Appalachian Laboratory

Raising the grade for sustainable agriculture

UMCES professors, with help from SESYNC, look to strengthen United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals

A small group gathers in front of a white board and then a discussion begins.

They are brainstorming the impact of agricultural production on the environment and society. As ideas are rattled off, words are scribbled on the board: pollution, food stability, health, energy.

This conversation—part of a week-long workshop at National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation-funded think tank, in Annapolis—is just the beginning of a grander plan to build a sustainable agriculture matrix.

If their effort works, this matrix would serve as a universal grading system that could help countries measure how well they can meet food production targets with minimal impact on the environment, and then, with that insight, set policies or incentives to improve their grade. To work, however, it requires a lot of consideration from multiple perspectives, careful planning to ensure the indicators that help a country measure itself are fair and consistent, and cooperation from individuals worldwide to do the necessary homework.

If it sounds grand in scale, that’s because it is, but that hasn’t deterred Xin Zhang and Eric Davidson, two scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, who are leading the project.

“There have perhaps been only brief times in human history where there have been cultures that have lived sustainably within their means for a period of time. Then something happens—a war, climate change, population increases—and then they’re no longer sustainable,” said Davidson, professor and director at Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg. “Just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it isn’t something worth trying to achieve.”

Building on the United Nation’s goals

The sustainable agricultural matrix is being designed to strengthen the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a set of goals adopted in fall 2015 calling to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030.

“The current United Nations indicators for measuring sustainable agriculture leave too much room for countries to define ’sustainable agricultural practices’ according to their priorities. Consequently, there are limited opportunities to measure progress over time and to make comparisons across countries,” said Zhang, an assistant professor at Appalachian Laboratory. “Having consistent and transparent approaches is very important. Obviously, that’s a challenge that we need to address.”

Zhang and Davidson co-authored a study in 2015 that examined the global footprint of agricultural nitrogen use over a 50-year period and how technology and socioeconomic conditions helped shape the results. Their work further exposed the environmental impacts of excessive nitrogen use.


Too many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, are entering the atmosphere and water. From there, it poses environmental risks as greenhouse gases or harmful algal blooms that have their own implications on the health of humans and aquatic life.

Those nutrients can be found in fertilizers used to boost crop production, but some don’t make it into the produce and instead leach into the air or groundwater. Many countries offer subsidies for nitrogen fertilizer to increase crop production and food security, but some subsidies may have stimulated the overuse of fertilizers in countries such as China.

By looking at existing or potential data sets across natural and social science disciplines, Zhang, Davidson, and their workshop colleagues are creating products that highlight a country’s strengths and weaknesses in agricultural sustainability.

“If we were successful, then eventually the necessary data on sustainability indicators could be drawn routinely from each country’s ministries, from UN agencies, from private sector reports, from remote sensing data, and from academic studies,” Davidson said.

The workshop helped Zhang and Davidson focus on which data sets would serve as the best indicators of a country’s agricultural sustainability. In building the workshop participant group, they considered diversity in years of experience, fields of expertise, gender, and geography. The group included biogeochemists, ecologists, agronomists, economists, social scientists, and statisticians from around the globe.

The current United Nations indicators for measuring sustainable agriculture leave too much room for countries to define ’sustainable agricultural practices’ according to their priorities. Consequently, there are limited opportunities to measure progress over time and to make comparisons across countries.

Xin Zhang
Assistant professor, Appalachian Laboratory


Brainstorming begins at SESYNC

The workshop included presentations that helped reveal some of the different social, environmental, and economic issues that play into a country’s success in sustainability. There was a lot of discussion about creating a fair measurement across countries that have widely varying technological, economic, social, and cultural conditions. For example, some countries consume less meat because of high poverty levels or large religious populations.

Keeping those lessons in mind, the group broke into three smaller teams to brainstorm workable ideas for indicators before coming back together as a group to share their findings.

The group met in Annapolis at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), an independent academic institution that Zhang and Davidson considered the perfect partner for their project.

SESYNC is a synthesis center that brings together experts from a variety institutional affiliations to use existing data to answer new questions, said Kristal Jones, an assistant research scientist for SESYNC.

“We see that there’s an incredible amount of information out there in the world, data that’s organized as data, but also information we don’t tend to think of as data,” she said. “That might be policy documents or tweets or photographs, this whole range of information that we can use to learn more about these problems and possible solutions.”

SESYNC offered Zhang and Davidson a place to hold their workshop and technical support, including data scientists and computer services, to build the data-intensive sustainable agriculture matrix.

“It couldn’t have been done without SESYNC,” Davidson said, “I think we can be proud that this combination of SESYNC and UMCES is producing something that could move the needle on sustainability discussions on a global scale.”

SESYNC deemed the sustainable agriculture matrix to be a good fit within its own commitment to working on agricultural and food system issues.

“As this project moves forward and the group has some results, we have the potential to provide this range of support to help get to the end goal, and operationalize ideas and numbers for analysis that leads to meaningful results and outcomes,” Jones said.

SESYNC also hails the approach Zhang and Davidson took to bring together diverse perspectives and expertise to answer a big, but pressing question.

Bringing such a diverse group together presented its challenges.

“The major challenge was to balance complexity of the discussions and the simplicity of the outcome,” Zhang said.

Working local, thinking global

By the end of the workshop, Zhang had wanted the group to build a framework for developing a sustainable agriculture matrix across countries. She feels the group met its goal.

This is a prototype for the sustainable agriculture product with some preliminary data, as provided by Dr. Xin Zhang.

“We are using the final report from different break-out groups as a guideline to develop the first set of sustainable agriculture matrix, and I think we have a pretty good idea of indicators that we can include for those initial products,” Zhang said.

She wants to develop off-the-shelf indicators for the matrix this fall and envisions developing the matrix further over the next several months or year. Besides evaluating the sustainability in agricultural production, the matrix will also be used for addressing policy questions related to sustainable agriculture, such as food security and international trade.

Davidson said they have some limited funds to keep their project going, but will need to seek more funding to properly see it through.

He is proud of their role on a project that can have an important global impact.

“It’s remarkable that we, from Appalachian Laboratory, from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, have been able to take a leadership role in something related to global agriculture. I think it shows we are thinking at all scales, including thinking big. People like Xin are fearless, and we can march ahead and show what we can contribute."