Sustainability indicators

INSPIA aims to provide for farmers a European index about sustainable productive agriculture based on monitoring different types of indicators – basically economic, social and environmental indicators – since this is what needs to be balanced to achieve sustainability. The indicators are tools to assess the status of sustainability, especially to highlight what needs to be changed to enhance sustainability. In this regard, society can help through enabling legislation, since the outcomes farmers need to achieve are also needed by society as a whole.

INSPIA believes that indicators need to be essentially based on what farmers do in practice to farm the land. Hence, INSPIA promotes a range of Best Management Practices (BMPs) that have been demonstrated to improve the farmed environment for biodiversity, as well as protect and enhance soil, water and air quality on which productivity relies. Calculating the index values for each indicator is mostly based BMP implementation and the consequences for farmers, e.g. how much time or money it took to implement, or the impact on crop yields. However, INSPIA also recognizes that index values in other indicator systems use rely more on monitoring, particularly for biodiversity and water quality. Monitoring has thus been included where feasible, particularly for general public monitoring, e.g. of water quality. Farm specific monitoring is limited to what is economically possible for farmers, so it includes some soil and nutrient monitoring, but not monitoring the numbers of birds and bees, or water quality, to ensure that INSPIA can be a widely used indicator system on farms across Europe.

With such a set of indicators, the index values are actively influenced by farmers. The values range from the lowest to the highest, depending on what farmers do in practice. An optimal set of index values is a set of uniformly high values. A high average score, but which includes very low values on some indicators, is suboptimal and not sustainable, even though there are steps in the right direction. INSPIA wants to re-vitalize how farmers think about sustainability. INSPIA believes farmers want to know more about how to integrate the use of technology (which all farming systems use, including organic ones) with the use of ecosystem services, as the overall focus and direction needed for achieving sustainable productive agriculture.

For each type of indicator, they are focused on selected key outcomes, particularly environmental ones as key to achieving sustainable productive agriculture, as shown below:

Economic – Profit/production Efficiency

  • 1. EBITDA per ha

    “Earnings Before Interests, Taxes, Depreciations and Amortizations” EBITDA measures the ability of the holding to generate profits considering only productive activity. The purpose of EBITDA is to obtain a true picture of what the farm holding is winning or losing in the core of their business.EBITDA = REVENUE – EXPENSES (excluding interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) Basically, EBITDA is net income with interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization added back to it. With its EBITDA, a business is now able to better compare its profits against what others holdings are producing. Sometimes it is also called operational cash flow.
  • 2. EBITDA/labour unit

    The platform will take into account result from the previous indicator, and will relate this value with the number of employees the farm has.One labour unit is defined as at least 1800 hours worked on the farm by a person.
  • 3. Production costs

    These production costs are the expenses related for crop production. Which is the cost inputs needed to produce a particular crop?
  • 4. Yield/ha UAA

    The yield of the farm represents the amount of crop obtained per surface, and it is signified in (kg/ha) for each crop. The surface taken into account for this performance of this indicator is the corresponding Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA).There are several factors influencing in yield, such as the climatology, crop management (variety, fertilization, protection sanitaire).
  • 5. Yield/ha main fodder area

    This yield (kg/ha) just refers to the fodder area.
  • 6. Feed self-sufficiency

    This indicator relates the total amount of food produced on the farm to the total food consumed by livestock.Both, food produced on the farm and the total amount of food consumed by livestock should be internally converted into Tonnes of Oil Equivalent.However, monitoring the cost of production of fodder and other foods produced on the farm is very important in this indicator. Production costs should be kept lower than the costs of buying external food.Food self-sufficiency is not necessarily an end to be achieved but depends on managing costs and market opportunities.
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Social – Farmer Welfare and Well-being

  • 7. Effectiveness working time

    This indicator will provide the exact number of hours worked at the farm per accounting exercise considered.It will take into account the amount of hours per working day, the days a week, the weeks a year, and finally, the days off taken by the employers. (35 hours per week; 1800 hours per year).
  • 8. SI – Satisfaction Index

    This index is a qualitative indicator of the farmer’s perception of living conditions and work in general at the farm.There are opportunities to reduce the work time by optimizing the work in fields through some low-intensity farming systems, if they are economically bearable for the farm.
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Environmental – Biodiversity Enhancement + Resource Use and Protection

Basic Soil & Crop management

  • 9. Soil Tillage index

    This indicator refers to the grade of aggressively that machinery used on the farm land provides to the soil. Considering the number of passes, the implementation depth, labours among others. Each agricultural implement used in labouring the soil on the plot has a different factor in terms of aggressively depending also on the depth of soil disturbance.
  • 10. Annual soil cover rate

    This indicator is directly linked to the number of days when the soil is covered. Likewise, it is important the height of the cover crops farmers have in their plots, the type of cover crops, and also the portion of the restitution of stubble from the main crop.This indicator reports on the waste biomass in soil. A permanent cover is the main criterion for the increased rate of organic matter and the creation of carbon sources (setting a vegetation cover type, return of straw and crop residues and cover the soil before winter).Crop field with covers (green or residue) can easily reduce soil erosion and water runoff.
  • 11. Organic matter level

    Organic matter is a matter composed of organic compounds has come from the remains of dead organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products in the environment. When plant residues are returned to the soil, various organic compounds undergo decomposition.

    The continual addition of decaying plant residues to the soil surface contributes to the biological activity and the carbon cycling process in the soil. Breakdown of soil organic matter and root growth and decay also contribute to these processes. Carbon cycling is the continuous transformation of organic and inorganic carbon compounds by plants and micro- and macro-organisms between the soil, plants and the atmosphere.

    Decomposition of organic matter is largely a biological process that occurs naturally. Its speed is determined by three major factors: the existence of soil organisms, the physical environment and the quality of the organic matter.

    This indicator comes from the performance of an annually soil analysis made on the farm. The method for measuring the Organic Matter is “Walkley-Black” (Nelson and Sommers, 1982). Farmers should introduce the date of the soil analysis performance in the platform.

    Therefore, enhancing the rate of organic matter can be made:
    1. Establishing of permanent soil cover crops
    2. Restitution to the soil of crop residues
    3. Reducing soil labor which mineralizes soil organic matter
  • 12. Crop biodiversity/rotation

    This indicator is quite linked to the implementation of the real sustainable agriculture in farm. Sustainable crop production intensification cannot be understood without crop diversity in the form of well balanced and wide crop rotations.

    Crop rotation means growing crops in sequence, taking advantage of their different agronomical features;
    • - Grain crops (for food security)
    • - Cash crops (for income resilience)
    • - Legumes/cover crops (for nutrient)

    For measuring this indicator, the platform should need the surface of each different crop, and the surface of the different cover crops.
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Crop Inputs and Their application

  • 13. NPK balance

    NPK Balance (kg/ha). (Waterframework Directive Ref 80/68/CEE). Amount of mineral and organic nitrogen (including Green manure) remaining per hectare after crop export.The N, P, K inputs will be introduced per crop and surface for having this indicator’s value. The yield of the crop, the organiceffluent introduced or exported, imports of compost, the surface destined to legumes and its yields, the forage crops will be also necessary as well as their utilization.A nitrogen excess can be harmful to the environment (washing and water pollution, release of NO2).The nitrogen balance identifies the risk of leakage of nitrates in the environment. If the nitrogen balance is negative, it may also explain poor performance.The introduction of legume intercropping and in major crops can improve the nitrogen balance.
  • 14. Energy balance

    This indicator offers a balance concerning the number of Tonnes of Oil Equivalent (TOE) produced in the farm versus with the number of Tonnes of oil Equivalent consumed in the farm.

    On one side, it takes into account the needed inputs from fertilizers, PPPs, seeds, animal food, energy, etc., in order to get food production. All these inputs will be transforming into Tonnes of Oil Equivalent. And on the other side, it takes into account the whole energy produced in the farm.
  • 15. Energy self-sufficiency

    This indicator provides farmers the energy independence rate of the farm, having into account if the farm produces some kind of renewable energy (solar, biofuels, biogas, biomass etc.).

    In this sense, it can deal with the bioenergetics crops such as, some cereals or some oilseeds, concerning enhancing the biomass.
  • 16. Water consumption

    This indicator provides farmers the water consumed rate in the different parts on the farm (crops, livestock, farm-building, etc.).

    It will be needed the exact amount of consumed water anywhere in the farm, for the proper register of this indicator.
  • 17. Arable land use efficiency

    This indicator offers the amount of surface (ha) needed to produce 1 Tonne of Oil Equivalent (TOE). The TOE is a unit of energy, and represents the amount of energy released by burning one tonne of crude oil, approximately 42 GJ as different crude oils have different calorific values). Each production can be converted into TOE, and therefore the entire production of the farm (crops, animals, energy…) will be transformed in TOE. The ideal is to produce as much as possible with the least possible surface.

    The objective is to produce more with fewer surfaces, in order to participate in the effort of global food security.
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Enhancing Biodiversity & Environmental Protection


  • 18. Biodiversity surface area

    From the biodiversity point of view, according to both Directives; (Council Directive 79/409/CEE on the conservation of wild birds) and (Council Directive 92/43/CEE on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora).

    The idea of this indicator is to quantify the amount of Biodiversity areas in the farm.

    • - Non-productive set-aside areas
    • - Vegetated strips of land
    • - Mountain meadows
    • - Apicultural set-aside areas
    • - Buffer strips
    • - Natura 2000 areas
    • - Permanent pastureland, permanent grasslands
    • - Hedges
    • - Brambles
    • - Groves
    • - Wood-fringes
    • - Water points, ponds
    • - Agroforestry
    • - Band of trees
    • - Water stream
    • - Outcrop of rock
    • - Perimeter of ruins
    • - Mixed orchards
    • - Peatlands

    An ecological focus area (EFA) is one of the three obligations – along with the crop diversification and maintenance of permanent pasture – required to secure the 30% greening payment (within Pillar 1 in the Common Agricultural Policy), which is to be paid in addition to the basic payment scheme from 2015. Therefore, farmers should have 7% eligible area as Ecological Focus Areas (defined in the recent CAP). These areas could be fallow, terraces, landscape features, buffer strips, afforested areas (except permanent pasture).
  • 19. Ratio between natural vegetation surface and total surface of the farm

    This indicator provides a ratio between the natural vegetation existing in the farm according their physical characteristics, such as trees, bushes or herbaceous and the total surface of the farm.

    To highest vegetation index there will be greater biodiversity within the farm.
  • 20. Farm’s connection with the environmental network

    Natura 2000 network is comprised of sites designated by Member States under both the Birds and Habitats Directives, which are subject to different selection processes.

    • – Selection of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under Birds Directive
    • – Selection of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under Habitats Directive

    This indicator provides the connection’s level of each farmland with the inclusion/closeness from the farm to the Environmental network.
  • 21. Biodiversity structures (nets, hives, spider-webs, etc.) – Habitats

    The existence of necessary structures for the life of animals can be linked to the level of sustainability of the plot. This is an indirect biodiversity indicator which provides an exact figure from the number of nets, hives, spider-webs, etc. which can be measured in the farm.
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Resources (Water, soil, air)

  • 22. NO3 level – boreholes and wells

    This indicator provides the level of NO3 within the boreholes and/or wells existing in the farm. The value of NO3 comes from the annually water analysis performed by the farmer. Farmers should introduce the date of the water analysis performance in the platform.A significant rate of nitrate contamination can occur at the edges of the farm.
  • 23. NO3 level – rivers

    This indicator provides the level of NO3 within the rivers or other water streams existing in the farm. The value of NO3 comes from the annually water analysis performed by the farmer. Farmers should introduce the date of the water analysis performance in the platform.
    (WaterframeworkDirective ref 80/68/CEE 91/676/CEE)A significant rate of nitrate contamination can occur at the edges of the farm.Although it is difficult to define where the nitrogen comes from the well or river, any farmer should reduce the risk of leakage of nitrogen, particularly for control of nitrogen inputs in the fields, installation of natural barriers (bands herbs, buffer strips, hedges) and the placement of cover crops between the lines.
  • 24. Use of PPPs in some farms close to water streams

    This indicator measures the availability of the Plant Protection Products (PPPs) within the water streams. As the use of this type of products could affect to the wildlife in water stream located in the surroundings of the plot where they applied. Therefore this indicator measures the pollution risk related to the use of products in farmland according to the following factors:

    • Distance to the water stream: the closer to the water stream the application takes place, the more dangerous it is.
    • Application rate: Obviously, the dose used will be relevant in the possible negative effects of the product, but the most relevant factor here will be the number of treatments.
    • Person in charge of taking decision of the treatment: bearing in mind that if the treatment’s decision is taking by a technician, it is supposed that farming advice is correct.
    • Toxicity level of the product: PPPs can be classified attending to the Risk Phrases to which they are subject to. The Risk phrases and combinations related to aquatic organisms are as follows:
      • R50: Very toxic to aquatic organisms
      • R51: Toxic to aquatic organisms
      • R52: Harmful to aquatic organisms
      • R53: May cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
      • R50/53: Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
      • R51/53: Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
      • R52/53: Harmful to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
    • Equipment used for the application: It must be considered the conservation state of the machinery (age of the machine and especially nozzles).
    • Utilization of the Riparian Buffer strips: These areas are buffer zones of managed or unmanaged vegetation situated alongside watercourses. These areas will reduce run-off by infiltrating water in the soil and trap sediment by reducing the water flow speed. These areas are also efficient mitigation measures to reduce entries of substances transferred by wind (e.g. spray drift of PPPs or dust) to surface water. This effect can be even increased if hedges or woody structures (bushes, tress) are planted on the buffer.
    • Soil management: If soils are covered by vegetation the risk of run-off/erosion is low (grassland, meadows). Covering the soil, especially at times, can mitigate such effects when the stay of the crop implanted cannot cover the soil completely.
  • 25. GHG level

    The GHG (Greenhouse Gas) balance allows to define the number of tons of carbon dioxide (T CO2) emitted per Tonne of Oil Equivalent produced.

    Agriculture can play a significant role in the production and consumption of greenhouse gases (GHG), especially Carbon dioxide (CO2). Agriculture contributes approximately 10% to total European Union (EU) greenhouse gas emissions.

    Apart from the existing emissions from agricultural land to the atmosphere, there is a balance due to the consumption of electricity, oil and energy consumption that occurs through participation in the productive process machinery and agricultural inputs.

    Therefore, all the inputs consumed in the farm (PPPs, NPK, electricity, fuel, fertilizers, livestock, forages and concentrates bought, consumedenergy…) will be taken into account within this platform to calculate this partial level of GHG.

    The GHG level will be reduced when:

    1. The introduction of legumes in plant covered is favorable for recycling of organic nitrogen and nitrogen chemical reduction
    2. The increase in yields
    3. Increased production of renewable energy
    4. Reduce fuel consumption by reducing the passes of farming equipment
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