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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Sustainability assessment of farming systems – challenges and perspectives

Thematic area: Food, agriculture, genetically modified crops
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Food and Agriculture and Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: In process of approval
Current project phase: Report completed. Approval by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment pending
Duration: 2017 till 2018

Background and central aspects of the topic

The overall guiding principle of sustainable development inherently constitutes the framework of orientation for the debates on the developments and challenges of agriculture. However, as in many other sectors of society, there is no consensus on what sustainable agriculture should be like and how it could be achieved. Accordingly, there are differing ideas as to its current condition and the desirable political measures to be taken to shape agriculture.

In Germany and in the European Union, agriculture is subject to continuous structural change towards less, but more specialised and larger farms. In this context, for some years already, there is a broad and controversial debate on which farm sizes and forms of agriculture and food production best match the objectives of a sustainable agriculture. In the debate, small-scale, rural and organic farming on the one hand very often is opposed to industrially organised conventional farming with big farms on the other hand. However, such a polarisation does not reflect the actual diversity of agricultural conditions and challenges which are mainly characterised by regional differences.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has created a general framework to assess the sustainability of farms as well as of value-added chains or companies in the agriculture and food sectors (Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems [SAFA]). In Germany and Switzerland, there are further approaches to assess the sustainability of farms. A sustainability assessment of German overall agriculture is made e. g. within the framework of reporting on the German Federal Government’s National Sustainable Development Strategy by means of three directly relevant indicators (species diversity and landscape quality in the agricultural landscape, nitrogen surplus and the share of organic farming on agricultural land used). Since 2015, the DLG (Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft – German Agricultural Society) presents an annual sustainability report for the German agricultural sector comprising not only indicators from the fields of ecology, economics and social responsibility, but also an aggregate sustainability index.

However, aggregation levels between individual farms and the overall agricultural sector have hardly been taken into account so far. Only with regard to a comparison between organic and conventional farming, there have been numerous publications in recent years mostly comparing specific aspects such as the yield level, ecological impacts or economic results.

An improved state of knowledge regarding the sustainability assessment of farming systems is of major significance for the future agricultural and environmental policies at national and European level. There is a broad consensus covering several interests, political parties and stakeholders concerning the fact that there are enormous challenges when it comes to sustainably shaping agriculture. This was communicated to a broad public in the context of the International Green Week in January 2017 as a future key task for politics, society and science. The objective is particularly to preserve farms and to shape the further structural change of agriculture in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

Objectives and approach

The project »Sustainability assessment of farming systems – challenges and perspectives« shall provide information with regard to the question of which approaches for a sustainability assessment of farming systems appear to be appropriate to serve as a framework of orientation for an economically viable as well as socially and environmentally sustainable shaping of future agricultural and environmental policies. Particular attention is paid to the determination of a reasonable aggregation level of the farming systems to be assessed and to the existing obstacles resulting from possibly insufficient data as well as to the options required to overcome those obstacles. The project shall focus on four core aspects:

  • Analysis of the structural change in agriculture: Diversity in the agricultural structure of Germany (and in the EU); dynamics of change in German (and European) agriculture – developments in the past and trends for the future; technological, economic, social and political drivers (causes) of the structural change; relevance of the structural change with regard to sustainability and (national and international) sustainability problems influenced by the structural change.
  • Status and perspectives regarding the sustainability assessment of farms and of the agricultural sector in Germany and worldwide: Comparative overview of the context, methods, indicators, available data, presentation of results; current status of application; strengths and weaknesses as well as perspectives of further development; sustainability assessment of international value-added chains and agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soya, biofuels; possibilities to intersect micro-scale (e. g. at the level of individual farms) and macro-scale assessment (e. g. in the course of reporting on the German National Sustainable Development Strategy).
  • Comparison of organic and conventional farming as an example for a comparative sustainability assessment of farming systems: Assessment of available results; transferability of the conceptual approaches particularly with regard to the availability of data, open questions concerning the methods used as well as perspectives of further development.
  • Working out of options for action with regard to agricultural, environmental and research policies: On the one hand, presentation of necessary steps to be taken and of possibly existing need for research towards a sustainability assessment of farming systems: Concept, acquisition and preparation of data, interpretation; on the other hand, identification of fields of action, responsibilities of stakeholders and forms of cooperation for shaping a more sustainable agricultural production in Germany.

Project progress

With regard to the first three subtopics, external expert analyses have been commissioned. The results of those expert analyses constituted the basis for deriving and discussing the options for action with regard to agricultural, environmental and research policies and for the draft of the final report that has been submitted for review.