Sustainability assessment tools for organic greenhouse horticulture

Lucia Foresi, Ulrich Schmutz, Muhammad Shahid

    Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review


    This handbook mainly reports on the first-hand experience the authors and members of the COST action have with sustainability assessment tools. This booklet is not a comprehensive review of all tools available and there are further tools which could not be covered in detail e.g.,, and The tools presented and discussed in this handbook might be split into three categories (the order of chapters follows this categorisation): 1. Academic and advisory tools for specific dimensions of sustainability: LCA, S-LCA. These tools are often too complicated for an online self-assessment and require a considerable amount of quantitative and qualitative data. They are robust and developed further by international standards and research. 2. Holistic academic and advisory tools for all dimensions of sustainability: SIA, SROI, SMART, PG. These tools are also too complicated for an online self-assessment, but can be completed by an advisor or consultant. They require a considerable amount of quantitative and qualitative data and are developed by international standards and research. SROI methodology is unique as it can be used in addition to the other assessment tools and produces a financial value (or full cost price) of social, health, wellbeing and environmental outcomes which then can be compared with economic outcomes. 3. Practical tools for farmer and grower online self-assessment: Ecological footprint, Carbon footprint. These tools are more practical and require less data input, they often focus on only one issue of sustainability e.g. carbon emissions within the environmental dimension of sustainability. Practical tools give decision support to growers, where and how to improve the management of the farm or greenhouse and may therefore have the highest impact by triggering change on the ground. Researching resilience and understanding farmers’ and growers’ perspectives None of the above tools was specifically developed for the needs of organic greenhouse horticulture. Most tools address sustainability, but they do not specifically address resilience (with the exception of the PG tool which addresses it only as farm business resilience). Therefore, the lack of specific sustainability and resilience assessment tools for organic greenhouses could be the starting point for finding additional suitable indicators for such a specialised farming system, thus building a set of case studies in different European countries. The employment of specifically constructed questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, using existing methods as references, would be advisable in order to understand how farmers and growers perceive concepts like sustainability and resilience and eventually devise additional methods that could be adapted to different realities across Europe. Resilience and sustainability have often been studied from researchers’ perspectives, but the farmers’ and growers’ perspectives are less well understood. In addition, it would be desirable to further understand the limiting factors for organic yields (i.e. nutrient and water limitations, pests and diseases) and to compare them to conventional yields (de Ponti et al. 2012), however those levels which would be achieved without external fossil fuel and fertility inputs. This will give long-term yield targets for a time when fossil fuels or other harmful inputs (pesticides, artificial fertilisers) are not available to any farming system. The European Union is currently lacking detailed statistics on areas devoted to organic protected vegetable production. Tittarelli et al. (2014) estimate that 5,000 ha of greenhouses are managed organically within the EU. The authors also state that there is an on-going “conventionalisation” of organic practices, since farmers tend to employ organic fertilisers permitted by the regulations rather than resort to agronomic techniques building their own soil fertility and becoming less dependent on external inputs. As Scialabba (2013) highlights, diversification in organic systems is a fundamental part of a preventive and risk-reducing strategy for adaptation to climate change; in the specific case of horticulture, agro-biodiversity is the key to diversification of crops and diets, and ultimately to human survival and wellbeing (Lutaladio et al. 2010). Darnhofer et al. (2010) assert that a shift of the emphasis from production and efficiency to learning and adaptability is strongly needed. The pursuit of resilient and sustainable organic horticulture will also require an increase in knowledge-intensive innovations (social and technical), that support decision-making at farm level. Organic agriculture and horticulture can contribute to social equity, through avoidance of issues like loss of soil, water contamination, biodiversity erosion, GHG emissions and pesticide poisoning; they also support employment in rural areas, since they make better use of local resources, thus facilitating access to market for smallholders and relocating food production in marginalised areas (Scialabba, 2013). Organic horticulture specifically contributes to food security and food sovereignty of rural and urban poor areas; it can be started with initially low costs, and products have high market value, playing an important role for local economic development. In both developed and developing countries, diversification of diets through much more horticultural products can help fighting malnutrition and obesity (Lutaladio et al. 2010). Recent economic research in developed countries indicates that doubling of vegetable and fruit consumption (beyond an average 5-a-day recommendation) can increase happiness and wellbeing (Blanchflower, Oswald and Stewart-Brown, 2013). This is particularly interesting as doubling of income or wealth beyond a certain average level has no such influence on happiness and wellbeing (Oswald pers. comm.). Outlook – beyond the “safety net” It is clear that organic farming systems need to differentiate themselves from conventional ones and a key action would be to follow agroecological principles (i.e. use of locally adapted varieties, renewable growing media and mulching resources, employment of crop rotations and companion planting) in the production system. But crucially political agroecology has also to play a part in the food system achieving more sovereignty (ownership) of how produce is marketed, transported and sold and how consumers can interact and share the risks of production. Organic principles at their core are not only about production; they include the whole food system including diets, the natural environment and sustainable consumption. Many actors in today’s organic market seem to have forgotten the roots of the organic movement and define organic purely as a legal standard, which it clearly is. In fact it is the only legally defined and protected food system in the EU. But this legal protection is only a base-line a “safety net” which protects organic from questionable and on many accounts old-fashioned technologies, developed and heavily promoted in the last century (e.g. artificial fertilisers, pesticides, genetic modification, hydroponics). If the organic movement wants to be of relevance and grow it needs to rise to the challenge and change and transform the food system, not conform to it by simply replacing conventional inputs with certified organic inputs. It is exactly on these transition pathways, escaping “conventionalisation” where the social, environmental and wellbeing tools like S-LCA, SROI, SMART and PG can help with guidance and decision support. A better understanding of organic growers’ perspectives on sustainable and resilience within these transition pathways is equally important.

    Sustainability assessment tools for organic greenhouse horticulture. Available from: [accessed Jun 27, 2017].
    Original languageEnglish
    PublisherBioGreenhouse COST Action FA 1105
    Commissioning bodyEuropean Union Horizon 2020
    Number of pages50
    ISBN (Print)978-94-6257-537-0
    Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2016


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