Agriculture Sustainability Metrics Need Work: Can You Help?


photo Venex_jpb @ flickr

How important is sustainable agriculture? It is expected that by 2050 the world's population will need a doubling of agriculture productivity. Can we meet this demand without destroying the systems we depend on for life? Are the current methods of food production sustainable? If you asked Bill Mollison or Michael Pollan I would suspect they could point to many problems of our current agricultural system. As we have shown on TreeHugger they could also point to many solutions. The tough part comes when you have to make a policy decision that impacts global food supply, you don’t want to make the wrong choice.

The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is an unlikely gaggle of industry giants, nonprofit organizations, and conservation groups that are working to build a set of metrics in order to guide agriculture into a sustainable future. They just released a report on these metrics, and by the looks of it they have a lot of work left to do. A column this week in the New York Times by Aaron E. Hirsh left me wondering if the gap in these metrics can be filled in by you?What Sustainability Metrics?

The alliance has a noble goal:

As an initial step, the group has defined sustainable agriculture as meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by focusing on these specific, critical outcomes:
* Increasing agricultural productivity to meet future nutritional needs while decreasing impacts on the environment, including water, soil, habitat, air quality and climate emissions, and land use;
* Improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food; and
* Improving the social and economic well-being of agricultural communities.

The report recognizes some of the big systemic challenges. For example, agriculture represents 70% of fresh water use, and is responsible for 30% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

In the end, the report found 18 metrics of concern, and each of these needed to be monitored on four different spatial scales. For those of you counting at home my calculator tells me this adds up to be 74 independent metrics that are needed to assess sustainable agriculture. As you can see below they have come up with data and methodologies for 6 of the 74.

The report laments that assessing biodiversity and water quality is difficult. Which got me thinking back to the New York Times article. It is just that sort of difficulty that particle physicists have had to deal with while investigating the nature of the universe through massive collisions. Mountains of data are formed in those high impact chambers, all of which needs to be collected and analyzed all over the world. In order to solve these high data problems those clever physicists invented such handy tools as the internet. Well, the internet has matured a bit since then, and may be ready to handle the information necessary to figure out if agriculture can be sustainable.
Sustainability Metrics From the Masses

Indeed Aaron Hirsh argues that big science is just the thing to solve these more complex and difficult problems. He cites the example of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count as an example of how well organized and networked ‘Citizen Scientists’ can answer numerically, spatially, and geographically difficult questions. He continues:

Of course, Citizen Science won’t be very helpful in genome sequencing or particle physics. But it will be helpful — indeed, perhaps essential — for gathering a kind of data that will be increasingly important over the next few decades. Widespread networks of observers are especially well-suited to detecting global change — shifts in weather patterns; movements in the ranges of species; large-scale transformations of eco-systems — and that, unfortunately, is something we will need to know far more about if we are to mitigate and adapt to the fateful effects we are having on the planet.

So what do you think, can you help achieve sustainable agriculture?

More on Revolutionary Agriculture
Agriculture Needs a Fundamental Rethink in the 21st Century
National Sustainable Agriculture Standards Debated
Vertical Farming – The Future of Agriculture?
Native Seeds Fight Food Shortage and Global Warming

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