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From now on until our 3rd Science & Wine World Congress, on the first Sunday of each month, it will be published a post about Food Sustainability.

Today it will be about an interesting recent review written by Carlos Moreno-Miranda and Liesbeth Dries. In their paper entitled “Integrating coordination mechanisms in the sustainability assessment of agri-food chains: From a structured literature review to a comprehensive framework” they analyzed the state of the art in the assessment of agri-food supply chain sustainability based on a structured literature review. Following the structured review that includes category analysis and content analysis, they develop a comprehensive sustainability assessment framework for agri-food chains across multiple stages. The novelty of the framework is to incorporate the dimension of coordination across chain stages as a critical sustainability dimension. The study contributes to research on the assessment of agrifood supply chain sustainability by incorporating the role of coordination across chain stages and its relationship with economic, environmental, and social performance. This essential relationship between coordination and sustainability offers several areas of interest for future research. The study also contributes to practice by providing scholars, chain actors, and policymakers with directions for improving sustainable strategies.

As reviewed by the authors the sustainability of agri-food supply chains is high on international and domestic policy agendas for corporations, governments, NGOs, academia, and societies. The issues commonly discussed are climate change, loss of biodiversity, and their linkages to agricultural production. Stakeholders have claimed that current actions are insufficient to achieve the sustainability of the supply chains. The common issues are food, water contamination, the inefficiency of energy use and livelihoods deterioration. Concerns also exist over the increasingly imbalanced distribution of benefits across supply chain actors. These observations show that sustainability encompasses several dimensions and requires a transdisciplinary approach to tackle this priority.

Several authors assert sustainability in agri-food chains requires coordinated interaction between chain actors. Coordination between supply chain actors/stages occurs through mechanisms such as direction, planning methods, logistic arrangements, incentives, mutual adjustment, and information transfer, and it can involve formal or informal arrangements. Through such mechanisms, chain actors may achieve a better sustainability performance, for instance, by reducing food losses and contamination being more efficient and improving smallholders’ position in the chain. The few existing studies that include coordination in the sustainability assessment focus primarily on cooperation for managing conflicts and do not provide conclusions on the relationship between coordination and sustainability.

Joint Sustainability Dimensions and the Integrated Assessment Method

The structured literature review shows that most of the existing research is focused on the environmental dimension of sustainability. This focus can be explained by the attention of agricultural stakeholders and the community for scarcity of resources (e.g., irrigation water) and the restoration of critical impacts. Sustainability research in recent years increasingly covers the multiple dimensions of sustainability jointly. Public and private actors increasingly call for integrated approaches to replace one-dimensional assessments. Assessment methods are diverse and include integrated assessments, life cycle assessments, interdependency assessments, and multi-criteria approaches. The main reason for this diversity is the multitude of sustainability dimensions ranging from environmental standards to corporate social responsibility. The diversity in methods brings challenges in terms of the interpretation and communication of outcomes.

Multi-Stage Analysis and Vertical and Horizontal Mechanisms

The literature on agri-food chain sustainability assessment mostly analyzes single-chain stages. The most evaluated is the production stage. The dominance of single-stage analyses can be explained by the complexity of assessing across different chain stages. Future research could further explore the implications of integrating the consumption stage. Including multiple supply chain stages in the analysis begs how these stages are interrelated and what this means for sustainability. There is an agreement in the literature regarding the inclusion of coordination mechanisms being important in the multi-stage. The comprehensive sustainability assessment framework, therefore, includes both vertical and horizontal coordination indicators. These indicators support smallholders and small- and medium-sized enterprises in adopting sustainability practices. Some studies within the sustainability assessment literature of agri-food chains seek to comprehend the connection between sustainability and chain coordination. Topics of these studies include the link between interdependencies and cooperation to reduce negative socio-economic or environmental impacts. Stakeholders committed to sustainable development could lean on the sustainability-oriented coordination where responsibilities are clearly stated. Future research can further explore sustainability-oriented coordination to derive the best practices. This may involve the inclusion of non-traditional actors, such as financial organizations or policymakers.

 Architecture of the Comprehensive Framework

A broad range of appraisal methods responds to concerns recognised by the scientific community, chain actors, and policymakers. Concerns include the comprehensiveness of the framework and its robustness. Frameworks should move from a partial perspective towards an integrated and transdisciplinary approach. These specifications are joint sustainability dimensions, multi-stage chain analysis, vertical and horizontal mechanisms, and operationalization by applying an integrated assessment approach. The agri-food sustainability assessment literature suggests considering trade-offs between theory-based and empirical-based designs. This may also map out the steps forward to fulfill contextual perceptions that are vital in scientific research.


Four key findings follow from the study. First, the sustainability assessment framework developed in this article adds a relevant contribution to the existing literature on sustainability assessments. The proposed foundations of the framework operate as guidelines to generate insights into sustainability assessment implementation. Second, comprehensiveness, user-friendliness, transdisciplinarity, and robustness are imperative aspects of framework development. Methods need testing and validation to boost the interpretation and communication of outcomes, as was done in the participatory workshop in this research. Third, when the studied context is the agri-food sector, the joint dimensions approach and the supply chain as a unit of analysis are the most suitable foundations. The joint dimensions approach allows for understanding the relationships between economic, environmental, and social sustainability aspects. As a unit of analysis, the supply chain allows comprehending how stages are interrelated and what this means for sustainability performance. Fourth, due to the nature of chain-stage connections, coordination mechanisms are key to developing organizational models to optimize economic utility, social welfare, and ecological resilience.

Figure: A conceptual framework for assessing sanustainability performance.

Moreno-Miranda, C., & Dries, L. (2022). Integrating coordination mechanisms in the sustainability assessment of agri-food chains: From a structured literature review to a comprehensive framework. Ecological Economics192, 107265. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2021.107265

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