What’s measured matters: Agrifood system metrics for a finite planet

New meta-framework seeks to help ‘level the playing field’ for holistic approaches
Agroforestry farmer David Kenduywo on his farm in Kembu, Bomet County, Kenya, where he grows fodder trees, shrubs and grass for his dairy cattle. CIFOR-ICRAF/Sherry Odeyo

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Our food systems are central to human existence – and major drivers of environmental change, too. As such, it’s not surprising that people across the globe try to measure, monitor, and assess the various components of the agrifood systems to see how well they’re working and what could be improved upon.

But agrifood systems are also extremely complex and difficult to measure – and until recently, such metrics have been largely limited to economic aspects. “The Babylonians kept price data for agricultural commodities from as early as 500 BCE, and such metrics still make up the bulk of international databases such as FAOStat,” wrote the co-authors of a new working paper, Developing holistic assessments of food and agricultural systems: A meta-framework for metrics users, who hail variously from the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD).

Their work forms part of the Agroecological Transitions Program for Building Resilient and Inclusive Agricultural and Food Systems (TRANSITIONS), which aims to enable climate-informed agroecological transitions by farmers at significant scales in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). One of TRANSITIONS’ three key strands is its Metrics domain, whose preliminary findings are captured in the working paper. Its overall aim is to support people developing assessment frameworks and metrics for holistic measurement of agricultural and food system performance that put agroecology on a level playing field with other agricultural development approaches.

Such a focus is important because, as the adage goes, what we measure matters. “Those system properties that are measured will improve over time with management decisions, while properties that are not measured will change positively or negatively depending on what drives them and their correlation with measured properties,” reads the paper. “Hence for a long time, researchers and activists have argued that we need to measure much more than just production and economic aspects or dimensions of agrifood systems.”

It’s particularly critical when taking stock of the relative benefits of holistic approaches like agroecology, in contrast to more conventional intensified agriculture. “Agroecological systems are developed with the aim of providing environmental and social benefits, not only economic benefits, and to be sustainable in the long term,” say the authors. “To assess them only in short-term production or economic terms misses the whole point of the approach. Likewise, assessing conventionally intensified systems without including their longer-term social and environmental effects leads to degradation of those aspects.”

As the need for more holistic assessment has become apparent, there’s been a “recent proliferation” of available frameworks, which are diverse and designed to meet a wide range of objectives. While the development is laudable, it can be difficult for would-be measurers to work out what system to use. “The goals of developing a holistic assessment framework and the proliferation of available tools and metrics often leave the would-be measurer feeling like they need to measure everything, everywhere, all at once but with limited time and resources,” say the co-authors.

As such, they’ve put forward a ‘meta-framework’ to help people seeking data about agrifood systems to effectively design an assessment that’s appropriate for their needs. The framework makes use of four organizing concepts:

  1. The Destination: The goal of providing a holistic assessment of an agrifood system
  2. The Compass: Principles for designing an assessment
  3. The Landscape: The features and elements of the assessment system
  4. The Path: The steps in developing an assessment.

Ultimately, the approach will support metrics-users in finding their way through the complexity of available approaches and selecting something that meets their needs and, at the same time, level the playing field for sustainable agrifood systems.

The authors of the working paper are Christine Lamanna, Richard Coe, Mary Crossland, Lisa E. Fuchs, Carlos Barahona, Brian Chiputwa, Levi Orero, Beatrice Adoyo and Matthias Geck.

Download the paper in pdf here.



The TRANSITIONS programme is implemented by The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, CIFOR-ICRAF, IRRI, IWMI, The Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology, and the University of Vermont. It is generously funded by the European Union and managed by IFAD

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Topic(s) :   Food security