Sustainability indicators as management tools to guide farmers, scientists, policy makers and the general public

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $250,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Jon Brandt
North Carolina State University

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: cabbages, sweet potatoes


  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, transitioning to organic
  • Sustainable Communities: public participation, sustainability measures


    At the Center for Environmental Farming System (CEFS) at North Carolina State University we have a unique production systems experiment where a wide range of parameters was collected since 1998. By using these data as a starting point, we tried to develop an approach to relate these data back to the guiding concept of agricultural sustainability.
    A comprehensive list of economic, social, and ecological sustainability attributes has been identified. A survey using conjoint analysis methodology and direct attribute ranking was designed and conducted to estimate the relative impact of individual attributes on the overall perception of sustainability by farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders for aggregate sustainability assessment.
    An indicator system, including indicators of soil quality, pesticide and fertilizer use, and tillage practices, was developed based on environmental data collected at CEFS to generate some insights into environmental impact of organic, integrated crop-animal, conventional best management practice farming, and plantation forestry. A graphical tool was also developed to assess the overall environmental impact associated with production systems evaluated at CEFS.
    Measurements taken during the first 9 years of the experiment revealed significant differences among systems in terms of their environmental impact. At this stage of the experiment, our finding identified the BMP-conventional tillage system as high-risk system mostly because of extensive tillage. The certified organic system was also extensively tilled and was characterized by phosphorous buildup in soil, but performed well based on other assessment factors. Therefore, organic farming may become an alternative to conventional farming in North Carolina in terms of environmental impact reduction given the revision of its nutrient management guidelines to prevent phosphorus buildup in soil. Our data also suggest that organic farming would not significantly compromising crop yields compared to traditionally managed systems. Finally, the BMP-no tillage and the crop-animal integrated system were characterized as low-risk mainly because of reduced tillage.

    Project objectives:

    To derive a manageable set of indicators to evaluate the environmental, biological, and financial aspects of sustainability of organic, BMP, conventional, and integrated farming at the system and enterprise (crop/rotation, animal activity) level.
    To process data on selected sustainability indicators and collect additional data on specific sustainability indicators for which insufficient information is available from existing projects at CEFS.
    To develop a tool for bringing together various indicators of sustainability in a single picture that shows at a glance where progress is made.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.