Sustainable intensification (SI) is widely regarded as a key concept to increase yields while reducing the impact on the environment especially in the context of smallholder farming. SI revolves around identifying the major factors limiting agricultural production and addressing these without adverse effects on the environment, while supporting livelihoods of farmers and rural populations. The meaning and usefulness of the SI concepts are still debated strongly. However, recent efforts to develop frameworks of indicators to measure the progress towards SI can help to make it applicable for decision-making.

Wageningen University, in collaboration with ICRISAT and SLU used the CRP-GLDC innovation fund to contribute to the field of multi-dimensional sustainability analysis on three main fronts. These include, (1) a review of sustainability assessment tools and frameworks, (2) a new modelling framework for exploring the multi-dimensional effects of future pathways for sustainable intensification, and (3) a dashboard for multi-criteria sustainability assessment.

Our recent review paper entitled “Avenues for improving farming sustainability assessment with upgraded tools, sustainability framing and indicators” published in 2021, reviewed 119 tools for farm sustainability assessment and compared their use of sustainability dimensions, themes and types of indicators used for biodiversity conservation, farm viability and gender equity. We classified the tools in five groups that differed in terms of stakeholder participation and methods used for calculating sustainability. These methods were based on survey and indicator-based assessments where the most common view on sustainability was the classical one that encompasses the economic, social, and environmental pillar. To achieve reliable and relevant assessment outcomes, it is important to actively involve stakeholders in the framing of sustainability and the selection of indicators. Besides considering temporal changes in farm sustainability through a dynamic assessment, an additional improvement to the common approach could be to take on board the emerging system properties such as resilience, viability, and stability. Very often, sustainability assessments lack a sound analysis of governance and institutional dimensions as well as social themes targeting farmers’ characteristics. Including these requires advancing interdisciplinary approaches in which social science is integrated with biophysical science domains. However, it is important not lose sight of the purpose of the assessment that can vary from communication of results to redesigning farming systems, and issues at stake in the context of the assessment.

There is renewed focus by CGIAR and others to develop holistic solutions to improve multidimensional sustainability and resilience of the farming and food systems. This requires identification of indicators and associated metrics for farming systems sustainability assessment, to track progress, assess trade-offs and identify synergies. However, there has been a critical gap of an easy to use and cost-effective comprehensive and flexible framework and a tool which can measure the farming systems sustainability for designing context specific solutions.

The modelling framework that we developed to explore the multi-dimensional effects of future pathways for sustainable intensification was applied in a scenario analysis for southern Mali. This work was presented at two international conferences, namely the Farming Systems Design conference in Uruguay in 2019 and the Global Food Security conference (online) in December 2020.  Food security and poverty alleviation through sustainable agricultural intensification are high on the agenda across Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, much is expected from the high-potential zone in southern Mali in terms of generating income and feeding the country. Yet, climate, demography and market trends create uncertainty about future conditions. Our objective was to identify policy and agricultural interventions to underpin a transition towards sustainable farming systems. Looking towards the future 20 years, we built five contrasting scenarios based on plausible future trends in climate change, birth and migration rates, market conditions, and agricultural services and practices. Effects on indicators of food security, agricultural productivity, income, nutrient losses, greenhouse gas emissions and labour constraints were calculated by running an integrated farm-level modelling framework for current and future conditions. By simulating all 411 households of two representative villages in southern Mali, differentiated effects in the heterogeneous farm population were analyzed. We found that in the “business-as-usual” scenario, food security and per capita income would drop due to the increasing population size. Incremental improvements in agricultural practices (e.g., intercropping, crop-livestock integration) in the “crop-livestock integration” scenario would be insufficient to lift a considerable portion of the population above the living income and food self-sufficiency thresholds. A more drastic system transformation would be required that combines policies supporting conducive market conditions, off-farm employment, and reduced birth rates, with incentives for increased use of agriculture inputs. Our analysis confirmed expected trade-offs between increasing agricultural productivity and environmental objectives, as nutrient surpluses and greenhouse gas emissions would increase with more intensified fertilizer use in the “yield gap closure” scenario. However, mitigation opportunities exist through more intensified animal husbandry with less but more productive cows. In this “mitigation” scenario, mechanization could reduce the reliance on animal draught power. Large differences in effects between farms underscored the importance of considering farm diversity to develop tailored solutions. Clearly, forward-looking scenario analysis is a powerful tool to explore the multi-dimensional effects of transformative pathways towards sustainable farming systems.

Further the ICRISAT and WUR have developed a multidimensional framework and user-friendly quantification tool to assess farming systems sustainability in the baseline situation and in subsequent scenarios, based on incremental policy intervention and agricultural intensification strategies. This can be of great value in co-designing and analyzing tradeoffs for promoting context specific systemic solutions to address the challenges of smallholder farm and food systems in different ecologies, and cultures. It considers five major sustainability domains: environmental, economic, productivity, social and human well-being. Domains were divided into themes and sub-themes and more than 120 indicators were identified for sustainability measurement. Entry points for improvement are identified using whole farm systems modelling that analyze tradeoffs and synergies.

In conclusion, the tool has been tested at a small scale in India and Niger and is ready to be used more widely after further testing and validation across the regions. This flexible tool once adapted across regions is likely to be very useful for researchers, development, and policy actors to identify entry points and design domain-specific and more effective interventions and policies to improve sustainability and resilience of farming systems in vulnerable regions.

Authors: Katrien Descheemaeker, Shalander Kumar (Team of Flagship Program 3: Integrated Farm and Household Management)

Collaborating Partner(s): International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Wageningen University and Research (WUR), Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)


  • Chopin, P., Mubaya, C.P., Descheemaeker, K. Öborn, I., Bergkvist, G., 2021. Avenues for improving farming sustainability assessment with upgraded tools, sustainability framing and indicators. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development. 41,
  • Descheemaeker, K., Falconnier, G.N., Hambuechen, J., Huet, E., Dissa, A., Traoré, B., Sanogo, O., Dembele, O., Adam, M., Giller, K.E., 2020. Exploring transformative pathways towards sustainable farming systems in the cotton zone of West Africa. Oral presentation at the 4th International Conference on Global Food Security, 7-9 December 2020, online.
  • Kumar Shalander, Pramanik, S., Gupta, L., Descheemaeker, K., Das, A, Whitbread, A M. 2020. Multidimensional framework for measuring sustainability and resilience of farming systems.In: Future of Indian Agriculture: Opportunities and Challenges, 2020, Bengaluru, India,

Acknowledgment: This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC) and supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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