The 1989 United Nations (UN) report “Our common future” raised global awareness of the environmental issues and the future consequences of overuse of natural resources and emphasized the importance of taking action. This led to the further development of the concept of Sustainability and “Sustainable Development” (SD) [1
]. The authors defined SD as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Over time, the notion of SD was expanded to include environmental, social and economic sustainability, as the balance of the three ensures the sustainability of a product, company, supply chain or sector. Later, governance was added as a distinct pillar of sustainability by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN [2
] as without oversight the other pillars of sustainability may not always be maintained. In 2015 the UN illustrated sustainability as the common achievement of 17 sustainability goals [3
By the year 2050, according to the UN estimations, the Earth’s population will have grown by 26%, reaching 9.7 billion people [4
]. To face this challenge, ensuring food safety and security without compromising the main pillars of sustainability constitutes one of the UN’s main goals for sustainable development [5
]. Agriculture, including livestock farming, can benefit significantly from sustainable management, as livestock products are of significance both for human consumption, reaching an annual growth of 1.2%, 0.4% and 1.5% for meat, milk and eggs, respectively [6
], but also as source of income especially for vulnerable populations living in the countryside.
Sustainability issues are of particular importance for the sheep and goat sector in Europe, where 16.8 and 130.8 million goats and sheep respectively are reared, ensuring livelihoods for vulnerable populations in rural areas, including those in marginal zones. The shift towards intensification in small ruminant production, where traditional husbandry practices like pastoralism have decreased due to low productivity and prices [7
], signals the need for sustainable livestock management in order to ensure the overall viability of the sector [8
]. The threat to the resilience of the sector might further be averted by taking advantage of the opportunities in sustainable production, such as special “lifestyle” market niches, which are flourishing [10
]. Therefore, a closer examination of the overall sustainability of the sheep and goat sector in Europe is necessary to assess how different countries, economies and ecosystems perform with regard to the various attributes of sustainability.
Although there have been studies that assess the sustainability in small ruminant farms in France and Spain [8
] and one rapid assessment in organic and low-input farming of 102 dairy cow and goat farms in 9 European Union (EU) countries for the Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairying (SOLID) project [15
], there has not been a larger-scale Sustainability Assessment (SA), with a holistic approach, to evaluate the current condition of European small ruminant farming. Many different frameworks and tools exist for SA with different approaches, as SA is a complex type of appraisal methodology due to its multidisciplinary aspects and system-specific characteristics, i.e., the values, the culture, the target group [16
]. In order to choose the right approach for a SA, in 2006 Ness, Urbel-Piirsalu, Anderberg and Olsson [18
] categorized SA tools according to (a) their temporal characteristics, (b) focus of the tool and (c) the integration of nature–society systems. Arranged according to a time continuum, the result was three general categories and a complementary one: (i) indicators and indices, which are further broken down into non-integrated and integrated; (ii) product-related assessment tools with the focus on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) where costing and material and/or energy flows of a product or service from a life cycle perspective are assessed; (iii) integrated assessment, looking into policy and strategy integration and (iv) monetary evaluation, a supplementary category when “non-market values” need to be provided for the three main ones.
The most notable SA tools are the pressure-state-response (PSR) framework, the Driving Force Pressure State Impact Response (DPSIR) model, which has been adopted by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) and European Statistical Office, the hierarchical structure of the global reporting initiative (GRI) framework, The United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) Theme Indicator Framework and the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Sustainability Metrics [19
]. With respect to farming systems there are a number of proposed methodologies the most notable among them being the Framework for the Evaluation of Sustainable Land Management (FESLM), Indicator of Sustainable Agricultural Practice (ISAP), Multiscale Methodological Framework (MMF), Response-Inducing Sustainability Evaluation (RISE), Sustainability Assessment of the Farming and the Environment (SAFE) and the Sustainability Solution Space for Decision Making (SSP) [20
]. In order to provide a cohesive SA, after reviewing different frameworks, tools and procedures in 2014, FAO developed the Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture (SAFA) guidelines providing a holistic framework, procedures and protocol [2
] aimed at food and agricultural enterprises worldwide.
The purpose of this comparative study is to demonstrate the feasibility of the use of a simple sustainability assessment tool in a uniform way across European countries. A multivariable assessment system based on the Public Goods (PG) Tool, derived from the SAFA guidelines and developed by the Organic Research Centre (ORC), was adapted by the Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe (iSAGE) project (www.isage.eu
) and used for this purpose. The study compares farms from seven European countries, which represent different climate zones, and from nine different pan-European typologies categorized by iSAGE. The results of the SA are presented by country in order to facilitate a discussion regarding the effectiveness of the PG Tool in pinpointing the key features and differences across countries as well as to identify and highlight findings for future targeted research.
3.1. Soil Management Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) soil analysis, (2) soil management, (3) grazing and (4) erosion.
As shown in Figure 2
a, Finnish farms achieve the highest average score in terms of sustainable soil management, while Italian, French and UK farms also perform well. Spanish and Turkish farms exhibit the highest variance, which can be explained by the number of farms and the different farm types studied, while it also reflects a potentially lower perception of the importance of soil management to livestock farmers.
3.2. Agri-Environmental Management Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) Agri-environmental participation, (2) rare species, (3) conservation plan, (4) habitats and (5) herbicide and pesticide use.
As shown in Figure 2
b, farms appear to achieve lower scores in the “Agri-environmental Management” spur than in soil management. This depicts a likely lower focus of farmers on the importance of environmental decision-making, ranging from conservation and management of natural habitats to rational use of pesticides. Lower performance can partially be explained by possible low scores on indicators concerning the number of rare breeds and habitats within the farm (i.e., small percentage of permanent pastures and native woodland and lack of wildlife habitats) as not all farms will be able to embrace these indicators in the short term. Greece appears to perform least well in this category with an average score of 1.84, followed by Turkey (2.19), while United Kingdom and Finland appear to be the leaders of the category.
3.3. Landscape and Heritage Score
It draws on the subthemes (1) historic features, (2) landscape features, (3) management of boundaries and (4) genetic heritage.
The Landscape and Heritage spur assesses the importance of historical and landscape elements of the farm as well as features of the natural environment. Scores for this spur are also low, as presented in Figure 3
a, Spain and Turkey appear to have the largest range of values as well as the largest interquartile range. Again, Turkey and Greece achieve the lowest sustainability scores, whereas Finland, Italy and the United Kingdom have the highest. In particular, farms achieve relatively low scores regarding landscape diversity, monuments and traditional buildings.
3.4. Water Management Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) taking steps to reduce pollution/maximize efficiency, (2) flood defenses and runoff prevention, (3) water management plan and (4) irrigation—when there is no irrigation, farmers are positively scored for management practices in this activity.
The Water Management scores are mostly formulated with regards to the existence of a water and irrigation management plan, as no significant variations were observed in other categories—especially regarding flooding and runoff water risks. In this category, Greece ranks lowest, probably as most of the interviewed farmers only utilize water for livestock and are not producing additional feedstuffs on-farm and thus are unlikely to have management plans. Finland leads the category followed by Italy, while Turkey performs above average but with a significant variance as shown in Figure 3
3.5. Fertilizer Management Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) nutrient planning, (2) manure management and (3) farm waste disposal.
This category exhibits a pattern similar to that of the previous spur. Greece is the country with the lowest score, while Finland and Italy, followed closely by the United Kingdom, perform considerably better as depicted in Figure 4
a. The lack of a waste management and recycling plans seems to be the main reason for lower performance, indicating the low levels of adoption of circular economy principles and methods in the surveyed farms in general.
3.6. Energy and Carbon Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) energy benchmark score, (2) energy saving options, (3) greenhouse gases, (4) land use change and (5) renewables. The energy benchmark score provides a collection of benchmark values based on farm fuel use data provided, for each enterprise on the farm.
Although the climate and green energy are part of UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the results of the assessment in the “Energy and Carbon” spur indicate that European small ruminant production has potentially not yet incorporated elements of energy conservation or control of greenhouse gases produced on site. Greece and Turkey are rated lower than the other countries, mainly due to the relatively higher use of petrol. Italy has the highest performance for theme. (Figure 4
b). Differences in performance in this spur also reflect the different strategies taken by farmers regarding Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. In addition, the lack of generation and use of renewable energy sources and technologies combined with the lack of an energy monitoring plan and audit seem to be the factors behind low performances in this category.
3.7. Food Security Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) total productivity, (2) local food, (3) breeds adapted for local conditions, (4) off-farm feed and (5) food quality and traceability.
This category’s leader is Italy, while the average score of Greek farms is the lowest (Figure 5
a). The differences between the two countries provide an indication of the importance of locally produced livestock products in their agricultural economies—for instance, in Greece there are 21 PDO cheeses compared to 47 in Italy. There is room for improvement in this category for all farms due to a frequent dependency on feed produced off-farm and lack of food quality and traceability certifications.
3.8. Agricultural Systems Diversity Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) cropland diversity, (2) livestock diversity, (3) marketing and (4) on farm processing.
Diversification in sheep and goat supply chain, including low diversity of marketing options, is an important element of socioeconomic sustainability. As demonstrated in Figure 5
b, this spur has the lowest average and median score across all categories. Among the participating countries, Italy scores borderline over 3.5. The lack of diversity of the farming system in both the number of species and the number of breeds and restricted choices in marketing outlets are the main causes for poor performance.
3.9. Social Capital Score
It draws on the subthemes (1) employment, (2) skills and knowledge, (3) community engagement, (4) public access and (5) human health.
Regarding social capital, as shown in Figure 6
a, Finland and Italy, the latter with large variability, appear to rank highest, while Greece underperforms. The remaining countries performed similarly. The number of employees and a general lack of training programs for farm personnel are the drivers in the employment domain, while the lack of public access to farms and of engagement with the community have an important impact on the results. Low performance in this spur also reflects informal employment arrangements on many of the farms examined.
3.10. Farm Business Resilience Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) farm resilience, (2) flexibility, (3) vision/strategy and (4) information searching/networking.
b depicts how the farm performs as a business and how productive and profitable it is. French and Finnish farms appear to be the most resilient and keep an open communication channel with the sector and the supply chain stakeholders. On the other hand, Greece is the least resilient, partially as a result of the general economic crisis, which also affected the economic performance of farms [24
], followed by Turkey, where farms tend not to have many sources of income and have not carried out investments as planned. Overall low performances in this spur demonstrate the lack of entrepreneurial organization of the sheep and goat farms investigated and a relatively low focus on issues relating to strategic management, long-term planning and monitoring of performance.
3.11. Animal Health Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) staff resources, (2) animal health and (3) biosecurity.
As shown on Figure 7
a, United Kingdom and Finland lead the Animal Health spur—with Spain and Italy following closely—as they perform in a satisfactory way in all categories. Greece and Turkey, although they perform better than they do in other spurs, appear to be less sustainable in this dimension. This result reflects the tendency of farms in these countries to introduce animals into mating groups at younger ages, while they also lack planning to ensure animal health and biosecurity issues.
3.12. Animal Welfare Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) ability to perform natural behaviors, (2) housing and (3) feeding.
This category depicts the farm’s behavior towards its livestock and presents the highest scores among all spurs. United Kingdom is the leader, as shown in Figure 7
b, mainly due to the higher time allocated to animals for grazing and to the better housing conditions for livestock. Although all countries on average perform better than in other spurs, Turkey and Greece are ranked lowest.
3.13. Governance Score
It draws on the subthemes: (1) ethics, (2) accountability, (3) participation, (4) rule of law and (5) holistic management.
As shown on Figure 8
, Greece and Turkey have very low average scores and a high variability in farm scores in the governance spur. In Greece, low performance is related to the poor connection of farms with stakeholders downstream in the supply chain, resulting in production which sometimes does not match the requirements of the market. For Turkish farms, on the other hand, the lack of cooperation, change and information regarding innovation in farming practices and tools are the main drivers of low scores. Spain achieves the highest score demonstrating a relatively higher level of integration of supply chain stakeholders and participatory governance approaches.
The results show the sustainability performance in each country, portrayed by theme. Finland appears to be the most sustainable among the seven participating countries, ranking first in 5 out of 13 categories, and being above average in all categories. Water management, soil management and fertilizer management prove that the preservation of the natural capital is a goal for farmers, while the excellent performance in landscape and heritage and the social capital spur prove that the society and the preservation of their lands are important to them.
United Kingdom and Italy perform higher than average in all categories and each one respectively leads three categories. Specifically, UK leads the animal health, animal welfare and agri-environmental management spurs, all relating to higher environmental and welfare standards. Italy, on the other hand, leads the energy and carbon, food security diversity spurs, which are all in-line with the 2030 UN sustainability goals that are vastly important for EU’s sustainability agenda. Therefore, Finnish, UK and Italian farms can be regarded as reasonably sustainable.
France and Spain each rank the highest only in farm business resilience and governance spurs respectively. Both economics and governance were identified by SAFA as being important contributors to overall sustainability. At the same time, they both rank, on average, above the mean for each spur, which shows their overall acceptable performance in all dimensions of sustainability.
Turkey underperforms in the sustainability assessment in comparison to the countries mentioned above. Although Turkish farms score higher than average regarding social capital and water management and marginally higher regarding food security; its performance is very low in all other categories. Greece achieves the lowest performance in almost all categories and underperforms in the remaining ones. The reason for lower economic performance relates to the country’s economic crisis, which burdens farms with higher expenses and lower margins. Greece faces the challenges common to other countries—for instance, the lack of a younger generation entering agriculture [26
] and of a work force willing to invest time and money in more sustainable patterns of livestock production with a long-term perspective. Nonetheless, although the challenge is common, in Greece it is coupled with persistent structural problems relating to small farm size and a lack of an enabling regulatory framework, impacting the sustainability performance of farms.
In the Horizon 2020 project SOLID, the PG Tool was used to compare 70 organic and 32 low input dairy farms in nine countries across Europe [15
]; however, goat farms were only studied in Belgium, Spain and Greece. In both the iSAGE and SOLID studies, the Agricultural System Diversity and Agri-Environmental Management spurs achieved the lowest scores. The PG Tool in the SOLID project included more information on the grasslands and sheep and goat breeds than the iSAGE PG Tool, so the results are not directly comparable. On the other hand, animal health and welfare was the leading spur in both studies, which raises questions regarding the influence of the subjective opinions of respondents on the final results. Comparing the results per country, both studies have Greece performing the lowest on average.
The findings should be considered in the light of some limitations introduced by the SA Tool and the small sample size, in particular, farmers’ subjective responses and incomplete information in some cases. However, this study demonstrated some trends regarding the overall sustainability of the European sheep and goat sector that should attract significant scientific attention. In addition, these results highlight priorities to enhance the overall sustainability of sheep and goat production and are thus of equal importance in the formulation of future policy. For both these domains, further and larger scale studies at the European level are needed to provide more detailed and statistically important results as well as more generally applicable measures and interventions.
Sustainability considerations are at the center of discussions about the future of agriculture globally. The livestock sector in Europe is under scrutiny and is challenged by sustainability issues. The small ruminant sector must adopt sustainable practices and principles in order to become more resilient and competitive. In this study, a sustainability assessment was conducted across sheep and goat farms in six European countries and Turkey. The results revealed that all farm types in all countries are facing challenges regarding their overall sustainability. It would appear from this study that both Greek and Turkish farmers are struggling the most while Finnish, Italian and UK farms seem to be addressing sustainability challenges in a more coherent way, introducing or fostering sustainable production practices and innovations. However, these are indicative results and further research is required in order to have a clear depiction of the sector.
This initial study has provided an averaged indication of the sustainability of the industry in each country. To truly promote a sustainable industry and to provide livelihoods for the regions sheep and goat farmers, further assessments of a much larger number of farms are necessary. In addition, other methods of analyzing the data, e.g., clustering, may be useful to determine the reasons why certain farms underperform as opposed to others. Each spur should be examined in depth and recognition given to the different climatic zones and methods of farming (by typology) in each country. At the same time, social and economic analysis of the sector and recording and evaluation of state level initiatives and incentives for each country may provide useful information as to what improvements can be made in order to achieve the maximum results in regard to sustainability.