If we want a sustainable future, agriculture must feature in the equation. The problem is that suitable agriculture is very difficult to define with numbers – especially when it might require economic trade-offs.
Now, an international team of researchers has come up with a quantitative Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM) highlighting priority areas for different countries to address.
“This [matrix] is an effort to promote accountability for nations’ commitments towards sustainable agriculture,” says project leader Xin Zhang, of the University of Maryland, US. “We hope this can serve as a tool to bring the stakeholders together. Agriculture production is not only about farmers. It’s about everyone.”
The matrix includes three major categories: economic, environmental, and social. Under each category are problems that could compromise sustainability. These are accompanied by a measurable threshold of what is acceptable.
“Sustainable agriculture is a very complex concept and it means different things for different people, making it hard to assess,” says Zhang. “To make the commitment to sustainable agriculture accountable, independent and transparent measurements of countries’ sustainability are essential.”
For example, the matrix provides a standard of nitrogen (N) pollution, where 52kg N per hectare per year lands in the sustainable zone, but 69kg N/ha/year is dangerously unsustainable.
“The assessment of sustainability is not easy, especially given the dearth of social data across all countries,” says co-author Kimberly Pfeifer from Oxfam America. “We hope with this matrix we can demonstrate the value of greater investment in social data to assess how agriculture affects and contributes to social equity as a critical dimension of agricultural sustainability.”
Using the matrix, the researchers retrospectively assessed different counties to see if they were achieving sustainable agriculture between 2010 and 2014.
According to the matrix, Australia had dangerous levels of phosphorous (P) surplus and was on a downward trajectory in economic and environmental sustainability.
The team also compared income levels against sustainable practices. They found that high-income counties faced problems with environmental factors – such as greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, lower-middle income countries exhibited demand for eliminating social factors like rural poverty, food affordability and nutritional status.
According to the analysis, different countries had unique challenges but still had a shared burden. This means that agriculture needs to be addressed at both a country and a global level to ensure it is sustainable and equitable.
As a next step, a project is launching with six countries and regions – including the US, Austria, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa – to identify and co-develop new strategies towards sustainable agriculture.
“Having the assessment is an important first step toward agricultural sustainability, especially in marginal production areas in Africa,” says matrix partner Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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