories, the assessment was also divided into natural, produced, human and social capital in line with the TEEB AgriFood valuation framework. Each category was given a relative score, based either on hard measures, proxy data or average values sourced from UK databases. The results from these studies are still in the process of being finalised, but they will be ready to be shared in the very near future.

Government interest and uptake

Over the last 18 months and since the UK vote to leave the European Union, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have taken a keen interest in this work. In leaving the EU, and subsequently the Common Agriculture Policy, they are now designing the key features of a new national agriculture policy under the mantra of ‘public money for public goods’. Going forward, the Government will need to be accountable to the taxpayer, demonstrating the public money distributed to farmers provides successful sustainable outcomes, which could be evidenced by requiring participant farmers to report on their sustainability each year.

To achieve this, we are suggesting that farmers should have to complete an annual farm sustainability assessment based on the harmonised framework of categories and metrics. This could be used to assess the baseline sustainability of the farming system in addition to improvements year on year.

Information required for the assessment would be made up of high-level indicators, some of which will also be proxies for other areas of interest. There could also be an opportunity to go deeper by undertaking more detailed measures, but for the primary assessment, we have suggested restricting the number to a manageable, yet reliable, list which can provide an accurate representation of the sustainability of the farm, without creating an unfair administrative burden for the farmer.

At a conference held in Oxford in January 2018, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for DEFRA said:

“There are already a number of ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal welfare or environmental standards. But while they’re all impressive and outstanding, there’s still no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against a sensible basket of indicators, taking into account such things as soil health, control of pollution, contribution to water quality as well as animal welfare. We’ve been in discussion with a number of farmers and food producers about how we might advance such a scheme and I think that, outside the EU, we could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading”

Since then, the SFT has been working with the Secretary of State and his team by sharing our research and thinking around these sustainability metrics. At our recent ‘Future of UK Farming Conference’ held at the end of April, 2018, Michael Gove stated:

“The Sustainable Food Trust’s work has been invaluable in setting out how to develop metrics which can be used to reward farmers not just for improving soil health and increasing biodiversity but also building human and social capital and strike an important balance. These kinds of high quality contributions to our consultation will help our policy to evolve.”

Next steps

To date, much of the field work for this project has been undertaken in the UK, but this framework is not restricted to one country. If designed in the right way, such a harmonised framework could be used globally as an international standard for assessing environmental and societal sustainability.

In the coming year the SFT will be finalising the results of the phase 2 pilot studies, particularly focusing on how these are represented and communicated in ways that are useful and meaningful to farmers, governments and other stakeholders. The SFT is continuing to work with the producer working group to refine and develop the harmonised framework of metrics, using their knowledge and experience of how it could work in the field.

Additionally, the SFT will work with leading experts to understand the most accurate measures for assessing farm and food system sustainability, particularly in relation to soil, which is of the upmost importance and a very good proxy measure for overall system health. In further meetings with Defra, the SFT will work with them to refine thinking on developing a sustainability assessment ‘farm management’ agreement to help determine eligibility for post-Brexit support.

The SFT aims to work with policy makers in other countries, including Europe, the US and Australia.


Photograph: Chris Lofqvist

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