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Main challenges and key features of indicator-based agroecological assessment frameworks in the context of international cooperation

Milena Wiget, Institute of Integrative Biology, Department of Environmental System Science, ETH Zurich
Adrian Muller, Department of Socio-Economic Sciences, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL; Institute for Environmental Decisions, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich
Angelika Hilbeck, Institute of Integrative Biology, Department of Environmental System Science, ETH Zurich


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Agroecology increasingly gains importance in the discussion about sustainable food systems. To facilitate the transition from conventional farming to agroecological farming, adequate methods and concepts to measure and assess impact and productivity of agroecological farming systems (AFSs) are needed, which consider their multifunctionality and other specific characteristics, here called agroecological sustainability assessment frameworks and tools (ASAFTs). In the past years, many agricultural sustainability assessment tools and frameworks were developed but their suitability and applicability to AFSs was not investigated. To close this knowledge gap, we aimed at identifying, reviewing, and discussing published ASAFTs in the context of international cooperation, providing an overview of the current challenges, needs, and requirements in assessing AFSs at the farm level with the means of indicators. Desktop and scientific database research was conducted to identify and discuss published indicator-based ASAFTs at the farm level. The analysis was based on the following four framework elements that the authors considered to be essential for ASAFTs: (1) the adaptability to local conditions all over the world, (2) the involvement of farmers in the development process, (3) the consideration of the multiple functions of an agroecosystem in the definition and measurement of its productivity, and (4) the accounting for interactions between multiple agroecosystem functions and their measurement. Only a few analyzed assessment frameworks at least partly consider these essential elements and were designed specifically for AFSs. However, our study also showed that these frameworks were (1) restricted in their geographical application scope, (2) quite heterogeneous and barely comparable, and (3) based on productivity indicators that do not fully capture the multiple functions of AFSs. Therefore, we identified the need for the development of appropriate agroecological productivity indicators and common standard or reference frameworks for assessing AFSs, which will be crucial for upscaling agroecology.

Key words

agroecological assessment frameworks; agroecological transition; farmers’ involvement; indicator interaction; multifunctionality

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087