Transition of food systems


November 16th 2012

Sustainability indicators for livestock farming. A review

What indicators should be used to assess the sustainability of livestock systems ?


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Intensive livestock farming has raised issues about environmental impacts and food security during the past 20 years. As a consequence, there is a strong social demand for sustainable livestock systems. Sustainable livestock systems should indeed be environmentally friendly, economically viable for farmers, and socially acceptable, notably for animal welfare. For that goal, many sustainability indicators and methods have been developed at the farm level. The main challenge is using a transparent selection process to avoid assessment subjectivity.

Here, we review typologies of sustainability indicators. We set guidelines for selecting indicators in a data-driven context, by reviewing selection criteria and discussing methodological issues. A case study is presented. The selected set of indicators mainly includes (1) environmental indicators focusing on farmer practices; (2) quantitative economic indicators; and (3) quantitative social indicators with a low degree of aggregation. The selection of indicators should consider (1) contextualization to determine purpose, scales, and stakeholders involved in the assessment; (2) the comparison of indicators based on various criteria, mainly data availability; and (3) the selection of a minimal, consistent, and sufficient set of indicators. Finally, we discuss the following issues: topics for which no indicators are measurable from available data should explicitly be mentioned in the results.

A combination of means-based indicators could be used to assess a theme, but redundancy must be avoided. The unit used to express indicators influences the results and has therefore to be taken into account during interpretation. To compare farms from indicators, the influence of the structure on indicator values has to be carefully studied.