Achieving Agriculture Sustainability in the US with the Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM)

Kevin E. Jackson

Figure 1: The sustainability performance of each indicator for the United States: the red color indicates each indicator performance/sustainability is at a “dangerous level: high risk of serious impacts.” The yellow color denotes indicator performance is at a “zone of uncertainty: the increasing risk of impacts.” The green color shows indicator performance is within as “safe operating zones.” The middle-ring shows average dimensional performance applying the same traffic color scheme. The central circle denotes the overall national sustainability performance. Arrows in each panel denote the trends between the year 2010-2014.

The US Working Group of the SAM Consortium hosted three virtual workshop sessions where stakeholders could engage with the first edition of the framework and offer their feedback for future editions of SAM (Fig. 1). While there existed agreement between stakeholders perceptions of the state of agriculture sustainability in the US, there were notable discrepancies between current data and stakeholder perceptions as well as important stakeholder feedback that fills in missing narratives for SAM indicators lacking in data availability. We hope this template for a virtual workshop series can serve as a useful template for other sustainability workshops and collaboratives. 

The Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM) Consortium

Figure 2: The image above shows a score report for Afghanistan with spokes of the outside wheel of the report representing each of our 18 indicators. To visit this dashboard and view the various country-specific products from the first edition of SAM, please visit our SAM Consortium Website.

The Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (SAM) is a framework developed by a transdisciplinary & transnational team that provides an assessment of a country’s agricultural sustainability thereby informing policy & promoting accountability at the national & global scale. The first edition of SAM (Fig. 2), released in 2021, provides the first-of-its-kind assessment for over 150 countries around the world with 18 related & measurable indicators, covering aspects across three dimensions: environmental (e.g.,water availability, soil health), economic (e.g., market access, agricultural labor productivity), & social (e.g., farmer’s wellbeing, equality). In an effort to disseminate and improve upon SAM, a Consortium funded by the Belmont Forum  was established to expand our efforts at stakeholder engagement. Our findings are based on our stakeholder engagement efforts in the United States, although our collaborators are also engaged in seven other countries (i.e., Austria, Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, and Turkey). 

Engaging Stakeholders in an Online US Workshop Format

Workshop Format

To accommodate stakeholders from all across the United States and overseas we organized our workshop in an online format. The sessions were hosted on Zoom and exercises and notes were collated on Mural, on an online whiteboard environment where attendees can post comments and engage with presented media


In total 7 working members collaborated with 16 stakeholders throughout the 3 sessions of the workshop series. This collaboration was with a diverse group of stakeholders representing private industry, NGOs, as well as governmental and academic institutions, all with a vested interest in US agriculture.

Insights from the US Workshop Series

Concerning Trends in the US: Where the Data and Stakeholders Agree

Key challenges for US agriculture sustainability identified by the workshop participants agree with our interpretation of the SAM assessment regarding Gender Gap, & Greenhouse Gas Emissions as potential challenges, but participants also included indicators that are currently in the “green zone” (i.e.., Water Consumption, Crop Diversity, & Labor Productivity), have no data (i.e., Rural Poverty & Land Right), or are not included in the first edition of SAM indicators (e.g., Animal Welfare).

Data Limitations Require Invaluable Insights from Stakeholders.

Figure 3: Our network analysis plots stakeholder US-identified (A) tradeoffs and (B) synergies in comparison to correlations identified by SAM data. Lack of SAM identified tradeoffs and synergies is potentially due to limited temporal coverage of available data.

Tradeoffs and synergies between normalized SAM indicators (negative and positive correlations, respectively) help us understand whether improvements in sustainability performance of one SAM indicator are interlinked with worsening or improving performance of another SAM indicator. For example, if SAM data shows increased labor productivity is in tradeoff with various environmental indicators (i.e., increased energy, water, fertilizer demands to support increased productivity) then policymakers can weigh their options between the economic/societal needs against concerns over environmental degradation. But potential synergies and tradeoffs between our 18 SAM indicators might otherwise  be masked by limited data availability. As such stakeholder feedback helps us identify tradeoffs and synergies and the potential opportunities and challenges for countries that they signify. Figure 3 highlights the utility of stakeholder feedback which suggests a plethora of potential opportunities and challenges that policymakers can expect when addressing the various aspects of sustainable agriculture monitored by our 18 indicators. The juxtaposition of stakeholder-identified and SAM-identified correlations amongst our indicators suggests that stakeholder feedback is still necessary to fill missing data gaps.

A Novel Way to Integrate Stakeholder Feedback 

Diversity of stakeholder attendees in addition to the flexibility and unique design of the various regional workshops put us on a strong footing to further improve upon future editions of SAM. This is perhaps best exemplified from our successful Second Annual Meeting of the SAM Consortium, an in-person event held this past October in Istanbul, Turkey (see here). With respect to the United States led workshops, our online design presents novel ways for other researchers to consider soliciting stakeholder feedback in a new post-covid paradigm.


Interested in Contributing to the  SAM Consortium?

For more information regarding our efforts, consider visiting the Consortium’s Website where you can engage with interactive dashboards showcasing our first edition results, and following news updates from our Consortium members and partner organizations (see here).

And join us in Panama at the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2023 where we plan to facilitate one or more hybrid sessions showcasing the efforts of the SAM Consortium.