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Writing in Nature, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs, and 24 agricultural experts call for a global network to monitor the effects of agriculture on the environment.

Evaluating the social, environmental and economic effects of different farming systems is a key step towards making agriculture sustainable and ensuring food security, say the authors.

Current monitoring efforts are not up to the task. They focus on narrow criteria and are rarely comparable across regions because of inconsistencies in the methods used. And some farming systems, such as traditional pastoralist systems, are frequently under-represented, say the authors.

They argue that data must be collected for a suite of standard metrics in a systematic way, using a common protocol.

The authors are part of an interdisciplinary team already working to develop these metrics and a global network. They estimate that 800 monitoring sites across the world could be connected, and emphasise the importance of building on existing initiatives such as the Africa Soil Information Service.

To achieve this, the authors propose a model akin to the Human Genome Project, built around a decentralised research structure, supported by a central hub for data management.

Reaching a consensus on a set of key metrics and building the project's online infrastructure will require an initial investment of around US$10.5 million, and US$1 million each year after. The costs of monitoring will vary widely by site, say the authors, but they estimate typical monitoring costs up to US$300,000 per year.

The global network could be in place by mid-2012, say the authors.

Link to full article in Nature