Evaluating sustainability in agricultural systems

Christina Ingersoll is the Strategic Systems Manager for the Committee on Sustainability Assessment. She designs data-gathering tools to monitor and assess the impacts of sustainability initiatives in the agricultural sector. Multinational brands, importers, NGOs and farmers want to know if initiatives make a difference.

Multi-national food corporations, like Mars, have committed to sourcing 100% “certified sustainable” products in some of their product lines. Others, like Lindt & Sprüngli, commit to increasing the sustainability of their supply chains more directly. With so many stakeholders paying attention to agriculture, the industry has seen an explosion of what the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) calls “interventions” or initiatives to improve the sustainability of agricultural systems. Certifications are just one type of sustainability intervention. Other intervention schemes have been devised by traders and consumer facing companies.

“The fact that so many people and organizations have made this a priority is great,” Christina says. “And it raises challenges.”

Christina says that while there are numerous approaches to the measuring agricultural impacts of sustainability initiatives, some of those efforts have rushed in without a thoughtful systems approach. Interventions often come with a bias–often it is a natural extension of their theory of change. As an external assessor, COSA provides assurance against the moral hazard latent in a self-assessment. COSA seeks to provide a comprehensive look at all outcomes of an intervention, including the unintended consequences.

Christina’s interested in a rigorous approach to understanding sustainability is the reason she chose to go to business school, and especially MIT Sloan. The work she does at COSA providing data gathering tools and reporting on the outcomes of specific interventions is clearly linked to classes she took, such as Applied System Dynamics and Laboratory for Sustainable Business. Focused metrics and a fierce pragmatism about analysis disciplined toward generating useful findings is a consistent thread in her work. It was part of the training that she received as part of the coursework for the MBA degree and Sustainability Certificate from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

 

The goal of the work is to make the certifications or initiatives better, to guide improvement, to inform the goals of the intervening organization.

At COSA, Christina is the steward of a set of indicators that point to the overall sustainability of an agricultural system, including climate change, biodiversity, and producer livelihoods. She also manages the digital survey tools that inform those indicators. “So much work goes into crafting a good survey,” she says. In her current role, Christina draws from her training in systems-thinking and logic. It’s also essential to maintain a keen focus on technical implementation. Together the indicators and surveys enable stakeholders to conduct a more comprehensive evaluation of the agricultural system they are concerned with, not just the short term effects of an intervention.

She works collaboratively with multiple agencies and stakeholders to codify and maintain the indicators as a living document. The COSA indicators are used broadly by research partners like The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Center for Regional Coffee and Enterprise Research, and peer organizations to understand sustainability in agriculture, and to develop surveys and report the results. The ultimate goal of the work is to offer information to the directors of certifications and other interventions and help them improve their services and their progress toward their own goals. Through increased understanding of agricultural systems comes increased sustainability.