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Sustainability assessment of two systems of ecological farming in the province of Tungurahua, Ecuador

E Cruz, E Quinga, I Arnelas, E Ibarra and D Risco

Facultad de Ciencias Agropecuarias, Universidad Técnica de Ambato. Sector El Tambo - La Universidad,
vía Quero - Cevallos, Tungurahua, 1801334, Ecuador


The study of sustainability of agroecosystems has become a necessity due to the problems associated with the development of conventional agriculture. This article study the sustainability of two farms in the province of Tungurahua, Ecuador, “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco”, which were evaluated considering three dimensions: ecological, economic and social.

The results showed that both farms meet the basic criteria to be considered sustainable in all dimensions. “Llano Blanco” farm had greater diversity of breeding animals and “La Granja” farm had greater diversification in crop production. The weakness on this study was established in the biodiversity indicator for both farms and the socio-cultural indicators in the case of “La Granja” farm.

Keywords: agroecosystems, ecological, economic, indicators, social


Conventional agriculture, which aims to increase production, may adversely affect ecosystem components and processes. Its widespread use (monocultures, agrochemicals) adversely affects many components that regulate and control the ecosystem, including nutrient cycling in the soil, water quality, pollination and pest control (Power 2010). Furthermore, the development of high input technologies (mechanization, agrochemicals, and seeds) turns out to be socially and economically uneven, as farmers lose their autonomy and become dependent. Conversely, agroecology or sustainable agriculture seeks to not only maximizing the production of a component but optimizing agricultural ecosystem in ecological, economic and social dimensions (Altieri 2002). These low input systems are usually developed by poor farmers for their own consumption and tend to make a more sustainable use of natural resources due to the coevolution of farmers with their environment (Altieri 1995). For small farmers is necessary to achieve food sovereignty with the aim to expand the good agronomic practices and broaden the role of agroecology (Baudron et al 2012).

The degree of efficiency in the implementation of agro-ecological systems is measured through sustainability. A system will be sustainable if it is economically viable, ecologically sound and culturally and socially acceptable (Astier et al 2011). The concept of sustainability is complex because it involves fulfilling simultaneously several goals: productive, ecological, social, cultural, economic and temporal (Sarandón and Flores 2009), but it is useful because it captures a set of concerns about the viability of agro-ecological systems (Altieri 2002).

As the term sustainability becomes more important, also it becomes more difficult to define precisely. The assessment of sustainability then becomes a key strategy to operationalize the concept (López-Ridaura et al 2005). Several authors have proposed assessing sustainability resorting to the use of indicators (Andreoli and Tellarini 2000; Bosshard 2000; Sarandón 2002; Van Cauwenbergh et al 2007). However, it is necessary to know that there is not a universal set of indicators; an indicator can be useful in a system and inappropriate in another. Knowler and Bradshaw (2007) conclude that the lack of a universal or consistent set of variables that characterize the successful adoption of agro practices need to be customized to local conditions. It is intended that the methodology is simple, affordable and allow assessing those aspects that compromise the achievement of sustainability on agricultural systems. Given the multidimensionality of sustainability, there is more than one dimension or objective analysis, therefore, should develop a set of indicators to assess the degree of compliance with each of these objectives. According to Altieri (2002), agroecology covers three dimensions: ecological, economic and socio-cultural, and should be indicators for each of these dimensions.

Tungurahua, a province of Ecuador, and the ecuatorian Andes, have small production systems, where poor farmers make a diversified production, usually devoted to consumption. The aim of this study was to determinate if these systems meet the requirements to be considered as sustainable.

Materials and methods

The study was conducted in 2012 in two farms of ecological production, “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco”, located in the province of Tungurahua (Ecuador), with an area of one hectare devoted to agriculture. They were selected because they have an agro- ecological management for at least five years, their area comprise the average size of Tungurahua farms and they can be taken as a reference for future research.

For the evaluation of sustainability, proposed methodology by Sarandón (2002) was followed with adaptations to the situation analysis. From the ecological, economic-productive and socio-cultural dimensions, a number of indicators were developed to assess the degree of compliance with each of the objectives. Following the proposals of Sarandón and Flores (2009), for each dimension different levels of evaluation, named category of analysis, descriptors and indicators were defined.

To allow comparison of farms and facilitate analysis of the dimensions of the established sustainability, data were standardized by transformation into a scale for each indicator, of 0 to 4, with 4 being the highest value of sustainability and 0 the lowest (Sarandón 2002). All values, regardless of their original unit, were adapted to this scale. The principle of strong sustainability, which considers the satisfaction of the producer cannot be achieved at the cost of resource degradation and weighted with equal weight the ecological component, is admitted.

The following parameters of sustainability assessment were established:

A. Ecological dimension

A. 1. Soil category

A. 1. 1. Preservation of life on the ground descriptor

A. 1. 1. 1. Vegetation cover indicator: Percentage of soil covered. (4) 100%; (3) 99% - 75%; (2) 74% - 50%; (1) 49% - 25%; (0) <25%.

A. 1. 2. Soil quality descriptor: Sampling was conducted in the topsoil and the following parameters were analyzed.

A. 1. 2. 1. Organic matter content indicator: (4) 3.50% - 3.10%; (3) 3.09% - 2.50%; (2) 2.49% - 2.35%; (1) 2.34% - 2.00%; (0) <1.99%.

A. 1. 2. 2. Carbon / Nitrogen ratio indicator: (4) >13; (3) 13 – 11; (2) <11 – 9; (1) <9 – 8; (0) <8.

A. 1. 2. 3. Electrical conductivity (dS/m) indicator: (4) <2.00; (3) 2.00 – 4.00; (2) 4.01 – 8.00; (1) 8.01 – 12.00; (0) >12.00.

A. 1. 2. 4. Soil pH indicator: (4) 7.3 – 6.5; (3) 6.4 – 6.0; (2) 5.9 – 5.5; (1) 5.4 – 4.5; (0) <4.5.

A. 2. Water irrigation category

A. 2. 1. Water quality descriptor

A. 2. 1. 1. Electrical conductivity (dS/m) indicator: Water irrigation (4) 0.75 – 2.10; (3) 2.11 – 3.45; (2) 3.46 – 4.80; (1) 4.81 – 6.15; (0) 6.16 – 7.50.

A. 3. Biodiversity category

A. 3. 1. Crop biodiversity descriptor

A. 3. 1. 1. Temporal diversity indicator: (4) they rotate all crops, leave the soil rest and incorporate legumes and green manures; (3) they rotate every year and don´t leave the soil rest; (2) they rotate every two or three cycles; (1) they make rotations eventually; (0) they don´t do rotations.

A. 3. 1. 2. Spatial diversity indicator: (4) establishment fully diversified, with association between them and natural vegetation; (3) high crop diversification, with average association between them; (2) average diversification, with very low level of association between them; (1) little crop diversification; (0) monoculture.

A. 3. 1. 3. Forest diversity (species) indicator: (4) 6 or more; (3) 5; (2) 4; (1) 3; (0) 2 or 1.

A. 3. 2. Soil fauna descriptor

A. 3. 2. 1. Soil fauna (worms/m2) indicator: Three samples per hectare were carried out at 40 cm depth. (4) >80; (3) 80 – 60; (2) 59 – 40; (1) 39 – 20; (0) <20.

B. Economic – productive dimension

B. 1. Economic efficiency category

B. 1. 1. Productivity descriptor

B. 1. 1. 1. Production indicator: (4) very high; (3) high (2) medium; (1) low; (0) zero.

B. 1. 2. Income descriptor

B. 1. 2. 1. Monthly net income (USD) indicator: (4) 534 – 485; (3) 484 – 437; (2) 436 – 339; (1) 339 – 290; (0) 289 – 242.

B. 2. Economic risk category

B. 2. 1. Surplus for sale descriptor

B. 2. 1. 1. Diversification for sale (products) indicator: (4) 6 or more; (3) 5 – 4; (2) 3; (1) 2; (0) 1.

B. 3. Food self-sufficiency category

B. 3. 1. Food self-sufficiency descriptor

B. 3. 1. 1. Diversity in production (products) indicator: (4) 9 or more; (3) 8 – 7; (2) 6 – 4; (1) 3 – 2; (0) 1.

B. 3. 1. 2. Diversity in breeding animals (species) indicator: (4) 4 or more; (3) 3; (2) 2; (1) 1; (0) 0.

B. 3. 1. 3. Subsistence production area (ha) indicator: (4) >1.00; (3) 1.00 – 0.50; (2) 0.49 – 0.30; (1) 0.29 – 0.10; (0) <0.10.

B. 3. 2. Dependence on external inputs descriptor

B. 3. 2. 1. Dependence on agricultural inputs indicator: (4) 0 – 20%; (3) 21 – 40%; (2) 41 – 60%; (1) 61 – 80%; (0) 81 – 100%.

C. Socio-cultural dimension

C. 1. Producer satisfaction category

C. 1. 1. Acceptability production system descriptor

C. 1. 1. 1. Producer acceptability indicator: (4) he is very happy with what he does, he would not do other activities although this will net more revenue; (3) he is satisfied, but used to work in better conditions; (2) he is not fully satisfied, he continues because he does not know other jobs; (1) he is not very satisfied, he would work on other activities; (0) he is unhappy, he would not work anymore in this activity.

C. 2. Relationship with nature category

C. 2. 1. Knowledge and ecological awareness descriptor

C. 2. 1. 1. Knowledge and environmental awareness indicator: (4) he conceives ecology from a broad view beyond his farm and meet their principles; (3) he has a knowledge of the ecology from his daily practice. His knowledge is reduced to the farm with no use of agrochemicals and conservation practices; (2) he has a partial view of ecology. He think that some practices may be harming the environment; (1) he does not have an ecological knowledge or know the consequences that can cause some practices; (0) without any ecological awareness. He makes an aggressive practice to the environment.

C. 3. Quality of life category

C. 3. 1. Satisfaction of basic needs descriptor

C. 3. 1. 1. Access to health indicator: (4) private doctor; (3) health center with permanent doctors and adequate infrastructure; (2) center poorly equipped and temporary staff; (1) poorly equipped health center without qualified staff; (0) no hospital.

C. 3. 1. 2. Housing indicator: (4) very good, reinforced concrete; (3) good, block, stone or brick with internal structure; (2) regular, block, stone or brick unfinished or damaged; (1) bad, adobe, mud, deteriorated; (0) very poor, precarious materials or waste.

C. 3. 1. 3. Access to education indicator: (4) access to higher education and/or course training; (3) access to secondary school; (2) access to primary and secondary school with restrictions; (1) access to primary school; (0) without access to education.

C. 3. 1. 4. Basic services indicator: (4) full installation of potable water, electricity and telephone line; (3) installation of water and electricity; (2) installation of electricity and well water; (1) no installation of electricity and water nearby well; (0) no electricity or water source nearby.

Farms visits were conducted to observe the environmental, economic and social conditions and to determine the indicators that were taken directly and indirectly. The data of the environmental dimension were taken into the field on the surface of crops and the economic and social dimensions through questionnaires to farmers.

Once the data collected and indicators constructed, the results were plotted in a graph type of spider web, used by various authors (Gómez et al 1996; Astier et al 2002; Sarandón et al 2006a). This allowed detection of critical points of each system, to give an idea of the distance between the current and ideal situation. In turn, it synthesized numerous important information and allowed a general, global and holistic view of the problem (Sarandón 2002).

Results and discussion

The methodology proved to be a suitable tool to assess the sustainability of agroecosystems management. It allowed the transformation of complex issues in clear, objective and general values that allowed us to evaluate the impact of management practices have on the sustainability of agroecosystems.

The use of indicators allowed detecting, despite the similarity between farms, a high variability in the overall sustainability and ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimensions. On average, more sustainable management in all dimensions corresponded to the “Llano Blanco” farm compared to “La Granja” farm (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Global sustainability of “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco” farms
Ecological dimension

From the ecological point of view, management practices demonstrated a positive impact on soil, water and biodiversity resources, with a higher value of sustainability at the “Llano Blanco” farm that in “La Granja” farm (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sustainability of the ecological dimension of “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco” farms.

Both farms obtained the highest values in the indicators of diversification and crop rotation (Figure 2). In ecosystems with species of plants interspersed it reduces the risk of pests and diseases (Kirkegaard et al 2008) and facilitates weed control (Farooq et al 2011), due to the fact that in diversified system there is a greater abundance and diversity of natural enemies of pests, keeping under control the populations of individual species of herbivores (Altieri 2002). Moreover, the most ecologically diverse systems are able to be more productive (Astier et al 2011).

The highest values of sustainability in the organic matter content and the carbon / nitrogen ratio in the two farms studied (Figure 2) were also obtained. The soil organic matter is an integrator of various soil functions and is a key component of soil quality and viability of many components of the agroecosystems (Palm et al 2007). It has been documented that, with the continued development of agro-ecological practices increases soil organic matter, and soil erosion is reduced (Boulal et al 2011a) thus improving fertility and soil structure (Govaerts et al 2007), water infiltration and retention in the root zone (Verhulst et al 2010).

Conversely, biodiversity values did not reach desirable levels of sustainability, especially in "La Granja” farm as indicators showed forest diversity and soil fauna (Figure 2). Biodiversity is often considered essential for the viability of agro-ecosystem components and especially for the stability of these components (Naeem et al 2012). Agro-ecological management practices can affect habitat adaptability to soil pathogens or alter the composition of the community of predators or parasites of disease – producing organisms compared to conventional practices. The combined effects of agro-ecology lead to a more stable and diverse soil, including fungal and bacterial species that can suppress pathogens (Verhulst et al 2010).

Economic-productive dimension

 In the economic-productive dimension, a considerable variation between the two farms analyzed is recorded (Figure 3). On “La Granja” farm, the average profitability is observed, with low values of sustainability indicators of productivity, dependence on agricultural inputs and diversity of breeding animals (Figure 3). On “La Granja” farm there were only bees while in “Llano Blanco” farm there were sheep, guinea pigs, rabbits, goats and tilapia. A greater diversity of breeding animals mean not only an economic advantage but also less dependency on external inputs like organic manure. However, on “La Granja” farm, economic risk is cushioned due to the high values on indicators of productive diversity and variety for sale.

In “Llano Blanco” farm, sustainability high values were obtained in all indicators confirming the priority given food self – sufficiency (Figure 3). The overall financial risk was well managed in both farms due to good diversification of production. The economic objectives are the main concern for farmers, above the ecological or cultural (Sarandón et al 2006b).

Figure 3. Sustainability of the economic dimension of “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco” farms.
Socio-cultural dimension.

Within the socio-cultural dimension, not critical values were found in any of the two farms analyzed, with the lowest values in “La Granja” farm, for indicators of access to education and knowledge and environmental awareness (Figure 4). In agro-ecosystems analysis, the perception and interpretation that farmers make of their relationships with the environment plays a central role; that is, ideas about nature are essential from the agro-ecological approach (Worster 1991). Moreover, organic agriculture should provide a good quality of life, contributing to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty.

Figure 4. Sustainability of the social dimension of “La Granja” and “Llano Blanco” farms

Both farms analyzed show in general an agroecological management so they can serve as a basis for future studies in the region of Tungurahua and the rest of the ecuadorian Andes.



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Received 5 October 2015; Accepted 21 June 2016; Published 1 July 2016

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