Cadre pour l'évaluation des niveaux de durabilité dans les systèmes agricoles belges


A. Peeters, C. Bielders, M. Hermy, E. Mathijs, B. Muys, M. Vanclooster


Date de publication/Publication date: 
Juin, 2005



Throughout history and especially during the last century, mankind has made use of technological innovations (e.g. machinery, chemicals, genetic improvement) to increase levels of agricultural production. However, negative impacts of these developments were rarely considered. Nowadays, sufficient evidence exists that the actual production mode may not be sustainable, that is that farming systems may loose their production function in the long term. Indeed, there is legitimate concern that intensifying agricultural practices, but also successive European Common Agriculture Policy and World Trade Organisation reforms may have long term consequences on the expected level of goods and services provided by the agricultural sector, the economic viability of farms and the availability and quality of natural resources. Therefore, sustainability is now regarded as a crucial property of agricultural systems and its evaluation has become a main challenge for scientists, policy makers and farmers.

In the last decade, different sets of indicators have been designed both at national and international levels (e.g. Smith & Dumanski, 1994; Piveteau, 1998; NRC, 2000; MAFF, 2000; Wascher, 2000; OECD, 2001; Delbaere, 2002; de Angelis, 2002). Meanwhile, more practical environmental impact assessment (EIA) tools have been developed at the farm level (e.g. EP (Mayrhofer et al., 1996); EMA (Lewis & Bardon, 1998); SOLAGRO (Pointereau et al., 1999); ECOFARM (Peeters & Van Bol, 2000); AEI (Girardin et al., 2000); PROP’EAU SABLE (Lambert et al., 2002); MESMIS (Lopez-Ridaura et al., 2002)). However, none of these indicator sets can be used at both levels. Further, most of these initiatives focus only on environmental aspects of sustainability and do not take socio-economic aspects into consideration. Indicator selection does not always fit in a consistent and comprehensive framework, although there is a strong need to integrate sustainability indicators in order to facilitate comparison and assessment. Finally, few of these works relate to Belgian agriculture, which up til now lacked a tool for assessing the sustainability of its farms.

This project aims at providing a framework for assessing sustainability levels in Belgian agricultural systems (SAFE) that overcomes the deficiencies mentioned above. This is achieved by:

  1. Considering the concept of agricultural sustainability in a holistic manner – SAFE accounts for all three pillars of sustainability (environmental, economic & social).
  2. Developing (a) a consistent approach for defining sustainability principles and criteria and (b) a core list of sustainability indicators identified through a standardized selection procedure. The ‘SAFE selection procedure’ is a flexible scientific process that builts on knowledge and experience of numerous experts.
  3. Ensuring that the tool remains as easy as possible to interpret and thus to use, thanks to the integration procedure of sustainability indicators and the graphic expression of the results.
  4. Building on a generic methodology. Though the set of selected indicators presented in this report is specific to the Belgian agricultural context, the method developed for the construction of the SAFE tool can be transferred for assessing sustainability levels in other geographical (Europe, world, …) and sectorial contexts. In particular, principles and criteria defined in SAFE have a universal value.
  5. Taking action at three spatial levels, depending on the scale of application: (1) parcel (2) farm or (3) watershed for surface water-related issues, landscape/ecosystem for some soil and biodiversityrelated issues, and administrative units (region, state) for some environmental as well as for some socio-economic issues.


In this project, in parallel to the theoretical construction of the tool, four farms with different production systems and agricultural practices were chosen as test sites. These farms served as a support for the development and the testing of the SAFE tool and methodology: each was monitored during two years and the collected data was used as input for case-studies. Whereas indicator results in these test sites are presented and commented in this report, they cannot be used for comparing different management types: these four farms are most definitely not a representative sample of Belgian agriculture, in part because some used innovative agricultural practices. 

SAFE offers a sound scientific tool for decision making in agriculture considering sustainability concerns. It will notably help in the identification, development and promotion of locally more appropriate agricultural techniques and systems, which is a prerequisite for the development of policy measures that will lead to more sustainable agriculture at the local/regional level.