When experts disagree: the need to rethink indicator selection for assessing sustainability of agriculture

  • Evelien M. de Olde
  • Henrik Moller
  • Fleur Marchand
  • Richard W. McDowell
  • Catriona J. MacLeod
  • Marion Sautier
  • Stephan Halloy
  • Andrew Barber
  • Jayson Benge
  • Christian Bockstaller
  • Eddie A. M. Bokkers
  • Imke J. M. de Boer
  • Katharine A. Legun
  • Isabelle Le Quellec
  • Charles Merfield
  • Frank W. Oudshoorn
  • John Reid
  • Christian Schader
  • Erika Szymanski
  • Claus A. G. Sørensen
  • Jay Whitehead
  • Jon Manhire
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10668-016-9803-x

Cite this article as:
de Olde, E.M., Moller, H., Marchand, F. et al. Environ Dev Sustain (2016). doi:10.1007/s10668-016-9803-x

Abstract

Sustainability indicators are well recognized for their potential to assess and monitor sustainable development of agricultural systems. A large number of indicators are proposed in various sustainability assessment frameworks, which raises concerns regarding the validity of approaches, usefulness and trust in such frameworks. Selecting indicators requires transparent and well-defined procedures to ensure the relevance and validity of sustainability assessments. The objective of this study, therefore, was to determine whether experts agree on which criteria are most important in the selection of indicators and indicator sets for robust sustainability assessments. Two groups of experts (Temperate Agriculture Research Network and New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard) were asked to rank the relative importance of eleven criteria for selecting individual indicators and of nine criteria for balancing a collective set of indicators. Both ranking surveys reveal a startling lack of consensus amongst experts about how best to measure agricultural sustainability and call for a radical rethink about how complementary approaches to sustainability assessments are used alongside each other to ensure a plurality of views and maximum collaboration and trust amongst stakeholders. To improve the transparency, relevance and robustness of sustainable assessments, the context of the sustainability assessment, including prioritizations of selection criteria for indicator selection, must be accounted for. A collaborative design process will enhance the acceptance of diverse values and prioritizations embedded in sustainability assessments. The process by which indicators and sustainability frameworks are established may be a much more important determinant of their success than the final shape of the assessment tools. Such an emphasis on process would make assessments more transparent, transformative and enduring.

Keywords

Indicator selection Multi-criteria assessment Ranking Sustainability assessment Temperate agriculture 

Funding information

Funder NameGrant NumberFunding Note
Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment
  • AGRB1201

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Evelien M. de Olde
    • 1
    • 2
  • Henrik Moller
    • 3
  • Fleur Marchand
    • 4
    • 5
  • Richard W. McDowell
    • 6
    • 7
  • Catriona J. MacLeod
    • 8
  • Marion Sautier
    • 3
    • 9
  • Stephan Halloy
    • 10
    • 11
  • Andrew Barber
    • 12
  • Jayson Benge
    • 12
  • Christian Bockstaller
    • 13
    • 14
  • Eddie A. M. Bokkers
    • 2
  • Imke J. M. de Boer
    • 2
  • Katharine A. Legun
    • 15
  • Isabelle Le Quellec
    • 12
  • Charles Merfield
    • 16
  • Frank W. Oudshoorn
    • 1
    • 17
  • John Reid
    • 18
  • Christian Schader
    • 19
  • Erika Szymanski
    • 20
  • Claus A. G. Sørensen
    • 1
  • Jay Whitehead
    • 21
  • Jon Manhire
    • 12
  1. 1.Department of EngineeringAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark
  2. 2.Animal Production Systems GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Centre for Sustainability: Agriculture, Food, Energy, EnvironmentUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  4. 4.Social Sciences UnitInstitute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO)MerelbekeBelgium
  5. 5.Ecosystem Management Research Group and IMDOUniversity of AntwerpWilrijkBelgium
  6. 6.Invermay Agricultural CentreAgResearchMosgielNew Zealand
  7. 7.Agriculture and Life SciencesLincoln UniversityLincolnNew Zealand
  8. 8.Landcare ResearchDunedinNew Zealand
  9. 9.INRA, UMR 1248 AGIRCastanet-TolosanFrance
  10. 10.Universidad Nacional de ChilecitoLa RiojaArgentina
  11. 11.Ministry for Primary IndustriesWellingtonNew Zealand
  12. 12.The Agribusiness GroupLincoln UniversityLincolnNew Zealand
  13. 13.INRA, UMR 1121 Agronomie et EnvironnementINRA-Université de LorraineColmar CedexFrance
  14. 14.UMR 1121, Agronomie et EnvironnementUniversité de LorraineColmar CedexFrance
  15. 15.Department of Sociology, Gender and Social WorkUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  16. 16.The BHU Future Farming CentreLincolnNew Zealand
  17. 17.SEGESAarhus NDenmark
  18. 18.Ngai Tahu Research CentreUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand
  19. 19.Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)FrickSwitzerland
  20. 20.Centre for Science CommunicationUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  21. 21.Agribusiness and Economics Research UnitLincoln UniversityLincolnNew Zealand

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