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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Measuring sustainability at farm level – A critical view on data and indicators

Robling, Helena; Abouhatab, Assem; Säll, Sarah; Hansson, Helena


Measuring sustainability at farm level is a priority for both research and policy and requires sustainability indicators to track progress. Indicators make the sustainability concept more concrete and guide farm level decisions, playing a decisive role in determining food system impacts on societies and the environment. Data availability is often a limiting factor when choosing indicators, but not enough attention is paid to the role of data in indicator construction and assessment results. This paper assessed the critical role of data in indicator construction and the potential limitations that current data availability imposes on farm-level sustainability assessments, using the example of dairy farms in Sweden. To do so we used a five-step approach consisting of a literature review, an inventory of data sources, an expert consultation, a matching and gap analysis, and a critical assessment. We found that 20 indicators categorized under 12 out of 20 sustainability themes had measurement issues due to missing scope, temporary data, or additional data requirements. At least some indicators within all themes in the social and economic dimensions were measureable, while all indicators for pesticides, non-renewable energy, and soil quality in the environmental dimension had measurement issues. In the critical assessment, we argue that for some indicators, there are trade-offs between data availability and issues of comprehensibility and analytical validity. Furthermore, we found that no single data source could be used to measure all themes; which means that merging of different data sets is needed for a broader on-farm sustainability assessment. Our findings are relevant for the discussion on sustainability indicators and will also inform future programs aimed at collecting sustainability data at farm level, which should consider the broad data needs identified, and the potential to merge data to enable holistic sustainability assessments.


Agriculture; Data; Dairy farms; Economic sustainability; Environmental sustainability; Social sustainability

Published in

Environmental and Sustainability Indicators
2023, Volume: 18, article number: 100258