Agri Toolkit is a complex sustainability assessment system that can be used to determine and demonstrate the environmental and social performance of small- and medium-sized agribusiness. It is designed following the UN FAO guidelines (SAFA), which makes it suitable for scientific research and benchmarking, but its primary objective is to help farmers who are sensitive to sustainability and quality by providing transparency in the food chain. It offers practical guidance to farmers on more environmentally friendly practices and ultimately to turn sustainability into a real market advantage. The assessment is based on farmers' own technological and management choices. Agri Toolkit does not focus on the environmental impacts of farming, but on whether farmers are choosing the most sustainable option available to them, whether they are consciously taking action to reduce the negative environmental impact of their farm and whether they are improving their environmental performance.
Areas of assessment
Farming affects both the composition of the atmosphere and air quality. The assessment of the impact on the atmosphere focuses on the presence of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the state of the stratospheric ozone layer, and the air pollutants: gases that enhance acidification and eutrophication (organic matter enrichment), harmful ground-level ozone, and emissions of particulate matter and soot. Greenhouse gas-induced climate change is long-term and has irreversible impacts on living systems, including human life, on a human scale. Extreme weather, emerging pests and pathogens are making farming impossible in large areas.
Agriculture is both a major cause and a major victim to global climate change. Farming practices, from the agro-technologies used (e.g. tillage, nutrient enrichment) to animal feeding, are key determinants of the GHG balance of a farm. Minimal soil rotation, conservation and enrichment of soil nutrients, appropriate fertiliser management and energy-efficient equipment can reduce emissions and increase CO2 sequestration.
Air pollution from agricultural sources can come from a variety of activities. The most significant chemical pollutants are nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulphur dioxide and ozone, while physical pollutants are emissions of particulate matter of various particle sizes linked to farming practices. Air pollution measured on a farm is also greatly influenced by prevailing winds and the major sources of pollution in the vicinity, but the farm's own 'contribution' can be significantly reduced by reduced tillage, proper manure and waste management, and reduced use of machinery and maintenance.
3% of the earth's water is freshwater, 70% of which is used for agriculture. Climate change is increasing the extent of water scarcity and the length of droughts. The water demand of agriculture is constantly increasing, while available water resources are diminishing, irrigation possibilities are shrinking and the water-holding capacity of soils is deteriorating. Chemical inputs and fertilisers used in agriculture, as well as pollutants from livestock farming, are also putting extreme pressure on the surface and groundwater. Without sufficient water quantity and quality, no agricultural activity can be carried out, so the sustainable use of water resources and the minimisation of chemical and biological pollution of water are key parameters of environmental sustainability.
Water extraction is assessed primarily in terms of the quantity of water used for irrigation, watering of animals and other activities (e.g. washing) in agriculture and its source. Water from surface watercourses, lakes and groundwater wells is closely related to local-regional rainfall and can therefore be considered as renewable (often with highly variable yields), while deep bored aquifers tap non-renewable (or slowly renewable) water resources - their use for irrigation means the depletion of freshwater reserves. There are several ways to reduce water use on farms, from efficient rainwater harvesting to water-efficient irrigation methods and methods to reduce water loss (e.g. mulching, water retention).
The assessment reviews the preventive measures taken to reduce or eliminate agricultural pollution of surface and groundwater and the active interventions to protect water. The simplest way to prevent pollution is to eliminate pollutants that have the potential to enter waterbodies - e.g. by eliminating the use of pesticides and fertilisers, or by eliminating point sources of pollution (e.g. unsealed manure storage). Maintaining soil filtering capacity and creating habitat strips that act as active filters to prevent existing pollutants from entering water bodies.
Soils are complex living systems, composed of organic and inorganic matter, and provide perhaps the most fundamental conditions for human nutrition. They play a key role in regulating the nutrient cycles of living organisms, while also providing diverse and rich habitats, carbon storage and effective water filtration. Soils are naturally very slow to regenerate, but also rapidly degrading and finite resources. About 75% of the earth's soils are used for agriculture and forestry, and there is an increasing proportion of paved surfaces where soil formation is halted. Around one-third of the world's soils are already degraded to some extent by water and wind erosion, overuse, acidification, irrigation and various forms of pollution. Preserving and restoring soil health is one of, if not the most important elements of sustainable agriculture.
The assessment considers the management measures taken to maintain and restore the structure, favourable chemical and biological status and nutrient content of soils. The key is to discourage rotational tillage, ensure a continuous cover of crops and provide a diversified nutrient supply from natural materials. Soil quality is largely determined by local climatic conditions and bedrock, but soil organic carbon (humus) and the richness and complexity of soil life are indicators of soil health for all soil types.
The soil degradation sub-topic covers soil loss through wind and water erosion and soil contamination. Soil erosion is influenced by management decisions such as the choice of conservation tillage, the spatial and temporal extension of soil cover, and targeted measures to reduce soil erosion and wind deflation. The latter include cultivating along elevation levels in sloping areas, growing permanent crops, and establishing and maintaining natural habitat features (tree lines, shrub strips, grasslands). The main sources of soil contamination are chemicals used in crop protection and nutrient replenishment.
Biodiversity includes the diversity of habitats, species and genetic variation within species. The natural diversity of agricultural land includes all wild and cultivated plant and animal species, and additional micro-organisms that are essential for the production of healthy food. Healthy ecosystems not only contribute food and raw materials to sustain human existence, but also provide pollination, natural pest control, clean the air, soil and water, and operate nutrient cycles. Worldwide, the greatest loss of biodiversity is in agricultural areas, due to the expansion of industrial agriculture. Efficiency-optimised farming, driven by high inputs, is causing habitat conversion and simplification and leading to a loss of species diversity in both wildlife and crop and livestock species.
Diversified land use, the creation and maintenance of natural habitat elements and the provision of connectivity between habitats can significantly increase the diversity of often rather monotonous agro-ecosystems and provide habitat for pest-controlling insects and vertebrates. On the technological side, low-impact management practices: minimising pesticide use and ensuring that soils are covered with plants can greatly improve the quality of cultivated areas as habitats.
The assessment takes into account both the targeted measures taken to maintain and enhance the diversity of natural flora and fauna - e.g. installation of nature protection equipment, creation of semi-natural habitats - and the choices made concerning the agricultural technology used (crop protection, nutrient replenishment, spatial distribution of cultivation equipment). Species richness includes the species economy of the crops and livestock produced. Diversity reduces efficiency but provides considerable stability against environmental impacts.
The assessment looks at the intraspecific diversity of crops, the number of varieties, and the proportion of traditional/traditional varieties. Genetically homogeneous, hybrid varieties often give higher yields but are less resistant to a particular pest. Mixed and landraces with a diverse genetic stock, adapted to local conditions, can provide a higher degree of resistance with lower yields. By maintaining landscape and local varieties, the farm also contributes to gene conservation. The avoidance of hybrid varieties and seed collection enhances seed self-sufficiency and reduces the environmental externalities of industrial seed production and transport.
Material and energy
The economy, including agriculture, takes in various inputs from the environment: raw materials and energy, processes them, transforms them and returns the surplus to the environment as waste. Since the industrial revolution, the volume of these material flows has increased dramatically: we use huge quantities of fossil fuels and finite raw materials, as well as increasing quantities of plastics and particularly hazardous materials. As these material flows become more open, the amount of waste that is not recovered or that poses a threat to living systems increases in proportion to the amount of material and energy flowing through the systems. Sustainable agriculture means returning to the processes that work in nature: reducing industrial inputs (fertiliser, chemical crop protection, mechanical work), closing open material flows and recycling waste, and using renewable energy sources.
Use of materials
The assessment considers the quantity of all inputs used in farming, the sustainability and environmental risks of using synthetic materials, and the origin and sources of supply of the materials. The most important inputs include materials used in crop protection and nutrient replenishment, but also various growing equipment, irrigation equipment, farm machinery and its inputs, and seeds.
From an energy perspective, a farm moves closer to sustainability when its energy balance moves in the positive direction - i.e. The energy invested is less than what can be extracted from crops and the more energy used comes from renewable sources. The assessment will consider related farmer efforts, energy efficiency and conservation measures and other relevant decisions.
Waste reduction and disposal
In a sustainable agricultural economy, most of the waste can be recycled locally: green waste can be fully recycled back into the soil, helping to conserve organic matter. Other wastes can be significantly reduced by using natural materials, using good quality, durable materials from credible sources and eliminating by-products such as packaging waste. Selective collection of unusable waste is considered an essential step.
Livestock farming is one of the most problematic areas of agriculture from both an environmental sustainability and ethical point of view. Livestock production on an industrial scale is responsible for a significant part of the global environmental use and negative environmental impacts of agriculture, as it involves not only the land occupied by animals, but also the intensive cultivation of crops for animal feed, the associated processing capacity, and the energy, water and material requirements. With the overall increase in meat consumption, the number of livestock is expected to continue to grow, which will also increase the challenges for animal welfare and animal health. Animal welfare encompasses the correct housing of animals and the conditions necessary to maintain their health, including housing conditions, feeding and veterinary interventions. As the European Union has set binding frameworks for many areas of animal husbandry, compliance with these is considered to be the default.
The assessment considers the number and type of animal health interventions and the substances used in the treatments. Health promotion and disease prevention are considered as the guiding principles. The use of synthetic hormone preparations and antibiotics also poses a human health risk.
Species-appropriate husbandry is a set of housing conditions that provide animals with sufficient physical space and allows them to exercise natural behaviours characteristic of the species, eliminating the stress and fatigue of housing and reducing aggression between animals. The assessment shall consider the quality of the feed used and the method of feeding. By improving housing conditions and feeding a varied, high-quality feed, the animals' immune systems can be strengthened and their disease resistance increased.