In this interview, Head of Agroscope Michael Gysi comments on the new 2018–21 Work Programme (WP 2018-21), and on how it takes account of the major challenges of the future as well as the needs of agricultural and food sector practitioners.
Agroscope is kicking off the year with a new work programme, WP 2018–21. In your opinion, what are the distinguishing features of this programme?
Michael Gysi: Today’s agriculture and food sector has to reconcile hugely conflicting priorities: On the one hand, consumers demand top quality from our vegetables, fruit and meat; on the other, the price must also be right. What’s more, the agricultural sector must fulfil a wide variety of conditions regarding the environment, nature conservation and animal protection. Our new work programme focuses precisely on these conflicting priorities. In addition, our research is meant to help not only farmers but the entire sector to produce in a resource-efficient, and hence sustainable manner, whilst remaining competitive.
What are the main challenges, as you see them?
Michael Gysi: A first, major challenge for the agriculture and food sector is to do with the issue of competitiveness. Here, it’s all about showing how the agricultural sector and the individual farms can continue to improve their competitiveness, e.g. by reducing costs or upgrading product quality. Our research provides farmers with the bases for further developing their production systems so that they can survive in this market. The process is a dynamic one, since consumer needs are constantly changing, and hence the market is too – this, be it noted, irrespective of the issue of possible market liberalisation.
The market is one thing, but the other issue is the needs of nature and the environment. Pressure from this quarter has increased noticeably of late.
Michael Gysi: Yes, pressure has in fact continued to increase, and the demands made on agricultural production are high. Here, it’s all about how to handle resources more sustainably and efficiently. In this regard we have a major responsibility, since the protection of the soil, water, air, and species diversity are crucial for the feeding of future generations. That’s why we don’t just concern ourselves with more efficient production systems, but also simultaneously explore how we can produce in an environmentally friendly and humane, yet cost-efficient manner. The keywords here, for example, are plant protection and plant breeding.
And the third area?
Michael Gysi: There, it’s all about expanding opportunities and reducing risks. We know that advances in technology and breeding are powerful levers for the sustainable development of the food system. We also know, however, that owing to climate change and increased travel, new plants and animals are being introduced to Switzerland and are establishing a foothold here. The risk of new diseases being introduced is likewise genuine, and shouldn’t be underestimated. Hence, we must aim to have production systems that are resilient and less susceptible to risk. The same applies in the field of nutrition, where we are committed to producing safe, healthy food. But greater safety and lower risks are also achieved by producing lower emissions overall, and reducing environmental impacts. This is the focus of our research in this field.
And what’s new about that?
Michael Gysi: What’s new is that we’re focusing directly on these challenges. That’s why we’ve formulated 17 so-called ‘strategic research areas’ (SRAs) that focus on these challenges as the basis of the new work programme. All 117 projects of the new work programme are clearly geared to the aims and issues of the research areas, and contribute to our knowledge about them. This means that Agroscope has a new thematic management approach to research, which demands increased cooperation. Never before have we worked in such an integrated fashion as we will be doing in the new work programme. This is a major step forward with respect to the previous organisation.
But one which requires a greater need for coordination?
Michael Gysi: That’s true, right enough, but it also lets us conduct research in a more in-depth, joined-up fashion. Not only does this increase the quality and breadth of the research findings, it also brings about a greater diversity in Agroscope’s activities. This is also reflected in the day-to-day life of our people, who in future will be required to cooperate in a much more interdisciplinary manner.
Can you give us an example of this?
Michael Gysi: Take the improvement in agricultural production. Because the whole of the agricultural production chain from field to table is affected, plant-breeding specialists combine their research findings with those from the spheres of plant protection, storage and agricultural economics.
You say that Agroscope’s new work programme helps us tackle the main challenges facing the Swiss agriculture and food sector. Let’s take plant protection as a concrete example here. What services does Agroscope provide in this field of research?
Michael Gysi: Here, we envisage that some day, our agricultural sector will be able to get by without synthetic plant-protection products, i.e. without chemicals. This doesn’t happen overnight, but we want to move deliberately in this direction, and so we’ve geared our research towards achieving this. In concrete terms, we research for answers to the question of which measures can be deployed by farmers to prevent diseases and pests leading to heavy losses in both yield and quality in plant production. This requires us to have an in-depth knowledge of the diseases and pests, which will allow us to develop new strategies for lowering the risks of chemical plant-protection products – risks of which society is increasingly aware and critical.
And what role is Agroscope playing in the digitisation of the agriculture and food sector?
Michael Gysi: It is obvious that the agriculture and food sector will have to get to grips with digitisation, like all other sectors of the economy. Data- and Internet technology allows the agricultural sector to link its data more effectively, and thus develop resource-saving measures. Today, for example, there are already tractors – equipped with ingenious sensor systems – that provide a detailed analysis of soil composition. This means that seed can be sown and fertiliser spread in a targeted manner, avoiding unnecessary losses. Sensor technology can also be used with animals, for example with cows, with noseband and leg sensors continuously providing data on the animals’ state of health.
Big Brother in the cowshed?
Michael Gysi: Yes, digitisation doesn’t stop at the farm, which is all to the benefit of agriculture. That’s why it’s important to provide scientific support for and investigate this development, to determine what consequences it has for the environment, work quality, profitability, and food safety.
How strongly is the 2018–21 Work Programme geared to the concerns of agricultural practice?
Michael Gysi: Agroscope has always worked hand-in-glove with the needs of practitioners. Not only for agriculture, but also for the food sector, i.e. along the whole of the value chain from pitchfork to table fork; what’s more, the sectoral organisations have always rewarded this. Nevertheless, we have to live with a certain level of criticism, since individuals and organisations often only have their own concerns in mind. Our task, however, is to find a balance between all the competing needs. And on the whole, I’d say we’re managing that just fine.
What are you doing to maintain this practical relevance?
Michael Gysi: For some time now, we’ve had a unique tool for this – the so-called forums. There are over 20 forums in which the various stakeholder groups can communicate with one another as well as with us. In this way, we learn what sort of support practitioners expect and need from us. These forums are very busy; and we’ve specifically carried out a needs assessment for the new Work Programme. Many of the reported concerns from the forums were included in our new Work Programme. The new Competence Divisions for Research Technology and Knowledge Exchange are meant to yield increased exchange with practitioners.
As a Swiss federal centre of excellence, Agroscope also carries out legal enforcement tasks. How important is this work? And, most importantly, what’s changing here?
Michael Gysi: Viewed in terms of the number of jobs, enforcement accounts for just under one-fifth of our activity. In terms of content, however, enforcement tasks are extremely important – I’m thinking here of the Official Feed Control; the assessment of plant-protection products as part of authorisation; variety-testing and certification activities; and the various monitoring programmes. That’s why legal enforcement will remain an important core task for us, even in future.
And policy advice?
Michael Gysi: Though somewhat smaller (accounting for just 15 per cent of our activity), this sector also makes a vital contribution for the public authorities. The policy advice is very closely linked with research. The expert knowledge that we bring to reports, to answers to parliamentary questions, or to administration, comes from the entire research enterprise. The same applies, incidentally, for knowledge transfer, i.e. for the imparting of research knowledge to farming practice.
And what is the value placed on basic research?
Michael Gysi: With Agroscope – unlike with the universities or the federal institutes of technology - application-oriented research is paramount. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact, however, that without basic research there is no applied research. These are the two sides of the coin. Or to put it differently: without basic research, certain activities of ours would not be possible. That’s why Agroscope also conducts basic research, in many fields in close cooperation with universities and other higher-education institutions.
Can you give an example of the interaction between basic research and application-oriented research?
Michael Gysi: By researching the microorganisms in cheese, we at Agroscope are achieving two things: Firstly, we are able to develop the bases for new varieties of cheese. Secondly – and I consider this very important – this research also enables us e.g. to establish the authenticity of Swiss cheeses. With the Emmental AOC or Tête de Moine AOP proof of origin, it is thus possible to protect consumers from fraud through counterfeiting. So you can see that if we wish to tackle and solve real-life problems in the agriculture and food sector, we first need to do the relevant basic research.
But couldn’t the ETH (= Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) just as easily do that? Why do we need Agroscope in addition to the ETH?
Michael Gysi: In certain areas, the ETH has more extensive capabilities; in others, we are better positioned. The agricultural research conducted by the ETH and the research carried out by Agroscope complement one another to a certain extent, even if the brief is quite different, with the ETH, as previously mentioned, mostly conducting basic research with an extremely strong international focus. By contrast, Agroscope has the task of providing practical solutions and contributions to current issues raised within the sector or by the federal government. But we work brilliantly together, as attested to by the fact that for two years now, Agroscope has co-funded a chair in plant breeding at the ETH Zurich. Moreover, we have long-standing experience in the joint handling of research projects. Our advantage is that, thanks to a decent budget and special infrastructure, we are also able to conduct long-term research projects. I’m thinking here, for example, of long-term production system trials, set up over many years.
Is the Work Programme for the next few years now fixed, or do you still have the option of reacting flexibly?
Michael Gysi: No, the Work Programme is not set in stone. We deliberately opted for an approach that affords us greater flexibility. This means that we can react more swiftly to changes in the environment. I’m thinking here primarily of the sudden onset of diseases or pests. Our work in connection with fire blight and Drosophila suzukii shows that we are capable of doing this. We were very pleased here that we had not yet committed all of our financial or staff capacity to other projects. In addition, we’ll keep on asking ourselves whether we’re on course, or whether we need to adapt our work to new challenges. In other words, there will also be adjustments while the Work Programme is being carried out.
Do you have the financial resources for this?
Michael Gysi: Naturally, the financial resources for agricultural research are limited, and are not exempt from spending cuts. Nevertheless, with the new Work Programme we decided to increase the reserves for short-term projects.