Published June 30, 2021 | Version v1
Project deliverable Open

Report on Practice-Validated SES Framework for Sustainability Assessments of Farming Systems and Recommendations for Future Applications

  • 1. ISARA
  • 2. Institute of Agricultural Economics
  • 3. The James Hutton Institute


In UNISECO, a Social-Ecological Systems approach was used in transdisciplinary action science (Irvine et al., 2019; D7.2) for the analysis of how interacting sub-systems influence a given situation (“Focal Action Situation”). It provided a common structure for the analysis of the case studies, identification of drivers and barriers towards agro-ecology transitions, identification of individual agro-ecological practices, and the establishment of a candidate list of innovative market and policy incentives.

The Social-Ecological System and each of the component sub-systems provided the structure for characterising the case studies and their analysis. It was operationalised in the 15 case studies across Europe, covering a wide range of farming systems, socio-economic contexts and stages of agro-ecological transitions. It’s validation was based on the experiences gained by the project case study teams it that operationalisation, which were captured in a questionnaire.

Key findings from the survey of case study partners concluded:

  • The Social-Ecological Systems framework provided a value tool with which to set out the overall roadmap of the UNISECO project, and to summarise and visualise the complexity of the farming systems being studied. In turn, this aided in narrowing the high level issues to discussion of the local context of individual case studies.
  • It was relevant for the analysis of the diversity of sub-systems and variables in which agriculture is embedded. However, that analysis is more of an approach to understanding the mechanisms of a system, and a qualitative picture of the different dimensions of sustainability, than a quantitative assessment of the sustainability of the farming systems.
  • The approach was useful to frame discussions with stakeholders about drivers and barriers to transitions, and to formalise a desired future towards a more agro-ecological agriculture. In turn, that engagement with the Multi-Actor Platforms played an important role in increasing the robustness of the results of the assessments of the Social-Ecological Systems.
  • It provided a common method across all case studies for the completion of a status quo assessment, but one gap identified was the link between the systems approach and the dynamics of transitions, reported by Landert et al. (2019; D3.1).
  • The results of the application of the framework enabled an understanding to be gained of the current governance and sustainability performance of the farming systems, reported by Vanni et al. (2019; D5.2).
  • The Social-Ecological Systems framework provided materials for use in the wider communication of the farming systems being studied and the transitions towards agro-ecological practices and systems. These materials included inputs to the analysis of barriers of transitions (Schwarz et al., 2021; D3.4), the two sets of story maps (Prazan et al., 2019, D3.3;  Landert et al., 2021, D3.6); and the Spatially Explicit Spatially Explicit Interactive Online Tool (SESSIT) (Helin et al., 2021; D6.3).

In its operationalisation, the case study partners noted some challenges for its use, most notably:

  • the need for a level of understanding of the concept to enable its application to be effective;
  • the number of variables in the systems and sub-systems was high, and some of the data difficult to collect.

The team responsible for designing and sharing the approach with other partners noted challenges of obtaining the balance between sharing knowledge and raising capabilities in the use of the framework to the same level across all partner teams. This was of particular significance when drawing conclusions about the assessments of the systems.

Case study partners identified considerable potential for the use of the Social-Ecological Systems approach in future research. One condition for much of those uses is the need to share a common understanding of both Social-Ecological Systems theory and an operational framework, especially for projects with high numbers of teams and a diversity of expertise.

Overall, the structure and logic of the Social-Ecological Systems were found to be well suited to the use of story telling approaches for communicating narratives about agro-ecological transitions across Europe, for which UNISECO used Story maps,  made accessible through a map-based interface. Combined, these tools provide flexible and practical tools for explaining farming systems and agro-ecological transitions.

UNISECO is a European research project aiming to develop innovative approaches to enhance the understanding of socio-economic and policy drivers and barriers for further development and implementation of agro-ecological practices in EU farming systems. Learn more about the project:

This project has received funding from the European Union's H2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773901.

This publication reflects only the authors' view and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


UNISECO D2.3 Report on Practice-Validated SES Framework for Sustainability Assessments of Farming Systems and Recommendations for Future Applications.pdf

Additional details


UNISECO – Understanding and improving the sustainability of agro-ecological farming systems in the EU 773901
European Commission