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A methodological approach to food sustainability assessment: Course summary

09 April 2021

A high-level training course was organized online from 15 to 24 February 2021 by CIHEAM Zaragoza to explore a methodological approach to food sustainability assessment. The course brought together more than 60 professionals from all over the world – 20 countries. Likewise, it counted on the participation of top international experts from the FAO, universities and research centres, and provided one of the most comprehensive expert trainings to date on this relevant topic.

The course opened with some introductory sessions provided by experts from the FAO (Anne Bogdanski, Maryam Rezaei, José Valls). They explained that agrifood systems occupy the biggest share of the bioeconomy. In the European Union, for instance, food systems, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as food and feed manufacturing, account for 71% of all value added in a bioeconomy, followed by around 28% for bio-products, and the remainder for bioenergy. They went on to explain that sustainable food systems are resilient, productive, prosperous, equitable and inclusive, empowering, regenerative and besides deliver healthy and nutritious diets. However, with hunger on the rise, the significant contribution of food systems to climate change and worsening inequality, among other indicators, the sustainability of many of our contemporary food systems is in question. “Business as usual” is no longer an option and transformative changes of agrifood systems are needed for countries and stakeholders. Science and policy offer many solutions to foster shifts towards sustainable production and consumption but operationalizing these solutions on the ground remains a challenge. It requires integrated actions taken by all stakeholders at local, national, regional, and global levels, and across multiple sectors, to assess the impact of decisions and interventions on communities, environment and economy, to manage trade-offs and leverage synergies.

José María Gil from CREDA-UPC-IRTA (Barcelona, Spain) went on to provide participants with an overall picture of the new EU Framework, which will incentivize the need for policy and innovation impact assessment towards a prosperous, fair, competitive, resource-efficient and climate-neutral economy with the final objective of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. His presentation described the main features of the European Green deal, announced by the Commission in December 2019 and focused on the main actions addressed specifically to the agrifood sector. The Farm to Fork Strategy was also briefly presented with an outline of the 27 actions and some concerns and uncertainties about the implementation of the Strategy.

It was obvious that measuring sustainability will be essential in this new framework and, in this regard, Jara Laso, from the University of Cantabria (Santander, Spain) explained how the combination of environmental, social and economic approaches is key for a common future. Currently, there are a lot of simple indicators producing information overload to decision-makers, hindering the decision-making process. Despite the call for a few aggregated indicators to simplify decision-making, there is no standardized methodology. The production of composite indicators involves choices regarding which component indicators to include and how to weight or aggregate them. The use of optimization methods, such as linear programming or “distance-to-target” approach, can help to estimate the weighting factors needed to obtain a complex indicator.

FAO expert Anne Bogdanski also added that indicators provide information that simplifies reality. They give information on trends and changes, but they do not necessarily provide an explanation for them, nor do they imply causal links. Single indicators are often not sufficient to understand complex phenomena such as food systems or sustainable bioeconomy. Indicators are therefore often combined in so-called indicator sets. Indicators are aggregated through mathematical operations to produce indices. Aggregated indices have the advantage of reflecting the integrative characteristics of a system and provide an overall picture of the state or performance of a system in a simple and explicit manner. Often, the definition of “sustainability indicators” include single indicators, indicator sets and indices.

As José María Gil from CREDA-UPC-IRTA (Barcelona, Spain) pointed out, assessing sustainability through a set of environmental, social and economic indicators could be problematic when comparing alternative policies or technologies of food systems. Good performance in some indicators can be also associated with poor performance in others, making decisions a challenge. Dr Gil provided an integrated framework to tackle such potential conflicts. The basic assumption is that food systems provide not only private but also public goods. The framework consists of valuing both types of goods in monetary terms and integrating them in a single framework. Net Farm Income is considered when valuing private goods while public goods are valued using discrete choice models.

Zein Kallas from CREDA-UPC-IRTA (Barcelona, Spain) introduced the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP) as a mathematical technique for multi-criteria decision-supporting methods in discrete environments. The AHP allows for the search of relative importance placed on alternative and options characteristics by comparing criteria and sub criteria indicators obtained from pairwise comparisons. It aims to decompose a complex decision problem in a hierarchy of smaller constituent sub-problems.

Saioa Ramos from AZTI (Derio, Spain) also explained that the EU wants to create a common method based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for measuring the environmental impact of products and services. Half of European consumers think it is not easy to differentiate between environmentally-friendly and other products and only about half of them trust producers' claims about environmental performance. As her colleague Maite Cidad pointed out, LCA is a methodology to assess environmental impacts of a product, process or activity throughout its life cycle, from resource extraction to end of life. LCA transforms the inputs (energy, water and raw materials) and outputs (emissions to air, soil and water) of the system into environmental impacts (climate change, water use, acidification, etc). It is used to improve processes, support policy and provide a sound basis for informed decisions. LCA is applied to analyse the contribution of the actors in the chain to the overall environmental load, to prioritize improvements.

The concept of the water footprint was also introduced by Maite M. Aldaya from ISFOOD-UPNA (Pamplona, Spain) which makes a link between consumption in one place and impacts on water systems elsewhere. The water footprint is an indicator that provides objective quantitative data on water use and its impacts that can help improve water resources management and related problems across the world. In the case of agrifood products and beverages, often most of the water footprint lies in the supply chain, in the indirect agricultural uses.

Finally, Marta Angela Bianchi from RISE (Göteborg, Sweden) provided an overview on nutrition quality and health impact indicators used in food sustainability studies. The need for combined nutrition/health and environmental analysis in sustainability studies, as well as the concepts of nutrition and health metrics, their definition and specificity of use were presented with several examples from published studies. Nutrient quantity metrics, such as indices of nutrient density were discussed, as well as the role of methodological choices in the selection of the most suitable index, and their impact on the relative ranking of foods. Aspects such as included nutrients, the reference amount for the calculation of the nutrient density score, or the application of capping or weighting were highlighted and all methodological choices were presented in the context of a Swedish study analysing 130 foods with the NRF (nutrient rich food) nutrition indicators.