The SFT’s work in exploring the external costs of food and farming, has led us to the realisation that we need a common approach to measuring sustainability on the ground. In response, we convened a small working group of farmers and land managers and began developing common categories, metrics and indicators – a template that we believe has the potential to become an internationally harmonised framework for on-farm sustainability assessment.

Since our formation in 2011, one of the SFT’s key focuses has been exploring the hidden costs (both positive and negative) of food and farming, in the UK and all over the world. This led us to host conferences in London, Edinburgh and San Francisco and publish The Hidden Cost of UK Food in 2017 – a report which continues to receive much interest and spark ongoing debate. However, our pursuit in trying to monetise so-called ‘externalities’ shone light on the fact that in order to be able to value the financial impact of different farming systems and practices, we first needed a common measurement framework for assessing their physical impact.

Of course, there are many ways of approaching this, and several organisations have been considering this need at different scales. Most notably, the TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework now provides a common means of assessing the monetary value of environmental, social and human impacts at ‘food system’ scale, and the Natural Capital Protocol provides a tool for organisations and businesses to assess their impact on nature and natural resources. But as yet, there is no common means of measuring or monetising such impacts at farm level.

In 2017, we set about trying to review how and why farmers measure and collect information and started building a picture of where there might be opportunities for harmonising these activities. As part of this process, we convened a working group of farmers and land managers representing a broad church of different farming scales and enterprises, from small-scale organic mixed farms to large-scale conventional arable operations. During the initial discussions, the overarching message from these farmers was clear – the current system of inspection and data collection is time consuming, bureaucratic and at the end of the day, doesn’t actually help them improve the sustainability of their farm businesses year on year. In addition, some of them were subjected to eight or nine audits a year (including certification, regulatory requirements and sustainability assessments required by buyers), with as much as a shocking 60% overlap in data and information inputs.

In response, the working group began looking at the current ecosystem of farm assessment and started pulling out common categories, metrics and indicators which they believed to be genuinely useful and meaningful on the ground. Over the last three years, this draft template has evolved significantly, and the idea of farmers coming together to lead this process continues to gain momentum at rapid pace – the more individuals and organisations from all walks of life that we connect with, the stronger our resolve is that this is something that’s desperately needed.

It’s important to stress that we are not trying to re-invent the wheel here or create a ‘one size fits all’ certification for farming – in fact the SFT has no ambition or interest to hold ownership of this work at all. What we’re trying to do, is to be a catalyst for the process of harmonisation, by bringing the best minds together to consider what the lowest common metric denominators are that we can all agree on – that way we can all start singing from the same hymn sheet, whilst at the same time allowing for a healthy diversity of farm assessments to continue to take place.

Of course, during this work, a couple of seismic shifts have taken place, not least here in the UK with Brexit, where, whether we like it or not, some big political changes are on the horizon. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all in the process of setting out new visions for supporting UK farming under the mantra of ‘public money for public goods’.

In considering how these new models might work on the ground, the SFT’s farmers’ working group came up with the idea of governments introducing an annual sustainability assessment for farmers and land managers as part of these new schemes, based on the framework of harmonised metrics and indicators they had started pulling together. This could not only help governments monitor progress, but also potentially provide a mechanism to help combine some of their existing assessments.

Bringing this idea to life first took the form of a project within Defra called ‘Gold Standard Metric’, which aimed to encourage harmonisation in how government develops indicators, both at farm level and throughout the supply chain. Given the pace of change in government at the moment, ensuring a joined-up approach is taken with the development of the new schemes will be critically important.

The two diagrams below illustrate this: scenario A is a representation of the new farm support schemes/projects in development. If they aren’t connected under a common architecture, it could result in at least three different forms of farm delivery and market communication (on top of the multiple audits farmers already complete). Scenario B shows these policy areas with the inclusion of a harmonised approach – working across them to create one framework of assessment at farm level (encompassing regulation, environment enhancement and animal welfare), and potentially, one clear means of helping to communicate this to the market. Needless to say, this work is still ongoing in Defra, but needs encouragement from the outside to ensure the fire is kept alight.

One significant way to do this will be through Defra’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) Test and Trial process, in which a group of external organisations have been selected to test various ideas and aspects of the new schemes from the ground up, advising government at regular intervals along the way. The SFT is excited to be one of these organisations – testing the idea of an annual sustainability self-assessment, that we’ll be trialling on a number of English farms in spring 2020. During this process we hope to gather as much farmer feedback as possible on what’s practical, useful and in-line with their existing assessments.

In parallel with the work with Defra, we have also been helping to develop the idea of using a self-assessment as a part of the Welsh Government’s new Sustainable Land Management Scheme. This audit, ‘The Farm Sustainability Review’, is likely to determine the criteria of eligibility for the new scheme, as well as providing a means for farmers to assess on-going progress towards agreed outcomes – an extremely exciting development which we are proud to be a part of and help to take forward.

Taking a more global view (as we are firmly of the opinion that this should be a worldwide initiative), we are hoping to start trialling the sustainability framework in Australia and Europe later this year, with plans to expand far beyond that in the not too distant future. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a farmer in India could have a conversation with a farmer in North America about how they’re doing on their soil indicators in a way which is genuinely comparable and meaningful to them both?

As a small organisation, we are on a big mission to play our part in facilitating the emergence of an international framework for measuring and communicating on-farm sustainability. But we need help, both from farmers and organisations all over the world who have expertise or an interest in helping to make this happen. The next year is set to be a big one for this project – if you would like to become part of this global coalition, please get in touch via adele@sustainablefoodtrust.org – we’d love to hear from you!

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