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Bean crop using direct seeding under cover. Experiment in Ponta Grossa (Brazil). © INRA, INRA, Stéphane de Tourdonnet

Conservation agriculture: blazing a trail through research

Multicriteria system assessments in conservation agriculture

Agricultural systems maximising conservation agriculture practices in France and in Madagascar have better environmental performance and similar economic performance when compared to conventional tillage systems, but come with a social “cost”.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 02/10/2014
Published on 11/12/2013

Through the PEPITES programme, researchers were able to compare the contribution of various crop systems to three key aspects of sustainable development – the environment, economics, and social concerns (1). To do so, the researchers used an existing multicriteria assessment method, known as MASC, to evaluate stakeholder concerns. The models developed for France and for Madagascar were different, but gave convergent outcomes.

Environment ≥ economics > social concerns!

Outcomes were similar, despite differences between the two countries. For both sets of systems evaluated, the environmental performance of no-till systems was markedly better than conventional tillage systems while economic performance was comparable. However no-till direct seeding systems had poorer social outcomes. This may be due to the increased complexity of implementing such strategies and the health risk to workers caused by the more frequent use of phytosanitary products.

“It must be stated that these assessment outcomes are only tenable when best use can be made of cover crops in the no-till system through long rotations and the judicious choice of intermediary crops” says Frédérique Angevin. “It is only under these conditions that systems achieve their full environmental potential by increasing organic matter stored in the soil, preserving beneficial soil fauna, reducing fossil fuel use, and controlling erosion.”

The benefits of multicriteria assessment

The selected model offers a qualitative solution to the problem of multicriteria assessment, namely how to make a comprehensive assessment of a crop system consisting of multiple, disparate indicators, which may range from the quality of the environment in terms of soil, air, and water, to the productivity and health of the farmer. The MASC model, powered by software known as DEXi, is able to do exactly that (2).
In total, 39 criteria are divided among the three key sustainability elements – the environment, economics, social concerns – in a hierarchical structure that determines their weight within the final assessment. “We ranked the criteria jointly with project stakeholders. Not only did this allow us to calculate the overall sustainability score, but also to calculate the sustainability score of each criterion in the hierarchy. This informed discussions as to the strengths and weaknesses of each system and helped us identify potential changes that would aid farmers improve their practices” says Angevin. In Madagascar, the MASC model, which was developed for Northern European cash crops, became the basis for a modelling project carried out in a spirit of concerted action.

France and Madagascar: two different views of sustainability

“The MASC model also underscores the subjective nature of what constitutes a contribution to sustainable development. When looking at the assessment models for France and for Madagascar, we see that they reflect the concerns of the stakeholders, and really represent two different views of sustainability. The French model has a lot more criteria, as well as criteria for product quality and employment opportunities, reflecting French social expectations. The Malagasy model (MASC-Mada) is simpler, with fewer precise criteria and more economic criteria than environmental ones. For farmers there, the primary aim is to ensure the survival of their farm from one year to the next” says Angevin. The Malagasy model also includes specific criteria like the frequency of rice crops and losses to stray animals.

Ultimately, this kind of model includes both quantitative and qualitative indicators, but the overall sustainability assessment is a qualitative one that allows crop systems to be compared. The model is also highly educational, visual, and has been well received by our agricultural partners” says Angevin.

(1) Project partners: VIVESCIA, CETIOM, ISARA-Lyon, the Dordogne and Eure chambers of agriculture, CIRAD, FOFIFA, and the University of Antananarivo.

(2) DEXi decision-making software site

See the Modelling and Agrosystems report

See the presentation by Frédérique Angevin (Final PEPITES Seminar, Montpellier, France, 27–28 June 2013): Multicriteria assessment of conservation agriculture systems

Scientific contact(s):

  • Frédérique Angevin UAR1240 ECO-INNOV Research Unit for the Ecological Impact of Innovations in Plant Productiongétale
Associated Division(s):
Plant Health and Environment
Associated Centre(s):

Assessed systems

In France, 33 crop systems were evaluated in 10 different French departments, testing tillage, simplified crop techniques, and direct seeding, and with or without maximum use made of cover crop techniques.

In Madagascar, eight systems were evaluated. Of the eight systems, three used tillage, two used a mix of tillage and direct seeding under crop cover, and three used direct seeding under crop cover. Some of the systems required the use of nitrogen fertilisers.


Craheix, D., Angevin, F., Bergez, J.E., Bockstaller, C., Colomb, B., Guichard, L., Reau, R., Doré, T., 2012. MASC 2.0, un outil d’évaluation multicritère pour estimer la contribution des systèmes de culture au développement durable. Innovations Agronomiques 20, 35-48. http://www6.inra.fr/ciag/Revue/Volume-20-Juillet-2012.

Sadok, W., Angevin, F., Bergez, J.E., Bockstaller, C., Colomb, B., Guichard, L., Reau, R., Messéan, A., Doré, T., 2009. MASC, a qualitative multi-attribute decision model for ex ante assessment of the sustainability of cropping systems. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 29, 447-461. DOI: 10.1051/agro/2009006.