Agron. Sustain. Dev.
Volume 29, Number 1, January-March 2009
Page(s) 223 - 235
Published online 20 December 2008
Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29 (2009) 223-235
DOI: 10.1051/agro:2008058

Comparison of methods to assess the sustainability of agricultural systems. A review

Christian Bockstaller1, Laurence Guichard2, Olivier Keichinger1, Philippe Girardin1, Marie-Béatrice Galan3 and Gérard Gaillard4

1  INRA, UMR 1121 Nancy-Universités – INRA Agronomie et Environnement Nancy-Colmar, BP 20507, 68021 Colmar Cedex, France
2  INRA, UMR 211 Agronomie INRA-AgroParisTech, Bâtiment EGER, BP 01, 78850 Thiverval-Grignon, France
3  Agro-Transfert Ressources et Territoires Picardie, 80200 Estrées-Mons, France
4  Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station ART, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zurich, Switzerland

Accepted 3 October 2008 ; published online 20 December 2008

Abstract - Since the 1990s, numerous agri-environmental indicators and indicator-based methods have been developed to assess the adverse effects of cropping and farming systems such as water pollution by nitrates and pesticides, and gaseous emissions due to nitrogen inputs. This wealth of environmental indicators and assessment methods based on indicators raises issues on the quality of the methods and of the indicators, and on the relevancy of results. Evaluation and comparative studies are therefore needed to answer such issues. Here, we present four recent comparative studies selected for their illustrative value, first, to analyse the methodologies used for comparison of methods, and second, to highlight the main results of the four comparisons. The first study involves 23 indicators to address nitrate leaching. The second study involves 43 indicators to address pesticide risk. The third and fourth studies compare environmental assessment methods based on 4–5 indicators used in French and Upper Rhine plains (France, Germany and Switzerland). Both studies also compare the outputs of the methods and highlight the low degree of convergence between them. The approach proposed in the last study is the most elaborate among the four case studies. It could be used to develop a generic evaluation and comparison methodology. The review of those four case studies shows the need to formalise the methodology underlying any comparison work of indicators or evaluation methods.

Key words: environmental assessment / indicators / nitrogen / pesticide / nitrate

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© INRA, EDP Sciences 2008