There is growing evidence that agriculture and food is one of the most significant contributors to the transgression of ‘planetary boundaries’, especially in the area of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, soil, water, and nitrogen use. As Professor Johan Rockström pointed out at the World Economic Forum, “A transition to sustainable agriculture and forestry is a fundamental prerequisite to succeed,” yet this transition is prevented by several significant barriers to change.
One of these barriers is the lack of a unified means of measuring food system sustainability. At present, there is a diverse range of overlapping assessment tools and labelling schemes for monitoring and communicating on-farm sustainability. This makes it impossible for consumers, farmers, food businesses and policymakers to gain an accurate understanding of the comparative sustainability of products resulting from different methods of production.
We believe that there is a real opportunity to influence future policy to better reflect the values agriculture provides and its place within society. We propose that this should involve rewarding and incentivising good practice and continuous improvement, rather than the very black and white ‘you’re in or you’re out’ school of thought associated with many certification schemes including organic.
Therefore we need a new initiative, led by farmers, to encourage a move towards convergence of existing schemes for measuring on-farm sustainability. This would make the monitoring process more efficient and less costly and burdensome for farmers, help to inform decisions about farm management practices and reward every step of the journey. A common framework could also be used to provide data for certification schemes, government agencies, food business supply chains and the research and investment communities. Through working with food businesses, it could also have the potential to provide consumers with a more accessible and easily understood means of evaluating the sustainability of food products in the market place.
The SFT is currently developing the Sustainability Metrics project. We have convened meetings with producers, researchers and policy makers and we are commissioning further research to take forward the ideas that have come out of these discussions.