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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Journal of Cleaner Production
Volume (Issue) 140
Page(s) 692 - 704
Title of proceedings Journal of Cleaner Production
DOI 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.07.022


As major generators of environmental impacts, farms play a crucial role in enhancing the environmental sustainability of food-supply chains. However, appropriately assessing farm environmental performance poses a challenge; a plethora of different indicators have been used for this purpose, sometimes in the absence of conceptual considerations. This paper develops a broadly implementable framework for defining and measuring farm environmental performance which complies with the environmental sustainability concept viewed from an ecological perspective. After providing a critical review of existing indicators in the literature for measuring farm environmental performance and identifying their strengths and above all their weaknesses, it proceeds to develop ideas on how to implement the environmental sustainability concept at farm level. Starting at the macro level, these ideas are based on the central concept of ecosystem carrying capacity (constraints) referring to biophysical threshold thinking. The implementation of this concept at farm level results in the framework that we propose for measuring farm environmental performance. Environmental sustainability requires compliance with the carrying capacity constraints imposed by the natural ecosystem within which a farm operates. Compliance with carrying capacity must occur at both local and global ecosystem levels, requiring a distinction between local and global farm environmental performance. The global environmental performance of a farm is defined as its relative contribution to compliance with the carrying capacity of the global ecosystem, and is measured by means of an indicator of environmental intensity over the entire production chain up to the farm gate. The local carrying-capacity constraint can be understood as the maximum environmental impact per unit of farmland area that can be sustained by the local ecosystem. Local environmental performance is therefore measured by means of an area-based indicator. Whereas all environmental issues must be considered at a global level, for some of them local level consideration is also required. Implementing separate local and global environmental performance indicators, as opposed to using only global or local indicators without distinguishing between them in conceptual terms, provides a more appropriate assessment of the environmental performance of farms, as well as a better basis for comparison between farms. Furthermore, it eliminates the risk of shifting environmental problems from the local to the global scale or vice-versa. The framework highlights the complexity of the environmental sustainability concept, which cannot be reduced to a single “one size fits all” indicator.