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UMCES scientists lead sustainable agriculture project

July 31, 2019
Dr. Eric Davidson, UMCES-Appalachian Laboratory Director and Professor, and Dr. Xin Zhang, UMCES-Appalachian Laboratory Assistant Professor, lead efforts to create the Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM)

Scientists, policymakers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders involved in agriculture from around the world came together at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland, June 17-20, to continue a two-year SESYNC Pursuit project to develop a Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM) through a series of workshops.

Proposed and led by Xin Zhang and Eric Davidson of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Appalachian Laboratory and Kimberly Pfeifer of Oxfam America, the sustainable agriculture matrix will serve as a kind of report card, assessing a country’s performance in agriculture with economic, social, and environmental indicators and providing policymakers with a more holistic understanding of agricultural trade-offs and decisions in their countries.

“There is a need for targeting investment in sustainable agriculture, raising awareness, consolidating knowledge, informing policy, changing subsidies and regulation, and creating synergies,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Application Bill Dennison.

By involving a diverse portfolio of stakeholders, the project builds on the success of each previous workshop in the series and aims to develop tools that can provide direct decision-making support for various stakeholders and to encourage the adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices.

Initially designed at the first SESYNC workshop in 2017, the framework was implemented with a selection of indicators for countries around the world. It was further developed with the addition of a unique modeling tool at the second workshop in August 2018. Known as the SAM-Crop Mix and Trade (CMT) model, the tool was designed to evaluate how agricultural sustainability is affected by shifts in crop production portfolios, which are driven by factors such as trade policies and dietary change. Guolin Yao, a post-doc at the UMCES-Appalachian Laboratory who is working with Zhang on an NSF funded sustainable agriculture project, leads the effort to develop the SAM-CMT model. 

During the past year, the SAM team has been finalizing the “first edition” of indicators, developing the proposed tools and models, and actively engaging stakeholders throughout the process. Participants from the policy-making community routinely challenged researchers on how to make the assessment useful in the real world, and this debate has helped the project team to design tools and products always with end-users in mind.

“It is very challenging to strike a balance between being comprehensive and being simple and transparent when finalizing the list of indicators,” said Zhang.

Through intense and constructive discussions, participants reached consensus to finalize the “first edition” of SAM indicators. Project participants also gave attention to proposed SAM products, discussing ways to disseminate the matrix and possible applications by different users. Ideas include a report card, an interactive web platform, and country case studies that analyze historical and economic trends, barriers, and tradeoffs.  Project participants are particularly interested in ensuring transparency with end users in the development of products to meet their needs.  

“These are not the products that academics are accustomed to making,” said Eric Davidson. “But by partnering with practitioners and policy influencers, we are leveraging science to produce useful products to document and visualize progress toward sustainability goals.”

“Understanding what is relevant to decisionmakers and policymaking in terms of sustainable agriculture is essential to creating a tool that will get used,” said Kimberly Pfeifer, research director at Oxfam America. “The best way to acquire a sense of this is to ask.” Following the second workshop, Pfeifer led stakeholder engagement efforts through a survey of policymakers regarding their needs and how SAM products could be tailored to meet those needs.

Building on the accomplishments of the previous two workshops, the third workshop in June 2019 reviewed Pfeifer’s survey results, the draft first-edition indicators and their visualization tools, and the SAM-CMT model. Based on the review, the team discussed remaining issues in the existing products, such as setting thresholds for indicators. Participants also created a detailed plan leading to the next meeting and finalized a list of potential funders for SAM.  


June 2019 SAM Workshop participants at SESYNC.
Dr. Xin Zhang presents SAM at the the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO ) “Measuring Progress Sustainable Agriculture” roundtable on June 21 in Washington D.C.

Following the workshop, the SAM team presented on their progress at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO ) “Measuring Progress Sustainable Agriculture” roundtable on June 21 in Washington D.C.

Amy Heyman, FAO Economist and a focal point person for development of SDG 2.4.1 on sustainable agriculture, believes SAM complements the efforts of FAO in measuring agricultural sustainability by providing academic rigor through the analytics it is providing in the indicator development process. Going forward, the SAM Team and FAO will explore opportunities for further collaboration in their work.   

The next workshop in the SAM series is planned for June 2020 and will include additional stakeholder participants. The team will release their first-edition SAM indicators, along with their visualization tools.  Team members will also improve some of the indicator analyses used in the framework, develop interactive tools and platforms to engage stakeholders, and examine the linkages between trade and sustainable agriculture through the SAM-CMT model. Project leaders will also pursue funding for further research.


Sustainable agriculture is not only about being more profitable. It should concern its impacts on the environment and the welfare of farmers, as well as the broader society. Using a data-driven approach, SAM provides unique insights about the complex dynamics in the agricultural system, and helps to identify priority areas for intervention.

Xin Zhang
Assistant Professor, UMCES-Appalachian Laboratory

To learn more about the sustainable agriculture matrix project and Xin Zhang and Eric Davidson’s sustainable agriculture research, visit the project website