Published December 30, 2020 | Version v1
Project deliverable Open

Assessment of Sustainability Trade-offs and Synergies among Agro-ecological Practices at Farm Level

  • 1. University of Aberdeen
  • 2. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture
  • 3. Thuenen Institute of Farm Economics
  • 4. Natural Resources Institute Finland
  • 5. ISARA
  • 6. Agricultural University Athens
  • 7. Geonardo
  • 8. CREA – Research Centre for Agricultural Policies and Bioeconomy
  • 9. Baltic Environmental Forum Latvia
  • 10. Baltic Environmental Forum Lithuania
  • 11. WWF Programul Dunare Carpati Romania
  • 12. Gestión Ambiental de Navarra
  • 13. The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • 14. The James Hutton Institute


Agro-ecological approaches are fundamental for sustainable food production in the future, and the overarching objective of UNISECO is to co-develop improved and practice-validated strategies and incentives for the promotion of improved agro-ecological approaches. The key dilemma is how to produce public goods whilst maintaining viable production of private goods, securing economic and social sustainability at a farm level. In this context, it is important to identify the farm management changes and innovative agro-ecological practices with win-win relationships and those with fewer trade-offs between social, ecological and economic dimensions.

In this report (Deliverable report D3.5), we investigate this question by exploring, in thirteen European case studies, the sustainability implications of implementing a range of different agro-ecological practices (AEPs) as part of different transitions strategies towards more sustainable agriculture. We implemented an analytical framework including the use of decision support tools (DSTs) to convey process-based information on the performance of 28 different AEPs, co-developed with local stakeholders, that are expected to improve the resilience and sustainability of farms. In particular, through the DSTs we identified and analysed 17 sustainability indicators that convey information on the potential environmental and socio-economic synergies and trade-offs, arising from the implementation of different AEPs at farm level. We classified different AEPs across three different categories: i) Efficiency increase, ii) Substitution practices, and iii) Farm re-design.

The category “Efficiency increase” included technological AEPs such as the installation of weather stations to integrate real time pest monitoring with fast prevention activities in vineyards, or improvement of mineral balance in ruminant diets through the provision of enriched boluses, or the re-configuration of canopies in tree orchards to enhance their productivity and resilience. Overall, these AEPs showed only win-win situations generated from livestock and crop health and yield provision. 

The category “substitution practices” included the simulation of distinct AEPs, such as soil organic fertilization, use of biofertilizers and biofuels, as well as more complex strategies such as organic agriculture. Overall, this category emphasised the centrality for agro-ecological practices in reducing the use of external inputs and the simultaneous improvement in the quality and use-efficiency of input at farm level. Depending on the approach applied in the simulation of the AEPs, the transition from mineral to organic fertilization generated trade-offs between the increase of biodiversity benefits and the provision of yield, and between the carbon footprint and yield at farm level.

Finally, the “re-design” category includes single or bundle of AEPs, which are aimed at soil conservation and biodiversity benefits and increasing the diversification of farming systems. These included conservation agriculture practices, such as reduced tillage, permanent soil cover through cover crops or mulching, and intercropping with nitrogen fixing crops, the extensification of mixed crop-livestock systems, and more complex farm re-design driven by the reorganization of the resources in the farms and the reshuffling of arrangements ‘downstream’ of farms. Given the heterogeneity of this category, the environmental and socio-economic sustainability of the above agro-ecological strategies depended on several external factors such as farm type and size, initial farm infrastructure, as well as the dilemmas and objectives characterising the agricultural decision context in each case study. In this report, we outline the effect on the relationships between different farm-level sustainability indicators, as a result from the implementation of agro-ecological practices.

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 D3.5 Assessment of sustainability trade-offs and synergies among agro-ecological practices at farm level.pdf

Additional details


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