Issues and Indicators of Sustainability

The Challenge

The Sustainable Sourcing Project was established to address the overarching challenge of how to measure the sustainability of agricultural sourcing practices and their effect on the global food system. 

The goal is to determine metrics that are useful at multiple scales for any agricultural commodity sourced from any part of the world.  Moreover, this complex information needs to be organized and bounded to be useful for decision making.


Two frameworks have been developed to situate supply chains within the global food system:

Impact/Mitigation Framework (Impact) is relevant where:
“Sourcing of agricultural raw materials was determined to potentially have a direct impact on a given issue.”


  • Impact: Does this raw material sourcing decision affect GHG emissions?  If so, is the impact positive or negative?
  • Mitigation: How could raw material sourcing choices reduce GHG emissions or increase C sequestration?

Vulnerability/Resilience Framework (Vulnerability) is relevant where:
“Agricultural raw materials sourcing/availability was determined to be directly vulnerable to changes in a given issue.”


  • Vulnerability: Is raw material sourcing exposed and sensitive to climate change?
  • Resilience: How could responses to climate change contribute to adaptive capacity and flexibility in raw materials sourcing?

Sustainability Issues


This work has been approached from the perspective of "what do we care about" rather than "what information do we have" to order and assess how we approach choosing metrics.  As such, a broad assessment of the issues that are important to sustainability was made from three distinct perspectives.

     Frameworks graphic


  • Global initiatives conducted by international and public NGO sectors
  • Multinational packaged food companies in the private sector
  • Livelihoods perspective that encompasses producers and rural communities.

Issue categorization

The issues harvested from these three perspectives were translated into a standardized vocabulary and then:

  • Categorized into 44 integrated issues (combined from the three perspectives above).  See a detailed description of all 44 integrated issues.
  • Divided into four main categories: natural capital, human capital, physical & financial capital, and social & political capital.
  • Detailed into a list of 300+ component issues that represent important aspects of the broader integrated issues.  

The capture and categorization of these issues can be a powerful tool for understanding the overall well-being of agricultural communities globally.

Sustainability Indicators

So far, 2000+ indicators and correlated data sources that provide measurable ways to define sustainability have been compiled and semantically linked to the integrated and component issues. This data includes both tabular and spatial data, which is used in our GIS tool.  

Examples of linkages between issues and indicators

Indicator Component Issue
Integrated Issue
Capital Group
Percent of population wasting
Acute undernutrition
Nutritional Status
Human Capital
Workforce exposed to health hazards at the workplace
Occupational health
Labor Human Capital
Global mean temperature rise
Climate change
Air & climate
Natural Capital
Fresh water withdrawals as % of total renewable supply
Water availability
Natural Capital
Transport time to market
Transport infrastructure
Physical infrastructure
Percent change in consumer prices
Inflation Finance
Incidents of chemical and biological food contamination
Food safety
Food production
Number of people per physician
Access to Healthcare
Public health

Using this information

In addition to the information above, a description of the general working process of the Sustainable Sourcing Project can be found here.  This document describes how a user could work with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute to determine issues and indicators relevant to their work, and use products created through the Sustainable Sourcing Project for decision and negotiation support.

Prototype tools are in development as part of the Sustainable Sourcing Platform to make this information accessible to decision makers. Learn more about the platform tools.