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Technologies :: Sustainable Agriculture

Indicators of Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainability cannot be measured directly; it is too elusive a concept and it operates over too long a time scale. The best we can do is to identify measurable phenomena that, when put together, suggest how sustainable our system might be. These are called indicators.

Indicators are widely used as benchmarks to help gauge performance in a number of human endeavours. For example, the consumer price index and gross domestic product are indicators, albeit crude ones, of economic performance.

In Australia, some work has already been done on the development of indicators for sustainable agriculture. In 1992, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management (SCARM) established an expert group to develop a set of indicators to be used by decision-makers at the regional and national scales. This led to the establishment of a National Collaborative Project on Indicators of Sustainable Agriculture, which aims to prepare 'report cards' on the sustainability of Australian agriculture.

  • Is it measurable?
  • Is it relevant and easy to use?
  • Does it provide a representative picture?
  • Is it easy to interpret and does it show trends over time?
  • Is it responsive to changes?
  • Does it have a reference to compare it against so that users are able to assess the significance of its values?
  • Can it be measured at a reasonable cost, and can it be updated?
  • Profitability
  • Land and water quality to sustain production
  • Managerial skills and
  • Off-site environmental impacts.

Making indicators relevant to farmers

The process of consulting with farmers about sustainability indicators was just as informative as the outcomes themselves. Early on, facilitators found it necessary to 'bring the indicators to life' by explaining their background and justifying the need for them. Without such justification, say the project coordinators, farmers were profoundly uninterested.

So, why should farmers pay any attention to indicators of sustainability?

  1. Indicators can help farmers notice changes at an early stage and seek advice if required;
  2. Profitability indicators can highlight strengths and weaknesses and show trends;
  3. Land and water quality indicators can highlight natural resource issues which may be 'sleepers' and not obvious to the eye until they are well advanced and difficult to address;
  4. Managerial skills self-auditing can assist individual business partners to appraise honestly their talents and to plan for professional development; and
  5. Off-site impact monitoring can ensure that individual businesses maintain quality standards and do not contribute to problems for the wider community.

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