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Key Indicators of Agroecosystem Sustainability (APBI 361)

Offered by the University of British Columbia

This course builds on general knowledge in biological sciences and weaves together biological, social, and economic aspects of sustainability. The approach is both practical and conceptual. Quantitative and qualitative indicators of sustainability in conventional and organic agriculture are considered in order to assess the direction and degree of sustainability of a farm or a farming system with real-life examples from both. Sustainable policy initiatives are analyzed critically. Social, economic, and political indicators of sustainability are related to agroecosystem management.

The course has five modules:

Module 1: What is Sustainability and How Do We Measure It?

How to define and measure sustainability? What needs to be sustained?

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Explain and discuss general quantitative and qualitative indicators of sustainability in agriculture in order to assess the sustainability of a farm;
  • Relate agroecosystem management to social and political indicators of sustainability, including equity and community development;
  • Explain and discuss the sustainability links and factors between the farm and the rest of the society, locally, nationally, and globally.

Module 2: Agriculture on the Urban Fringe

Examination of an organic farm in Western Canada and floriculture in Mexico City.

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Relate agroecosystem management to social and political indicators of sustainability, including equity and community development;
  • Explain and discuss how location of the farm and urbanization affect ecological, social, and economic sustainability;
  • Explore how social systems in the 'North' and the 'South' affect the sustainability of agriculture on the urban fringe.

Module 3: What's Ticking on the Prairies?

Prairie ecology and how agriculture has changed it. Soil risks and indicators. Proposed remedies.

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Describe and discuss how agriculture has changed the 'natural' prairie soil ecosystem and its functions;
  • Describe and discuss prairie soil and climate characteristics and their role for agriculture;
  • Describe the role of soil organic matter for soil structure, fertility, and hydrology;
  • Describe and discuss soil Carbon and organic matter as indicators of soil sustainability;
  • Compare and contrast indicators of soil health in different management approaches;
  • Explain the role of animals for soil sustainability.

Module 4: Environmental Farm Planning for Organic Livestock Production

Prevention is the best policy. What's all this rot about composting? How does environmental farm planning differ when poultry are integrated into mixed farming systems?

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Explain and discuss quantitative and qualitative indicators of sustainability in conventional and organic agriculture in order to assess the direction and degree of sustainability of a farm or a farming system;
  • Discuss the impacts of organic fertilizers and soil amendments on vegetable production systems, including soil fertility, food safety and environmental protection;
  • Discuss the important interactions between different agricultural systems, conventional and organic;
  • List and explain the important factors for effective on-farm composting;
  • Discuss the roles and functions of poultry in sustainable agricultural systems.

Module 5: The Process of Creating Organic Standards

Creating organics standards and inspection procedures. Who wags the tail of organic standards? Analyzing organic standards.

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Identify and discuss in general the various parties and their interests that affect how organic standards and inspection procedures are set;
  • Discuss and describe the development of the Canadian organic standards;
  • Discuss the influence of a diverse agricultural base on the setting of national standards;
  • Discuss what social/political indicators could be used to measure the sustainability of the process of setting organic standards.

The course spans 13 weeks and includes assignments that can be submitted online and, for academic credit students, an on-line final examination. Participation in the on-line discussions is required for credit students. The course may be taken on a non-credit basis.


Please visit the University of British Columbia's website or more information and to register.