Measurement of sustainability in agriculture: a review of indicators

In recent decades, the concept of sustainability has become increasingly prominent in agricultural policy debates. This has led more and more stakeholders to pay attention to the questions of monitoring and evaluation of agricultural practices, and raised the question of appropriate indicators to assess sustainability aspects of given practices. We provide here a review of indicators of sustainability for agriculture. We describe sustainability indicators used in the literature following the typology based on the three sustainability pillars: environmental, economic and social. The literature review shows that the environmental pillar has undergone an ‘indicator explosion’, due to the multitude of themes covered and the attention given by society to this dimension of sustainability. By contrast, economic indicators target a relatively small number of themes. Social indicators typically cover two main themes: sustainability relating to the farming community and sustainability relating to society as a whole. The measurement of these social indicators is challenging as they are often qualitative and may therefore be considered subjective. Careful attention should be given to the choice of indicators, since the data measured will infl uence the calculation of that indicator and therefore the outcome of the analysis. It should fi rst be decided whether individual or composite indicators are preferable, and whether single indicators or a set of indicators should be used. Also, sustainability assessments should be validated, credible and reproducible. Several selection criteria are provided in the literature, such as representativeness, transferability, adaptability and measurability at an acceptable cost.

Issue Date:
Publication Type:
Journal Article
DOI and Other Identifiers:
1418 2106 (Other)
2063 0476 (Other)
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Published in:
Studies in Agricultural Economics, Volume 118, Number 3
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 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2017-08-29

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