Project: Sustainability Indicator System


Agricultural systems promoted as sustainable are multiplying while data-driven assessments of their performance across ecological and socioeconomic domains lag behind. Given the lack of silver bullets in agriculture, and the subjectivity of sustainability, producers and consumers need a reliable way to measure the performance of agricultural systems against sustainability benchmarks or reference conditions, especially as biophysical, socioeconomic, and agro-technological systems rapidly change. LTAR’s scientific expertise, coordinated experimentation, and data systems are uniquely positioned to fill this need. This project is designed to harness the power of LTAR to build a useful and usable sustainability indicator system for LTAR, LTAR’s partners, and all other interested parties.


The LTAR Sustainability Indicator System has evolved with network consensus processes since ~2018.

Current efforts (2022)

The LTAR system accommodates indicators at multiple scales (e.g., nation, region, landscape, farm/ranch, field). We are currently focusing on the farm/ranch scale to connect Common Experiment measurements to an indicator system, as well as to provide tools for other scientists and producers working at the farm/ranch scale.

The system for the farm/ranch level is now being designed to:

  • Measure whether farming or ranching systems are sustainable, i.e., whether they satisfy the needs of the farmer or rancher today while conserving natural resources for future generations.
  • Promote the understanding of tradeoffs of agricultural systems AMONG Atmospheric Health, Land & Water Health, Financial Stability, Human Health, Production Abundance & Quality, and Social Cohesion.
  • Allow users to select metrics per indicator, including options that don’t require formal scientific training. Metrics recommended by the Common Experiment teams and Working Groups will be elevated and flagged to enable coordination among Common Experiment scientists.
  • Be used with a peer-to-peer benchmarking tool built to help users understand how well their agricultural systems perform in relation to their own goals, and in relation to other systems in the database (e.g., the peer-to-peer benchmarking tool under development for General Mills farmers). The tool will provide quantitative or qualitative benchmarks for metrics or indicators in locations where adequate data, models, and policy exist, and provide guidance for setting benchmarks where they do not. We will apply the science of benchmarking, tailored to the needs of LTAR and other users. The tool will also be programmed to calculate deltas of indicators between ag systems (e.g., between BAU vs ASP).
  • Be understood in contexts of communities, supply chains, regions, and regimes as defined by the Human Dimensions, Modeling, Regionalization, and Resilience Working Groups. Farm/ranch-level indicator data will also be designed to inform models at these scales.
  • Evolve according to evolving modeler and stakeholder needs and preferences.

LTAR Sustainability Framework v.2022 (farm/ranch level)



The project is operating on a 5-year workplan in coordination with the 2022 LTAR Strategic Plan. In line with the 5-year workplan, the Indicators Working Group has opened the floor for a round of suggestions on Framework v.2022. A Suggestion Box will be open January – April 2023. The Indicators Working Group will consider all input to develop a new consensus-based version (v.2023) to be used to build the tools. See Basecamp, LTAR-All, to access the Suggestion Box.



Key publications that have helped to structure the system and prospective tools:

  • Gomez, A. A., Kelly, D. E. S., Syers, J. K., & Coughlan, K. J. (1997). Measuring sustainability of agricultural systems at the farm level. Methods for assessing soil quality49, 401-410.
  • Latruffe, L., Diazabakana, A., Bockstaller, C., Desjeux, Y., Finn, J., Kelly, E., Ryan, M., & Uthes, S. (2016). Measurement of sustainability in agriculture: a review of indicators. In Studies in Agricultural Economics (Vol. 118, Issue 3, pp. 123–130). NAIK Research Institute of Agricultural Economics.
  • Musumba, M., Grabowski, P., Palm, C. and Snapp, S. 2017. Guide for the sustainable intensification assessment framework. Kansas, USA: Kansas State University.
  • de Olde, E. M., Oudshoorn, F. W., Sørensen, C. A. G., Bokkers, E. A. M., & de Boer, I. J. M. (2016). Assessing sustainability at farm-level: Lessons learned from a comparison of tools in practice. In Ecological Indicators (Vol. 66, pp. 391–404). Elsevier BV.
  • Perez, I., Wery, J., Heckelei, T., Bergez, J. E., Leenhardt, D., Thenard, V., … & Josien, E. (2005). SEAMLESS System for Environmental and Agricultural Modelling; Linking European Science and Society. The major characteristics of scenarios and agricultural systems to be studied in Test case 1.
  • Spiegal, S., Estell, R.E., Cibils, A.F., Armstrong, E., Blanco, L.J., Bestelmeyer, B.T., 2023. Can heritage Criollo cattle promote sustainability in a changing world? Journal of Arid Environments 216, 104980.
  • Spiegal, S., Webb, N. P., Boughton, E. H., Boughton, R. K., Bentley Brymer, A. L., Clark, P. E., Collins, C. H., Hoover, D. L., Kaplan, N., McCord, S. E., Meredith, G., Porensky, L. M., Toledo, D., Wilmer, H., Wulfhorst, J., & Bestelmeyer, B. T. (2022). Measuring the social and ecological performance of agricultural innovations on rangelands: Progress and plans for an indicator framework in the LTAR network. In Rangelands (Vol. 44, Issue 5, pp. 334–344). Elsevier BV.
  • Whitehead, J., Lu, Y., Still, H., Wallis, J., Gentle, H., & Moller, H. (2016, July). Target setting and burden sharing in sustainability assessment beyond the farm level. In 12th European International Farming Systems Symposium (pp. 12-15). PDF on ResearchGate

Other resources

A recorded presentation summarizing this project:



The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Long-Term Agroecosystem Research network consists of 18 Federal and university agricultural research sites with an average of over 50 years of history. The goal of this research network is to ensure sustained crop and livestock production and ecosystem services from agroecosystems, and to forecast and verify the effects of environmental trends, public policies, and emerging technologies.