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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 will be published in 2014, is edited by Hugo Alrøe, Egon Noe and Jeppe Læssøe from MultiTrust together with the New Zealand partner Henrik Moller. It contains twelve articles, of which six are based on research made in the MultiTrust project.
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 an interactive internet-based 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 will constitute 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, which shows how the suggested tool can work (Figure 2, see the full three minutes video on YouTube http://youtu.be/UF15_4knPUA), and published scientific and popular articles about the prototype. 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). On the basis of this, two IT companies have assessed the cost of establishing and running such a platform in the first three years to between half a million DKK (with user pay for the running costs) and twenty million DKK.
Figure 2: Screenshot of the prototype from the animated video
Finally the project has collected feedback on the prototype, in form of animation video and diagram from a number of key organic actors, and their assessments were gathered by way of interviews. The actors pointed out several significant challenges, including ensuring credibility and openness. They further suggested that it would be valuable to be able to see the information on maps to help assess transport distances and facilitate local trade. The animation video was also part of a large consumer survey to evaluate whether such a tool would influence consumer preferences for organic products. One out of four consumers said the video made them want to know more about organics, and one in two did not believe that they would use such a tool.
All the stakeholder groups found that it would be valuable for producers and consumers to have access to such an interactive tool, which can facilitate overall assessments of the organic production and establish a platform for better communication in the organic value chain. But most consumers found that such a tool would demand more than they had time for, and most of the organic actors agreed that the platform would mainly be used by the most engaged and motivated consumers. The actors expression of their own interest in using the platform varied, depending on how user friendly the system would be, whether I contained valuable information, and how many users there were, and thus the amount of information.
Further description of the project can be found on the project homepage (www.multitrust.org or http://www.icrofs.org/Pages/Research/organicrdd_multitrust.html). Project publications can be found on Organic Eprints (direct link: http://tiny.cc/roya7w).
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.