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ISSE Project: Evaluating Sustainability and Resilience in Agricultural Systems using an Integrated, Web-based App for On-farm Self-assessment and Resource Discovery

Team: Virginia Dale, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology/ORNL; Don Hodges, UTIA Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries

2016-2017 Funded Proposal

This seed project is for preliminary interdisciplinary work to design a sustainability assessment tool (an “App”) for farmers and agriculturalists. This work will occur from approximately July 16, 2016 through July 15, 2017 and a full-scale proposal application will be developed for funding of software development.

Agricultural sustainability is a concern which challenges farmers and researchers to consider agricultural effects on ecosystems and communities while also advancing food security. Critically, changes to environmental conditions can affect agricultural productivity and thus sustainability (Dale and Polasky 2007). Though sustainability has been variously defined, agricultural “systems high in sustainability can be taken as those that aim to make the best use of environmental goods and services while not damaging these assets” (Pretty 2008). Determining appropriate metrics for documenting more or less sustainable agricultural systems depends on one’s definition of “sustainable” as well as the goals of the assessment. An array of potential metrics have been suggested and refined (Dale and Polasky 2007, McBride et al. 2011, Dale et al. 2013), but a useful assessment of agricultural systems will include a context-specific suite of indicators of sustainability (Dale et al. 2015). Beyond gauging a system’s relative sustainability, expansion of sustainable agriculture worldwide requires sharing the knowledge gained by implementing and monitoring farming practices at multiple scales and in many systems and locations. Thus a valuable feedback loop can be employed to incrementally move global food production towards more resilient and persistent methods.

Feedback and outreach in agricultural research are frequently limited; regional funding priorities in research and education may inherently limit the reach of extension agencies (Anderson and Feder 2004). Though often published in national or international journals, field-based agricultural research likewise may reach a small, specialized audience, perhaps infrequently reaching the farmer unless extensions liaisons are specifically targeted. The capacity and interest in farmer/researcher interactions may vary substantially among countries, institutions, and farming systems. An interactive platform that encourages farm self-assessment outside of any regulatory requirements or commercial product promotion, and that subsequently links the user to practical options for improving farm system sustainability would be a useful tool. Farmers could choose to network with local or regional experts or databases, and an opportunity for anonymous user feedback could provide researchers or extension agents valuable information to prioritize future extension efforts.

Work Plan:
This project will use a framework of sustainability indicators, selected during a current CIMMYT/ORNL project, to develop a web-based assessment tool for farms. A sustainable farm protects environmental resources while increasing ecosystem services, supporting healthy farmers and communities, and improving farm profits over the long term. Farm systems of all types and sizes can incorporate better management practices that enhance sustainability, food security and resilience. In addition to current production techniques, farmer goals, preferences, and concerns must be prioritized in order to achieve long-term environmental and food security improvements.

Farmers or extension agents could employ a user-friendly, smart-phone or web-based application to determine strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for more sustainable farm management practices within their major crop types, region, and climate. Initially the tool could be optimized for small to mid-size corn or wheat producers (or other globally significant crop, depending on the particular interests of the funding party) while considering future scalability to a broad range of agricultural systems.

The preliminary work be largely computer-based and will consist of

    1. creating a flow chart describing candidate databases, a suite of indicators that can be used to ‘score’ a farm, and regional resource links to direct farms to potential improvements or networking opportunities.
    2. determining suitable open-source platform options (e.g. Python, R, Shiny) for developing a user interface in English and Spanish (or other translations/ language versions)
    3. interacting with agriculturalists at international or regional conferences as well as farmers and extension personnel in those locales, recruiting for survey participation (U.S., Mexico, India are likely target countries)
    4. surveying interested farmers, researchers and extension agents to gauge priorities for the tool’s topics and design (via SurveyMonkey)
    5. developing draft prototype application and user interface design concepts.

    Ultimately a full proposal will be submitted that seeks funds for development of a live "beta" version of the farm sustainability assessment tool. The fully developed tool can be used to guide farmers toward considering sustainable practices most appropriate for their region and system.

    An additional benefit of a broadly applicable assessment tool is the potential for gathering selfAreported conditions of a variety of farming systems in a context not associated with regulatory guidelines. This tool will provide a valuable database for exploring regional resource needs or education opportunities.