Termites versus earthworms: Adapting the Global Farm Metric to the local context

  • 08.11.2023
  • article
  • Global Farm Metric
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • Olivia Boothman

The Global Farm Metric (GFM) was started by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) in 2016. Its roots lie in the SFT’s work on true cost accounting which is all about assessing the real costs and benefits of different food production systems and supporting farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. After rigorous development of the GFM framework, it is now being tested on farms around the world to ensure that it is useful for farmers everywhere. Here, the GFM trials team share some of their latest news, including the launch of a five-year trials programme with hundreds of farmers in the US state of Kentucky.

The Global Farm Metric (GFM) team is excited to share the news that our partners in the US, the Organic Association of Kentucky (OAK), have signed a contract with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to trial the GFM with up to 110 farmers per year for five years. The ambition is that the ‘farm sustainability assessment tool’, based on the GFM and developed by OAK in collaboration with the SFT, will help to reward farmers for adopting more sustainable farming practices.

Brooke Gentile, Executive Director of OAK says, “We have an incredible opportunity to deliver significant technical assistance and incentive payments to enrolled farmers to get soil health and conservation practices implemented. We also have the space to think collaboratively and creatively about unique and lasting market development opportunities for climate-verified products.”

The GFM research team have worked closely with OAK over the past 18 months to adapt the assessment for US farming systems, which OAK piloted with a handful of farmers earlier this year. We are now taking it to scale and connecting with others in the food system.


Global Farm Metric

Earthworms versus termites: A question of locality

We hear you ask, “If the GFM is ‘global’, why does it have to be adapted to work in other places?” This is a great question and one which we’ve been able to challenge and understand better through developing this assessment with OAK.

Let’s start with a quick explainer on how the GFM works. The GFM framework has three levels – categories, sub-categories and indicators. The 12 categories of the framework make up all of the elements of the farm system: from the soil and water which underpin farming; to the farmers and workers who enact it; to the products produced by the farm. These are universal and therefore do not change depending on context (the only exception being the ‘Livestock’ category, which is excluded if there is no livestock on the farm).

The sub-categories describe each of these in more detail and, together, encompass all aspects of farm sustainability. These are also universal. The indicators go one step further and demonstrate how farm sustainability can be evaluated in assessments. We have learned that these are also mostly universal, but the questions you ask a farmer may vary depending on context.

A good example of this is in the ‘Soil and Water’ category. Soil health is a key aspect of farm sustainability, and increasingly referenced as one of the key outcomes of regenerative agriculture. To measure soil health, we look at the health of the soil biology – that is, the living organisms that the soil is home to. In the UK, we tend to count the number of earthworms in the soil sample – the higher the count, the healthier the soil. We have learned from working with OAK that in the US, it is more commonplace to count the number of termites in the soil sample instead. So, the indicator ‘health of soil biology does not need to change, but the data which farmers collect may.

Whilst we have confirmed the relevance of all levels of the GFM framework in the US, we continue to gather evidence on the practical application of GFM indicators across the world. It has been a wonderful learning journey, one which we expect to continue as we receive feedback from farmers in the US on their experience of the sustainability tool.

Where next?

This is the first of many GFM trials to take place in the coming year, in the UK and abroad. Having spent the last year working with farmers and our coalition partners on framework development – making sure it is methodologically robust and scientifically backed-up – it is now time to really get out in the field and test its practical application. That’s not to say the team haven’t already been out and about on farms in the UK – you can read about one of our recent farm visits here.

In the UK, we are exploring different questions in our forthcoming trials: the GFM’s role in landscape scale regeneration; its contribution to mobilising finance for farmers transitioning to more sustainable practices; and how we can continue to evolve the framework and assessment process to make it most useful to farmers. On the latter, for example, we are exploring the use of the Merlin app, which uses audio recording from phones to generate a list of bird species on farm.

Through our work with Regen10 – a collaborative platform aimed at scaling up regenerative food systems – we will be conducting trials in 10 to 13 different locations around the world to confirm our hypothesis that the GFM is truly a global framework. Over the past year, we have worked with Regen10 to develop their ‘Regenerative Outcomes Guidance’ which comprises 19 farm-level outcomes which all actors in the food system should be working towards to create a food system which benefits people, nature and climate. The guidance is based on the GFM framework, and assessments of it will be primarily made up of GFM indicators.

We will bring you more news of our UK and global trials as they develop. In the meantime, you can keep up with our news by following us on X, Instagram and LinkedIn and by signing up to our newsletter.

For more information about the Global Farm Metric, head to globalfarmmetric.org.

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