ETH News: This year, the Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS) is celebrating 150 years of Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich. What events do you consider milestones?
Nina Buchmann: It isn’t easy to sum up 150 years in two sentences, and whether something qualifies as a milestone depends on who you ask. We’ve put together a series of highlights on our website www.agri150.ethz.ch. Taking a closer look, I’m particularly struck by the degree of change in research and teaching, but also in the organisation.
What changes are noteworthy?
Agricultural Sciences at ETH began with two professors and five students. Now there are 12 professors and some 400 students. There have been radical changes in research, sometimes in the context of the prevailing zeitgeist, but also in response to the changing demands on the discipline. For a very long time, Agricultural Sciences were almost exclusively concerned with food production. Today, the focus is on sustainability, in areas such as sustainable farming methods and agroecology. The second aspect that has changed a great deal is our approach to research. Over time, we’ve moved away from thinking in terms of individual measures and have found our way to systems thinking. Agricultural Sciences have networked with other disciplines, including social and environmental sciences. And last but not least, our agricultural research has taken on an international dimension. We’re no longer primarily concerned with agriculture in Switzerland, but also in the countries of the global South. That really impresses me, and it also shows what sets ETH Zurich apart: its ability to change. ETH is often accused of not moving. But we’re constantly moving and changing!
Just ten years ago, Agricultural Sciences stood as a silo of their own. Today, you have to “look for them” in Environmental Systems Science. Does this say anything about their status?
That’s not true. Agricultural Sciences weren’t a silo. Prior to the 2012 merger, they were together with Food Science in one department (D-AGRL), with joint research and teaching. What’s more, D-AGRL maintained many links with the Environmental Sciences even then. Immediately after the merger of the Institute of Agricultural Sciences with the Department of Environmental Sciences, we investigated who in D-USYS collaborated with whom in research – and it turned out our institute was the one that had the strongest networks with other institutes in the department. We also maintained our connection with Food Science. The World Food System Center, which I had the privilege of launching with others as its founding director in 2011, shows how well networked we have always been and continue to be. These days, there are 46 professorships from 7 ETH Zurich departments as well as several EAWAG working groups affiliated with it.
But aren’t there still voices that accuse ETH of performing only basic research and forgetting about agricultural practice?
We’re a university, not a university of applied sciences, and we don’t conduct departmental research. But our offer complements that of the other Swiss institutions in the agricultural information and innovation system. After all, we can’t and shouldn’t do everything. You can’t be at the top of the international rankings – which both ETH as a whole and the various disciplines in D-USYS, including Agricultural Sciences, regularly are – and at the same time seek to address very specific practical needs. We are the only research university in Switzerland that offers Agricultural Sciences. Yes, we do basic research, but with the aim of making our findings applicable in practice.
What are currently the most important fields of research?
We work in the three “classic” fields of plant sciences, animal sciences, and agricultural economics and policy. Together, these disciplines make up the Agricultural Sciences and are embedded in the concept of the food system.
What research goals are you pursuing?
First and foremost, we want to understand agricultural systems and use this knowledge to help develop sustainable solutions to address global challenges such as climate change, resource overexploitation and biodiversity loss. We’re doing this using both traditional methods and modern approaches such as robotics and digitalisation. We conduct research primarily at the system level, locally to globally. In our research on food systems, for example, we want to figure out how to make them more sustainable and resilient. We need to learn how to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, but also how to adapt to them if we can’t prevent them. We need to think about how we can ensure food security even under these conditions. This is where our basic research comes in: not just on new plant varieties and suitable seed mixtures, but also on smart farming methods for our soils so that they release fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The pressure on agriculture is increasing, and not only because of climate change. Soils are becoming salinised, and soil fertility and biodiversity are declining worldwide.
Yes, and that’s why we need to conduct research on many areas and really do something: not just with regulations, but with insights. Soon there will be 10 billion people living on Earth – and it will be possible to feed them all, just not in the same way as before. Ultimately, we need to implement sustainability holistically, which means going beyond the “ecology corner of the sustainability triangle” and also include the economy and the society.
Why should farmers include biodiversity in their considerations?
Based on my own research in my group and in collaboration with Robert Finger’s Agricultural Economics group, I can say that biodiversity is a production factor in grasslands and therefore also in forage production. We were able to demonstrate that increased biodiversity not only increases yields, but it makes grasslands more stable in the face of environmental influences – and we showed that this really pays off. I strongly suspect that more biodiversity will pay off in arable farming and agroforestry, too. Then, although a drought or a late frost might cause the yield of one crop species to drop by 20 percent, the yield of another might increase. Importantly, there would be no total failure of the kind a monoculture might suffer. Moreover, even under normal conditions, one species benefits from the other. The inclusion of biodiversity in agricultural economic considerations is likely to gain even more momentum with digitalisation.
What are the latest developments in teaching?
In teaching, we completed a reform of the degree programme in 2016. From the outset, it was clear that education at the Bachelor’s level should be broad, encompassing the aforementioned pillars of plants, animals, economics and politics. This is followed by specialisation in the Master’s programme. We again incorporated an internship on a Swiss farm into the Bachelor’s degree. The Master’s degree was extended from three to four semesters to include an additional research internship. Another aspect that has changed over the past 30 years is that we now place more emphasis on quantitative skills, that is, on data analysis and evaluation, as well as on writing up and presenting the results and findings. These are good skills to develop not only in science, but also for professional life.
Has the reform of the degree programme paid off?
Yes. From what we hear, the programme is very well received both by students and by those who later hire the graduates. Almost all graduates have a job eight months after graduation. The spectrum is extremely diverse, from NGOs, industrial and retail companies to agricultural schools. But the list of employers extends to banks, service providers, insurance companies and public administration, too. About 15 percent go on to pursue a doctorate.
How will teaching and research develop in the future?
In terms of topics, digitalisation in agriculture is certainly a given – with Smart Farming and Agriculture 4.0 as keywords. This will involve applications of artificial intelligence, for example using image recognition in weed control. Topics such as how we manage resources – water, fertiliser, soil – in an environmentally friendly way aren’t going away. In teaching, the focus will be on dealing with large amounts of data.
You will soon be handing over as department head. What were your personal highlights or important experiences?
I’ve now been Chair of the department for four years and Deputy Chair for five years before that, which makes a total of nine years in the leadership of the department. It was a lot of work, but there were also many enjoyable moments. Since the merger of Agricultural Sciences with D-UWIS, we’ve achieved a lot, not only organisationally but also in research and teaching. One aspect that has certainly been worthwhile over these years is to have an open communication with clear goals. Another one has been to show openness, appreciation and interest in the people of the department and in their work. That’ll get you a long way, and it’s an experience I’m happy to take with me.
What are you going to do next?
First of all, I’m going to catch my breath and take a six-month sabbatical. I’ve never given up research and teaching. I’ll be taking back a few of the things I’ve had to delegate. I will continue to be involved in the rETHink project. In addition, some new projects have got underway in my research group, and some applications are still pending. So I certainly won’t be bored.