Sustainable Agriculture – Calling for a Plurality of Indicators

Hajra, Mayukh | February 27, 2018 | Leave a Comment

Enabling farmers to adapt agri-technologies to local contexts. Photo courtesy of Development Alternatives

This article was originally published by Alternative Perspectives. The original article can be found here.


Food and nutrition security are possibly the most basic of human needs, yet these continue to be major unmet challenges at the global level. SDG 2, by coupling mandates of food and nutrition security with sustainable agriculture, underscores the critical role required to be played by sustainable agriculture in addressing this challenge. The reason that the need for sustainability has now entered the equation is that the agriculture sector, over the last few years, has been witnessing the ravaging impacts of climate change and the emergence of natural resource constraints linked to over-extraction as limiting factors.

In recent times, there has been much debate around the idea of singularity – the hypothesis that with the advancement of technology, and especially artificial intelligence, technology has entered a runaway cycle of self-improvement that will result in unheralded and unimaginable changes in human civilisation. The scenario of continuous exponential growth implicit in this debate is a phantasm that recurs across several sectors, including agriculture. The green revolution in India too was probably driven by the delusion that it is possible to endlessly increase farm production by applying technologies that allowed for more extractive consumption of natural resources. The long-term impacts of green revolution being experienced today serve as a grim reminder that there are, ultimately, limits to growth.

This brings us to the conclusion that we can no longer afford to equate agricultural development with a single-minded pursuit of productivity – the striving for higher and higher farm production per unit of land, regardless of the ecological and social costs involved. The dependence on productivity as the singular measure of success must be replaced with a plurality of indicators that encompass various dimensions of impact, including not just the economic, but also the ecological and the social, and equally importantly, that throw light on the long-term repercussions of current actions.

Agricultural systems are complex adaptive systems that are regulated through feedback mechanisms, and it is this language that we need to tune in to, in order to design sustainable management systems. Sustainable agriculture allows us to participate in this system as responsible elements, to get optimised (as opposed to maximised) production without destructing the underlying ecological balance.

Moreover, it is worth underlining the fact that agriculture manifests as an interaction between people and ecosystems, and so, as it is important to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem, it is equally important to understand the manager of this ecosystem, that is the farmer. The measure of sustainability in agriculture must, therefore, also include indicators that help capture the capacities of farmers to adopt, innovate, adapt and disseminate sustainable practices, especially in response to changing climatic and market contexts, and thereby become more resilient.

The various dimensions of sustainability in agriculture briefly discussed here, once again bring us back to the argument made earlier for a plurality of indicators – indicators that consider not just production, but also the wellbeing of the farmer and the health of the environment. Even more importantly, the set of indicators used for measuring success must be outcome oriented, so that we are able to track if our actions are leading to the desired impacts. Thus, for example, we must be able to register not just reduction in the use of chemical fertilisers and a corresponding increase in the use of organic manure, but also evaluate if the action resulted in improved organic carbon in the soil. Of course, outcomes may be expected only over a longer time horizon, but the tracking systems must already be calibrated for the purpose.

The importance of outcome tracking is also linked to the complexity of the systems that we are working with. Because development interventions are typically designed to influence a specific part of an integrated system on the basis of an expected cause-effect relationship, they often fail to foresee the impact of other elements of the system, or feedback mechanisms in the ecosystem, disrupting this anticipated equation.

The imperative for diversity extends not just to the indicators, but also to the methods by which progress is measured, analysed and reported. Engaging a diversity of stakeholders, ranging from the scientist and policy maker to the farmer and the consumer, in tracking and assessment is essential for a healthy diversity of perspectives to come in for a holistic sense of progress.

It seems that tracking the adoption and impact of sustainable agriculture will require an overhaul of our measurement systems, with a plurality and diversity of indicators that encompass its multiple dimensions, and the inclusion of a wider spectrum of stakeholders in the processes. The task at hand is a complex and challenging one, and will require the coming together of multiple competencies and disciplines, not to mention intent and commitment. Sure, this will have to be a departure from the rather simplistic measure of productivity that has been driving much of the agricultural sector till now, but as Einstein famously said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”


This article was originally published by Alternative Perspectives. The original article can be found here.

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  • stevenearlsalmony

    One reality-oriented and proven definition of sustainability, perhaps: The ability to live in the same space indefinitely without damaging or diminishing that ecosystem. Would one “village” of people not need to move from one place to another WITHIN A REGION in order for the Earth to restore the life within the place that is depleted of resources and, of necessity, temporarily abandoned…… a place to which the villagers would return at a future time? Imagine one village of people migrating from place to place within a larger regional space IN A CIRCULAR FASHION. Over time, each abandoned “village space” is given time to regenerate while the people of the village are given life, as it were, by the available food supply on the land, once abandoned, that is now fully regenerated. Imagine three or four VILLAGE SPACES comprising one region. Imagine the entire village moving all together periodically, from one of the 3/4 village spaces to another in a circular manner. They understand that over time they will be able to live sustainably ‘forever’ in these village spaces, arranged in a circular way, within one region. And so it is that during the time each of the abandoned village spaces remains untouched, time is provided for the regeneration of the food supply. The people of the village move from space to space in a way that assures the food supply AND the life made possible by the food supply recur ‘eternally.’

    Daniel Betty’s comment: Went to a nice talk about the Kalapuya nation that lived in the Willamette Valley for over well 10K years. They did exactly that, sustainable lifestyle, until our western diseases wiped them out. They went from 18,000 to 600 in a short time, from diseases. We humans have the ability to live sustainable lives. We have done it before.

    • Bill

      This is called “permaculture” and does not require that you move the village the village structure becomes the sustainable area.

    • stevenearlsalmony

      The following reply is a gift to all from Rudy Sovinee (and our mutual friend, Gary Gripp).

      Steven, Your post about migratory humans living in groups of 20-30 was how our ancestors lived for most of the 230,000 odd years of humans. Only in the last few hundred years, especially the last 2 score years have we consumed so much and weakened the options for all other life forms as we shift the climate itself. Our mutual friend Gary wrote and gave me permission to share his latest chapter. Good to share with your friends here, https://www.facebook.com/rudy.sovinee/posts/10156188410404324
      Wishing we might avoid resetting the planet’s “Life Systems” in a 6th Mass extinction, appreciating too well the millions of years of evolutionary mistakes that finally generated our green and blue planet – yet seeing no way to restore our species to its prior sense of oneness with all. How many amazingly long cycles has our planet seen? I <3 this post so share it here – "PUTTING TIME IN PERSPECTIVE": http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/08/putting-time-in-perspective.html
      So what will be – after the 6th mass extinction? Since much of what allowed humans to mine so wantonly will have been disbursed, maybe the next set of species will be denied metals or carbon based fuels in excess. How will sentience develop if all that is available to it is the power of thought, with only minimal ability to amplify the physical realm. Now that – it is the preface to a whole SciFi series – wouldn't you agree?