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Background: Sustainability assessment

Our competence at FiBL in sustainability assessment encompasses environmental, economic and social effects of organic and conventional production methods and the consumption of organic products.

Background on sustainable agriculture

The term "sustainability" is derived from the concept of sustainable development that was defined in the Brundtland report of the UN in 1987 as follows:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

"Sustainable development" and "sustainability" are seen as synonyms in modern usage. A distinction is made between:

  • The three pillar concept consisting of environmental, economic and social components of sustainability;
  • The one-pillar concept that lays the principal focus on environmental aspects;
  • The integrative concept that avoids separation into pillars.

In addition, a basic distinction is made between "strong" and "weak" sustainability. Proponents of "strong sustainability" maintain that natural capital (e.g., water, soil, air, biodiversity) cannot be substituted by man-made capital (machines, buildings, knowledge), while "weak sustainability" proponents maintain that man-made and natural capital are substitutable.

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Sustainability assessment

The agriculture and food sectors generate considerable environmental, economic and social impacts. It is therefore imperative that changes to land-use management, food processing and consumption patterns are made so that sustainable development is ensured.

Organic agriculture follows the "ideal" of a largely self-reliant or closed farming system. This means that, by and large, the need to purchase fertilizers and plant protection products is avoided. In addition, this "ideal" situation calls for site-adapted animal stocking, preservation and improvement of soil fertility using a multiple crop rotation system as well as the preservation and exploitation of biological systems for pest regulation. Thus, organic agriculture systems can offer many of the prerequisites essential for achieving long-term sustainability.

Organic agriculture is currently, however, not fully sustainable, as it is, for example, reliant on non-renewable resources and land-use is often higher due to the often lower yields. In addition, global problems pertaining to sustainability issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food security issues in many parts of the world demand innovative concepts and solutions.