Assessing agriculture’s environmental sustainability

Sustainability metrics have evolved to incorporate environmental, social and economic indicators.

Need for assessment

As social values more and more affect consumer confidence in the agriculture and food sector, sustainable agriculture production and transparent sustainability assessments are important. Sustainably sourced goods and services are gaining popularity in the marketplace. In order to achieve more sustainable production, members of the entire supply chain are looking for ways to increase efficiencies and decrease their environmental footprint. Retailers are helping drive this search by requiring sustainability documentation from their suppliers , and adopting sustainability strategies within their companies.

Socio-economic impact

While the environmental aspect of sustainability in agriculture production has been a major focus in this shift, attention is turning to the socio-economic impacts of production. Although the standard footprinting processes are still evolving in these areas, retailers and other organizations are starting to use socio-economic indicators in footprinting and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). As the field advances, opportunities are increasing for comprehensive sustainability assessments that consider the environmental, economic and social consequences of production.

Industry initiatives

Many retailers are establishing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting frameworks and environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs within their organizations. Companies, including food processors and retailers, are assessing their businesses and to improve their sustainability; in doing so, they aim to capture more of the eco-conscious consumer market and the economic benefits associated with sustainable production.

In the agri-food industry, producers and suppliers are being asked by retailers to provide information on their management practices so they can assess and report sustainability on all aspects of the supply chain for agri-food products.

Environmental Footprinting (EF) is a method used by industries and countries to determine the impacts of a product or process. It can improve decision-making and effective environmental management for direct market and economic benefits. As well, EF identifies ways primary producers can use beneficial management practices to decrease their environmental impact and gain production efficiencies and cost savings.

Assessing impact

Along with retailer and producer initiatives, groups such as government, non-government organizations (NGOs) and other third-party organizations are working on common terminology, EF boundaries and methodologies. This movement is global in scale, and many of these initiatives coordinate research information from around the world. The footprinting movement initially began with carbon assessment. Today however, a range of environmental metrics are used to measure a product’s total environmental impact.

To address this market trend, the Alberta government is working with industry to better understand and quantify the environmental impacts of the Alberta agri-food industry. Using LCA as a tool, this effort will lead to cradle-to-farm-gate environmental footprints. To date there have been 5 major agri-food commodities EFs completed in Alberta: canola, chicken, egg, pea and potato. There has also been national commodity LCA’s completed for beef, dairy, pork, pulses, chicken and egg.




Hosted by the Natural Resource Management Branch, the Sustainability Series webinars address the agriculture industry’s approach and initiatives on sustainability. These recorded webinars are available on the Sustainability Series YouTube playlist.

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