Multicriteria assessment and communication of effects of organic food systems

The MultiTrust project will provide analyses, methods and prototypes of multicriteria assessment, to help organic actors and stakeholders develop, document and communicate balanced overall assessments of the effects of organic food systems on society and nature. The project will carry out interdisciplinary analyses of existing methods for multicriteria assessment and communication; establish a framework for how to develop such methods for organic food systems and relate them to the organic principles; and test prototypes in practice. This shall help sustain an integrated development of the organic production, contribute to open and credible communication about the benefits of organics, and thereby support long term growth.

Download a longer description of the MultiTrust project, updated January 2012

See all MultiTrust publications in Organic Eprints

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Project description from the application

The Organic Research, Development and Demonstration programme (Organic RDD)

Organic agriculture is an alternative food system based on consumer trust and credibility. Consumers buy organic goods and citizens and politician support organics, to some degree, because they believe it is a better alternative. And they believe this because the organic form of production seeks to meet many considerations for society, humans, animals, nature and environment. The possibilities for growth in organic agriculture therefore depends on whether it, overall, makes up a credible and attractive alternative, and whether the development of organics is positive with regard to the organic principles and the key societal goals for environment, health and welfare. It is, however, extremely difficult to determine whether a specific technological, management or organisational development is positive or negative overall, due to complex environmental and societal connections and the fact that many effects cannot be assessed in monetary terms. There are no established methods to make overall assessments of organic food systems.

Objective and expected results

The MultiTrust project is to develop methods to make balanced overall assessments of the effects of organic food systems on environment, nature and society, and methods to communicate and use these complex assessments in practice. The twofold goal is to make the organic producers better able to develop organics in accordance with the organic principles and in synergy with societal objectives, and to make it easier for consumers, citizens and politicians to observe and evaluate the different contributions that organic food systems offer. Such tools for multicriteria assessment and communication can support an integrated and trustworthy development of organic agriculture, and thereby consolidate the long term growth of organic food systems.

Activities in the project

In the project we work in an interdisciplinary and participatory way with an eye for the many different perspectives on organic food systems and multicriteria assessment. The key activities in the project are to:

  • summarize the theoretical basis for making balanced and transparent multicriteria assessments and for communicating such complex assessments, based on different scientific perspectives
  • collect international experiences with the use of multicriteria assessment tools on food and farming systems
  • prepare a framework for how tools for multicriteria assessment and communication can be developed for use in organic food systems with their distinct practices and ethical principles
  • develop and test methods for visualisation and animation that can help in this
  • develop and test a prototype in cooperation with organic practitioners and stakeholders
  • investigate consumer perceptions of this tool and the criteria that enter

A key question is how, where and from which perspective and which values the weighings and reductions are to be made. We will not be making tools that give one weighing and one answer like many tools for sustainability assessment do. We will make tools that enables different groups to determine which dimensions are important to include, for them, how the necessary information can be gathered and how it can be weighed, and how they thereby can make their own assessments of effects of specific developments in the complex field of organic food systems.

Preliminary results

One of the first tasks for the project has been to identify the most important challenges in developing balanced overall assessments of organic food systems. The project has identified three pivotal challenges: balancing knowledges, visualising values and enabling communication.

  • Some effects of organic food systems are well known and can be measured in a fairly simple and precise manner, while others are poorly known and difficult or expensive to investigate. The first big challenge in making overall assessments of organics is thus to keep the balance between the different types of knowledge, and to avoid that what is most precise or easiest to measure gets the most weight. At the same time it is important to understand how the different effects are connected within the system.
  • Multicriteria assessments depend on indicators, which are selected and constructed based on certain problems and goals. For instance, emissions can be measured per hectare or per kilo produce, and this does not necessarily lead to the same assessment. The second big challenge is therefore to render visible the built-in values in the assessment tools and how they relate to the ethical principles of organic agriculture, societal goals, and other interests.
  • Organic agriculture wants to be measured on the many considerations it takes into account, but more comprehensive overall assessments necessarily become more complex. The third big challenge is how such complex assessments can be communicated in an effective and participatory way. They are to be used by both scientists and stakeholders with many different perspectives, and media also play a large role when credibility and trust is constructed and negotiated. It is necessary to reduce complexity, for example by way of visualisation, but it is critical where and how it is done.

Balancing knowldges, Exposing values, Enabling communcation
Figure 1: Three key challenges in the development of overall assessments of organics


Crossdisciplinary and participatory method

In the project there are university partners across the social, human and natural sciences, and there are private and public user representatives as partners within the project. As planned and expected in such an interdisciplinary and participatory project, we have used quite some time and resources on learning to understand each other and our different approaches and expectations to the project. A concrete example of this is that each project partner, including the regions and municipalities, has prepared a ‘self-description’ of their own perspective on the project. The project applies a perspectivist approach, which works deliberately and openly with the different scientific and stakeholder perspectives and what aspects of organics they are able to observe (Alrøe & Noe 2014a). This perspectivist approach to cross-disciplinary research has been described in detail in an international article (Alrøe & Noe 2011, http://orgprints.org/19952), and forms the basis for many of the project publications.

Apart from the user representatives that are involved as partners, the project strives to involve users in the development of a tool to communicate about multicriteria assessment of food systems. A part of this participatory effort is to use animation to convey the complexity of such a tool, and thereby give the users a real possibility for providing feedback.

Publications and international cooperation

In the first phase of the project, work has been done to clarify and summarize the theoretical basis for making and communicating multicriteria assessments. Five reviews and analyses have been prepared which focus on, respectively, economic valuation and multicriteria analyses; normative aspects of multicriteria assessment; management, business and trust; media construction of credibility and trust, and communication, participation and learning. The analyses have been published in separate reports, some of which are in English, and some have later been developed into scientific papers.

In 2012 a crossdisciplinary report has been elaborated, which presents the five perspectives on challenges and possibilities for multicriteria assessment and communication of organic food systems in relation to the three main key challenges of the project that are depicted in Figure 1.

The perspectivist method has also resulted in crossdisciplinary papers on issues such as values, motivation and trust. These were presented at a well-attended and successful workshop on the international IFSA 2012 conference entitled ”Balancing and communicating overall assessments of food systems” (http://ifsa2012.dk/?page_id=351). The workshop was organized by MultiTrust together with four of its international partners. It provided valuable input to the project, and a continuation of this cooperation furthermore resulted in the acceptance of a special issue on ”Multicriteria assessment of food systems sustainability” in the acknowledged journal Ecology & Society. The special issue, which is expected to be published in spring 2014, is edited by Hugo Alrøe, Egon Noe and Jeppe Læssøe from MultiTrust together with the New Zealand partner Henrik Moller.

Development of a tool to communicate multicriteria assessments in the organic value chain

In the MultiTrust project work has been done to find a tool that can solve the challenge: How to make overall assessments of the effects of organic production in such a way that they actually will be able to make a difference in practice. Organic products must manage in the comparison with conventional products, and often the organic products have a hard time when measured on single criteria. The mark of organics is the holistic consideration – to take many things into account at the same time – and therefore there is a need for overall assessments.

Comprehensive overall assessments can, however, become very complex, and thereby difficult to communicate and relate to. Furthermore it can be difficult to determine how to simplify them, because any reduction implies a range of choices on what is important and how to weigh different criteria. At the same time organic agriculture is a form of production that continuously strives to improve. Organic products are thus not just products produced in accordance with the organic rules. Many producers want to make an extra effort over and above the standard ensured by the organic label controlled by the Danish state, in order to improve and expand organics. In order for these to succeed, the other parts of the chain must be able to honour the extra effort. And it is important for consumers that they can see that organic agriculture is striving to improve.

Organic products harbour qualities that are determined by a range of choices and actions made in production, processing, transport and trade. For instance, there may be a special emphasis on what organic fertilizers to use, how to design the fruit orchard to promote natural enemies, how to ensure high animal welfare and well-being in livestock production, how to save energy in processing, what type of packaging to use for retailing organic products, etc. But when the consumer faces the cold counter, and when the farmer litters straw in the calf box, they know very little about how the other parts of the food chain act and their options for getting in contact are limited.

In 2013 the MultiTrust project has carried out a process involving different user groups in the development of a prototype for a tool to handle these different challenges. An important step in this process was holding a creative multi stakeholder workshop with representatives from the organic value chain in form of farmers, processors, retailers and consumers. Divided into groups by user type the participants formulated their most important criteria for choosing or not choosing organics. In mixed groups, they then discussed what challenges there are in communicating these criteria in order to promote the development of organics. Finally, the groups developed ideas for tools to help solve these challenges.

The most significant conclusions were (1) that there is a need to communicate and coordinate across the organic value chain, and that the tool should make it possible for the different parts of the chain to communicate about what criteria they act from, and thereby assess different assessments; (2) that the communication in the chain should be based on ‘good examples’, that is, on specific authentic initiatives in the practice of the users, and not in general aggregated assessments; and (3) that the tool should be user driven and not determined by e.g. scientist and advisors, so that it will be the users that determine what assessments are needed and where they should be elaborated.

Based on this important user input and the theoretical analyses, the project has developed a prototype for a tool (see Alrøe & Noe 2014b and links below). This tool can establish contact across the chain, give users an overview of what has been done in the entire organic value chain to give the products their special qualities, and make it possible for users to create their own profiles, comment and ask questions to other users. The tool constitutes a platform where farmers, companies, stores and consumers can work together to develop organics based on many criteria at the same time.

The project has produced an animated video to illustrate the problematic of making multicriteria assessments that make a difference in the organic practices, and which shows how the suggested tool can work. See the film on YouTube, at http://youtu.be/zmoXYJAS8LY (in Danish) or http://youtu.be/UF15_4knPUA (in English). Furthermore the project has made a diagram of how the tool can be constructed and how the different actors can be involved (see http://zoom.it/P4IO). At the moment the project collects user feedback on the prototype through a large consumer survey and interviews with key organic actors.

Prototype - image from animation film

A description of the project background can be found on the ICROFS website: http://www.icrofs.org/Pages/Research/organicrdd_multitrust.html).

A full list of publications from the project can be found on Organic Eprints (direct link: http://tiny.cc/roya7w).

References in the text

Alrøe, H. F. and E. Noe (2014a) How can we know if organics becomes better? A perspectivist view on multicriteria assessment. In: Rahmann G & Aksoy U (Eds.) Proceedings of the 4th ISOFAR Scientific Conference, p. xxx. (in press) - http://orgprints.org/23904, download PDF from http://tinyurl.com/p9lz9ph.

Alrøe, H. F. and E. Noe (2014b) A prototype tool for participatory multicriteria assessment to develop organic food chains. In: Rahmann G & Aksoy U (Eds.) Proceedings of the 4th ISOFAR Scientific Conference, p. xxx. (in press) – http://orgprints.org/23914, download PDF from http://tinyurl.com/pffylfx.

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