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Seeking the Whole Story: New metrics needed to evaluate agricultural practices

Jump straight to IATP’s new report, Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators.

In agriculture, policymakers, analysts and researchers often use a set of indicators to assess whether a farming system, or new technology, is succeeding. The most common indicators focus on increasing “yield,” often of a singular crop or animal unit, within large-scale production systems. The use of indicators focused almost exclusively on production helps to shape scientific research and public policy. But just as weight alone is not a good measure of human health, a single-minded focus on production is an inadequate measure of the health of a farming system. So long as yields are high, this narrow focus supports the illusion that our agricultural system is meeting the nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, rural development and other needs of the population.

Farming produces multiple products. The most obvious are food, feed, fiber and raw materials for conversion into other food and non-food products (such as energy, materials, etc.). Done right, farming also contributes to better soil health and water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and carbon storage. Unfortunately, less desired products are often produced as well, such as pollution to ground and surface water and air, with detrimental impacts to human and animal health.

Yet, despite the clear reality of these multifunctional outcomes of agriculture and the important roles these products play in our environment, society and economy (for better or worse), we lack the means to assess them accurately. To truly measure the value and sustainability of local food and farming systems, we need indicators that are multidimensional and cross-disciplinary, and that fully capture the range of outcomes contributing to the success of the system.

There is growing support within the U.S. and around the world for less chemical-intensive, more ecological approaches to agriculture—including systems that produce healthy food for local markets. These systems have the potential to provide a whole host of benefits—from environmental to social to health—that are currently neither assessed nor valued under most current scientific research and public policy regimes. There is some evidence this is changing. Both the USDA’s Food Atlas and the state of Vermont’s Farm to Table Strategic Plan for 2020 are using a wider range of indicators to measure the food system. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.

With all of this in mind, IATP launched a project in 2012 to begin to establish a research framework for a new set of indicators that would better represent the diverse benefits of local, agroecological food systems and that could be tracked over time. To ground our work, we partnered with the Main Street Project, which has attempted to create an innovative, replicable systems approach to raising free-range poultry, based in Northfield, Minnesota. Working with this project provided a unique opportunity to develop and test these new indicators of success within food production.

Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators presents the findings of the project and provides contextual analysis and suggested next steps.

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