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Considerations and constraints on the use of indicators in sustainable agriculture and rural development

J.B. Tschirley, Research, Extension and Training Division,
FAO, Rome, Italy


Indicators are pointers. Used effectively, they can flag important conditions and trends that can help in development planning and decision making.

Sustainability indicators look at economic, social and environmental information in an integrated manner and are growing in importance with the advent and follow-up to Agenda 21. They are now challenging countries and the development community to:

a. develop better information collection and reporting systems especially for natural resources (environmental) indicators;

b. integrate environmental, social and economic indicators for greater sensitivity in planning and decision making toward sustainable development; and

c. report regularly and reliably on conditions and trends.

The institutional and professional capacities of countries and communities, especially the poorer ones, to adapt and apply technology, to promote authentic participation, to empower local groups and to encourage professional staff and extension systems figure prominently in development failures and successes. Thus, a central challenge to technicians, planners and policy-makers is to ensure that indicators and information address these issues.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) framework

The four thematic areas of SARD (initially developed at the den Bosch Conference on Agriculture and the Environment (s' Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, 15-19 April 1991) and subsequently incorporated as Chapter 14, Agenda 21), and their sub-elements provide a useful starting point for countries to think about their indicator priorities and information needs. The SARD framework includes:

1. Policy Adjustment and Planning Assistance:

¤ Agricultural policy analysis.
¤ Food security.
¤ Forest use and management.
¤ Sustainable fisheries use and management.

2. Strengthening Human Resources and Institutional Capacity:

¤ Training and education.
¤ Nutrition and food quality.
¤ Development of rural households.
¤ Participation in rural development.

3. Improved Management of Natural Resources:

¤ Land conservation and rehabilitation.
¤ Efficient use of water resources.
¤ Animal genetic resources.
¤ Plant genetic resources.

4. Sound Use of Agricultural Inputs:

¤ Plant nutrition and soil fertility.
¤ Pest and pesticide management.
¤ Energy for rural development and agricultural productivity.
¤ Application and management of technology.

The integrated nature of sustainability

Indicators can be developed for each category of the SARD framework to measure the condition and trends in each critical sector. However, the challenge of sustainability (and the point that inhibits progress) is its three-dimensional nature (the environmental, the social and the economic) and the need to make trade-offs (e.g., between economic growth and environmental protection) and adjustments to maintain these three components in a dynamic balance. Although many would like to believe otherwise, win-win (all parties benefit) situations are not always possible. Invariably, someone or some group becomes disadvantaged from a policy change and resists the change.

Cutting across the three elements of sustainable development are issues which often determine how effective development interventions will be. These factors include:

¤ technology research and application;
¤ distortions in international trade;
¤ resource allocation (e.g., urban/rural investment and financing);
¤ population supporting capacity (e.g., natural resource endowments).

Institutional indicators

Although indicators of sustainable development pose an enormous challenge to develop, there are a number of entry points to begin work. For example, the governments of most countries already influence land use through their agriculture, forestry and fisheries policies and planning processes; they use various kinds of information to arrive at their decisions. But, traditional environmental indicators that focus on the use of pesticides and fertilizers, crop productivity, land conservation and so on, ignore human and institutional performance even though it is often the critical factor in success.

If SARD is seen primarily as a management challenge and not simply a technological or financial one, then some emphasis in indicator development should be on measuring the effectiveness of decentralization, setting unambiguous performance standards and involving stakeholders. This is quite different from the rather static "state" indicators which are often employed.

An approach being tried in Tanzania (Table 1) through a regional Global Environmental Facility (GEF) project, focuses on biological diversity and has developed a classification system and set of institutional indicators as indicated below.

TABLE 1. Institutional indicators developed for Tanzania




Coordination mechanisms, Performance incentives, Levels of hierarchy


Resources dedicated to biodiversity - Control over allocation

Trained personnel

Training profile - Skills upgrading


Exchange mechanisms - Monitoring and evaluation


Participating mechanisms - Decentralization


Performance standards - Evaluation


Short-term - Long-term


National, District - Village, Community, Eco-zone


International, National - Ministry, District, Village

Pressure-state-response framework

Many countries have national agricultural development plans which are developed on a three-or five-year rolling basis. These plans frequently use a policy analysis matrix to examine supply and demand conditions, prices, investment requirements, exchange rates, trade opportunities and other factors to achieve objectives such as economic growth, crop diversification, food security, poverty alleviation, income generation and/or nutrition objectives.

Goals and objectives are established (or the existing ones modified) that, at least nominally, are based on exploiting comparative advantage both within and between countries. This means that, ceteris paribus, a country or district with its unique endowment of natural resources, capital (machinery, services, infrastructure) and human resources, is able to produce a product more cheaply locally than it can import it. The converse is also true - the same country or district may find it cheaper to import a product than to produce it locally.

In determining comparative advantage, the natural resources base and its agro-ecological potential are critical but often underappreciated factors in determining the costs of production and productivity (yield/ha). Such values are usually considered only indirectly in the policy making or planning processes or not at all. Thus, a framework is needed that accommodates the full range of social, environmental and economic factors that enter the sustainability nexus.

The most widely adopted framework at present is referred to as pressure/state/response (Table 2) which was developed in the 1970s and is well suited to addressing the chain (filiere) of events that lead to environmental impacts.

TABLE 2. Example of pressure/state/response (PSR) framework.


(Driving force)

(Resulting condition)

(Mitigative Action)


Hillside farming

Declining yield

Terracing, perennial cropping


Agro-industrial processing

Fish die-off

Water treatment, technology adjustment


Livestock grazing

Soil erosion

Stock rotation, de-stocking revegetation

Pressure refers to the driving forces that create environmental impacts. They could include hillside farming, agro-industrial processing, livestock grazing, forest harvesting, etc.

State refers to the condition(s) that prevail when a pressure exists. This could be, for example, declining yields, fish die-off or soil erosion, etc.

Response refers to the mitigation action(s) and levers that could be applied to reduce or eliminate the impacts.

To avoid an overload of information and to make the PSR framework function effectively, indicators must be "issue driven". Failure to do this results in the generation of too much information and lack of focus on the underlying forces that created the problem. At first glance this point seems obvious yet in much indicator work the demand for data is quite heavy. PSR is well adapted to an issues-oriented approach but is weaker when planning is required and a broader range of information is required, much of which is not issue-oriented (Table 3).

A shortcoming of the PSR vis-à-vis sustainability indicators and analysis is its inability to address the multiple dimensions of sustainability; it was originally designed by OECD to address environmental concerns. If SARD is about better management and making trade-offs between economic, social and environmental objectives and the PSR is accepted as the default analytical framework, then it must be complemented by a component that allows the user to identify linkages between the driving forces (e.g., subsistence income and hillside farming. See Figure 1).

Environmental information

Information related to land suitability, pollution impacts and other sustainability considerations is available or can be estimated and included with the costs of production, revenues and the resulting profits which underpin the policy analysis framework. The results are not always as precise as would be desired but when decisions are being taken without any information, some data and an approach which can allow for incremental improvements in the quality of decision making can be more useful than no data at all. Indicators for land, water, soil, biodiversity and other factors can be used along with economic data by constructing scenarios based on available information after identifying gaps and assessing quality.

TABLE 3. Placement of FAO Contributions to Agenda 21 Indicators in the driving force-state-response (DSR) framework


Driving Force



10. Planning and Management of Land Resources

* land-use change

* land condition change ·

11. Combating Deforestation

* annual roundwood production +

* forest growing stock +

* forest area +

* wood as percentage of energy consumption +

* forest area by natural forest area and plantation area

* deforestation rate +

* reforestation rate +

* forest harvesting intensity

* managed forest area ratio

* protected forest area as percentage of total forest land area · ·

12. Combatting Desertification and Drought

* fuelwood consumption per caput

* drought frequency +

* national annual rainfall index

* livestock levels per km2 in dryland +

* greenleaf biomass

* population living below poverty line in drylands

13. Sustainable Mountain Development

* population dynamics of mountain areas

* welfare of mountain populations

* assessment of the condition and Sustainable use of natural resources in mountain areas

14. Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development

* use of pesticides

* use of fertilizers

* arable land per caput

* irrigated area as % of arable land

* area affected by salinization and waterlogging

* agricultural research intensity ratio

* agricultural extension funding

* agricultural education

* energy source mix in rural households

* energy use in agriculture

* energy source mix in agriculture

15. Conservation of Biological Diversity

17. Protection of the Oceans, All Kinds of Seas and Coastal Areas

* catches of marine species +

* ratio of current fishing effort to that at MSY

* ratio of current fishing mortality rate to that at MSY

* ratio of current population biomass to that at MSY

* ratio of current biomass to that under virgin conditions

* algae index

* discharges of oil into coastal waters

* releases of N and P to coastal waters

* participation in maritime treaties/agreements

Note: indicators that could be placed in alternative DSR category or in more than one category are shown in italics.

· Also relevant to Chapters 14 and 15 of Agenda 21.
· · Also relevant to Chapter 1 5 of Agenda 21.
+ These indicators are not recommended for retention.

FIGURE 1. Modified PSR framework for sustainability analysis.

There is much evidence that agricultural policy is often biased against resource conservation and sustainable production practices. However, when the costs of deterioration in the natural resource base from inappropriate land use is calculated in farm income, resource conservation practices compete economically and financially with those that maximize income over the short and medium terms; the longer the time period, the more cost-effective are sustainability practices.

If governments use this information to make better policy choices, to identify failures and to make adjustments, the sector would be able (theoretically) to allocate resources more efficiently, increase profits margins and, keeping constant factors such as population, produce indefinitely.

Social information

Social factors such as landlessness, migration to engage in wage labour, land tenure, rural unemployment, access to credit or needed inputs, weak extension systems can all serve to undermine sustainable development. The challenge is to know when, to what extent, and under what conditions, these factors interact with economic and environmental factors to work against sustainability.

The Human Development Index (HDI), produced by UNDP, is one attempt (perhaps the most ambitious) to reflect an array of social and economic concerns in a single index. It combines per caput GDP with indicators of adult literacy and life expectancy to generate a weighted index of "essential" living standards.

However, essential living standards will vary among countries and regions. How should questions of equity, freedom, health, food security be reflected in a modified HDI? And, how should they be weighted?

Economic information

Policies with respect to trade, spending, exchange rates, labour markets, and inputs are included in the analysis and impinge on the natural resources base. Policy objectives are realized through the introduction of new technologies, diversifying or specializing production which raises or lowers prices for consumers or producers, through taxes, restrictions, subsidies, guarantees, and income supplements.

Policy failures, from the point of view of sustainable development, arise when instruments inadvertently lead to misuse of natural resources. Whereas a government objective may be to increase production of a commodity, such as soybeans or coffee or cotton in order to generate foreign exchange, and the policy instrument used is favourable credit terms or price guarantees, an unforseen result may be increased soil erosion, mining of soil nutrients, misuse of pesticides or fertilizers, or a variety of negative impacts that represent long-term costs to the government and, especially, to the producer.

These externalities or indirect costs are seldom calculated or even identified in policy analysis and planning even though they may create direct costs to the agriculture sector and reduce the GDP of a country. As a general rule indirect costs and externalities should be included in economic planning and analysis to the extent that the benefits obtained be equal or exceed the costs of obtaining them. Thus the ability to accurately value such costs and benefits looms large in the economic component of sustainability analysis.

Criteria for indicator development

Many professionals agree that at least three criteria should guide the development of sustainability indicators:

1. Policy relevance - to ensure the indicators address issues of primary concern to a country or district and receive the highest priority. In some cases policy-makers may already share concern about an aspect of sustainability (e.g., land degradation) and be ready to use indicator information for addressing the issue; in other cases (e.g., biodiversity) it may seem unclear what is needed and thus indicators will have to be used in a way to raise awareness and promote action.

2. Predictability - to allow a forward looking perspective that can promote planning and decisions on issues before they become too severe. Anticipatory decision making is at least as important to sustainable agriculture as is recognition of existing problems.

3. Measurability - to allow planners and analysts the means to assess how the indicator was derived, either qualitatively or quantitatively, and decide how it can best be applied in the planning and decision-making process. Given the limited information on environmental conditions in many countries, qualitative measures such as rapid appraisals, informal surveys and opinion polls have an important role to play. They can be useful in policy making despite a bias for traditional statistical measures.

Aggregating data and information

Although in the political sphere, time horizons may be short, experience in a number of countries shows that:

1. politicians can and often do use a wide array of information in arriving at their position;
2. their positions change as new information becomes available; and
3. their information comes from a wide array of formal and informal sources.

Thus, the temptation to arrive at single digit indicators or to produce indices that aggregate a number of weighted indicators (the correlations for which are seldom known) should be avoided in the early stages of indicator development. More effort and trials are needed, as has been done in the Netherlands, to experiment with menus of indicators that are thematically linked to represent several dimensions of an issue such as overgrazing or deforestation.

For example, land degradation could arise from unemployment, insecure land tenure, food insecurity, population pressure, cropping practices or other factors. In most cases it will be a combination of factors and each country must identify the key ones for their situation. This paper emphasizes the role of indicators in promoting sustainable development at the national and sub-national levels, but some groups are calling for indicators to monitor progress in implementing the Agenda 21 at the global level. They are interested in issues such as biological diversity, climate change, international waters, toxic chemicals, etc.

The Scientific Committee on Protection of the Environment (SCOPE) has devised a sustainability matrix (below) comprised of "a series of well known and internationally accepted indices for economic and social factors"; augmented by environmental indices. Clearly, many OECD countries would recognize the elements, but would it be in the interests of, for example Tanzania or Peru or Papua New Guinea to be included in such a matrix? If not for global, then for regional purposes? Would the SCOPE measures be the appropriate ones, for example, in the East African region? Would it make any difference?

TABLE 4. SCOPE - Sustainability matrix.




Source index

Unemployment index

Economic growth (GDP)

Sink index

Poverty index

Saving rate

Life support index

Shelter index

Balance of payments

Human impact index

Human capital index

National debt

For reporting at the global level, groups such as the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) would prefer a small number of indicators. For example to monitor progress in agriculture, four to eight indicators are foreseen. However, there are many ways to measure soil erosion, land degradation and other factors. The individual measures cannot always be added together to arrive at a globally or regionally meaningful number.

Notwithstanding the risks musing aggregated indicators, there are also risks in using too many individual indicators. One is the failure to demonstrate a clear trend or condition. A large selection of indicators can also lead some decision-makers to select one that supports their particular view. It can also cause confusion in sorting out what is considered the most relevant information. This can stop or delay the decision-making process and reinforce bureaucratic inertia.

Constraints on existing information

At present statistical data are available only for national boundaries which limits their usefulness in determining net production potential and population supporting capacity and very few of them are geographically referenced. Therefore, a requirement for improving the usefulness of indicators is the need to organize sub-national data in an agro-ecological-zone format which can overlay district boundaries. On this basis, environmental, social and economic constraints in countries and districts can be assessed in the context of population supporting capacity. Although this work has been undertaken in some countries, it lags far behind the need. An agro-ecological-zone-based information system could also include information on waterlogging and salinity, loss of forest cover, presence of plant and animal genetic material, and prevalence of vector-borne disease, land tenure, food security, energy and other factors which figure strongly in sustainability analysis.

Crossing the threshold

The last constraint to the use of indicators for sustainability analysis is the poor understanding and lack of consensus among technical experts of how economic, social and environmental forces interact. There are numerous cases where high levels of soil erosion have existed for long periods either without significant loss in productivity or not enough loss to induce the farmer to change behaviour. Thus, it seems that one could not state unequivocally that soil erosion is an indicator of unsustainability unless a link was established demonstrating substantial economic and/or social effects.

Despite scientific uncertainty, the use of thresholds which provide a range of allowable degradation under specified conditions could be important tools for planning and monitoring sustainability performance. For example, most agro-ecological zones have information on soil type, climate, topography and land suitability for various crops. When an erosion rate is known, experts familiar with the region can estimate whether the erosion rate is sustainable under a given cropping regime. Based on past experience, training and intuition, such rule-of-thumb estimates constitute expert systems that, if organized systematically, could be used by planners and analysts.

Once planners, policy-makers and land users agree on the issues to measure, criteria for a threshold table can be established for social and economic aspects based on cost effectiveness factors such as time, expense and level of detail involved. In many cases, rule-or-thumb measures are a practical way to begin. Two important elements in such a process are: a) the use of participatory mechanisms, and b) to state clearly the criteria used in calculating an indicator.

These aspects are an important means of promoting transparency and dialogue in the planning process. If a person or group knows the assumptions and methods used in developing an indicator, even if they disagree with the method or the result, an open and flexible process can become the basis for dialogue and adjustment.

In most cases no single indicator would determine sustainability or unsustainability. However, a series of indicators that collectively exceed the threshold levels should be sufficient cause to investigate data quality, conduct a rapid survey of the area involved, consult knowledgable experts, or all of the above.


This paper has reviewed a number of the constraints to indicators but also strived to avoid the impression that nothing can or should be done. The main points are the following:

1. Development of sustainability indicators must be closely tied to the development of national and sub-national information systems for agricultural planning and programming.

2. Initially, the emphasis should be on improving national and regional capacity with regard to data collection and information collection; barring this, global indicators will have little meaning.

3. Aggregation of existing data to derive global indicators without addressing data quality would likely lead to inefficient allocation of resources and misunderstanding of local forces and influences that underlie unsustainable development practices. However such exercises might be usefully carried out on a regional basis (e.g. Africa, Asia, Latin America) or among countries with a number of common characteristics (e.g., OECD, small island states).

4. Thresholds and targets are useful means of allowing countries to compare their performance, for example in controlling soil erosion, against internationally accepted norms based on local natural resource endowments and land-use practices.

5. Basic data and information regarding production potential and supporting capacity should be organized based on agro-ecological zone and overlaid with national or district boundaries.

6. Interactions among the environmental, social and economic components of sustainability need considerable field research to better understand how they affect each other and the driving forces that need to be measured.

7. Human and institutional capacity to manage the development process through participatory and transparent approaches is fundamental to sustainable agriculture. Indicators to monitor these dimensions are essential but extremely difficult to collect; more emphasis is needed in this area.

8. An important albeit indirect goal of indicators is greater participation and transparency in the planning and programming process in countries. Without this, even the best data and analysis will not lead to sustainable development as it was conceived at UNCED.

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