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Old MacDonald Had A Research Institute


For decades, agricultural science was neglected in Germany. Due to world hunger, environmental awareness and climate change, it is now finally flourishing again.

Old MacDonald had a research institute© partagasnr4 - Photocase.comAgricultural research is experiencing an upturn both in Germany and internationally
When they hear the name Weihenstephan, most people think of the world's oldest monastic brewery, which has towered on a steep hill above Freisinger Moos for almost a thousand years. Other traditions also survive around the Benedictine abbey: forests, farm animals and field crops have been studied and foodstuffs refined here for 200 years. Initially in the Kurfürstliche Centralbaumschule, today on the modern agricultural research campus of the Technical University Munich (TUM). In its lecture rooms and libraries, greenhouses and laboratories, spread out among sections of woodland and experimental fields still sparse in March, behavioural biologists search for therapies for overstressed laying hens, soil scientists test humus quality, nutritionists survey consumers as to whether they would accept nanotechnical procedures in their food (the French tend to yes, the Germans to no). To name just a few of the wide-ranging scientific interests and disciplines at work in this Upper Bavarian idyll.

Peasants' revolts? They had been considered over and done with since the Sendling Christmas Massacre of 1705. But two years ago, a new "peasants' revolt" broke out on the slopes of Weihenstephan mountain. At least, this is how Gerhard Wenzel, Dean of the Weihenstephan centre, plant breeder and geneticist, caricatures a feud between research policy factions that saw adherents of the life sciences and down-to-earth agricultural scientists clash. Their disagreement rarely flares up nowadays, but it is worth discussing in more detail because the friction is symptomatic of an almost unnoticed, unexpected development: the renaissance of agricultural science. Numerous conflicts of interest accompany this spring-like blossoming, in the course of which the primary sector is reorienting itself to meet the challenges of the future.

They had almost been written off: for more than two decades, the work of agricultural engineers, pig breeders and fruit farmers wasted away in the shadows of political interest. The "iron triangle", as the firmly closed ranks of agricultural science, agribusiness and politics were called, had long one-sidedly concentrated on increasing production. But in view of subsidised overproduction in Europe this seemed increasingly pointless. In the 1980s, factory farming and intensive cultivation methods came under ecological fire. The word farmer became synonymous with overexploitation. And then the students stopped coming. Agriculture? Nothing could be more uncool.

No wonder, then, that precisely these supposedly anachronistic faculties suffered severe losses at the ten agricultural science locations in times of increased financial pressure. From Rostock to Berlin to Gießen, a third of all agricultural science posts has been cut since 1990. Randomly, with no overall concept and often until numbers "fell below critical mass", as the Science Council admonished. All of a sudden, experts for agricultural sociology, animal nutrition or horticulture were vanishingly rare. And now industry representatives like Friedrich Berschauer, CEO of agribusiness giant Bayer Crop Science, are lamenting a "depressing" situation: "We're not getting the brightest minds." That, however, is currently changing; student numbers have risen to almost 10,000, and applicants now increasingly include "young girls with straight-A averages who want to save the world", according to Kurt Jürgen Hülsbergen, Dean of Studies and Professor of Ecological Agriculture at Weihenstephan. And these highly motivated students are not driven merely by youthful exuberance; they have seen the writing on the wall: when soils are eroding worldwide, when water and arable land are becoming scarce and climate change, heavily accelerated by agriculture itself, is causing droughts and floods and unpredictable planting cycles, it falls precisely to agricultural scientists to find solutions.

Hülsbergen is indeed receiving a lot of support. For example for projects where he compares the CO2 cycles and emissions of organic farming with those of conventional farms (results: complex, but in many cases in favour of the organics) or, networked throughout Germany, observes the effects of climate change on soil, water and field crops. The work of phytopathologists like Ralph Hückelhoven, who aims to decode immune system mechanisms in the genomes of barley and other plants, is also receiving greater attention. But the list of challenges facing agriculture doesn't end there: one billion people are starving while the world's population is growing, lifestyle expectations among the expanding middle classes are increasing, and the demand for biomass for energy purposes is endangering the farming of foodstuffs. All interconnected and interacting with each other, all at the same time.

In the last three years, but at least since the food price crisis in 2008 that caused famine revolts worldwide, even the very last deniers in politics and the economy have woken up. Initiatives are multiplying: the Federal Government and the federal states are launching new programmes; Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner plans to announce an "agricultural research alliance" in the summer, and Research Minister Annette Schavan a long-term agricultural research strategy in the autumn for which Schavan has tasked a "BioEconomy Council" with making recommendations. This industry-associated board with supporters from BASF to RWE Innogy aims to prevent "24,000 people, especially children, dying every day; that's the equivalent of 50 fully occupied jumbo jets falling out of the sky!", as Chairman Reinhard Hüttl says. But problems also create new markets. Compared to other countries, Germany's food industry lags behind; its energy and chemical industries are hungry for biological raw materials, creating a thrust that drives and controls the new boom. "Making gold by going green", says Hüttl. But how can it be done "sustainably"?

For the agricultural faculties and the TUM in Freisinger Moos, the greater value placed on their complex of disciplines means restructuring is required: according to what priorities should their research be organised to best meet the challenges of the future? This question was one cause of the "peasants' revolt" at Weihenstephan mountain. For more than a decade, Dean Gerhard Wenzel and his colleagues had advanced the vision of "molecular agricultural science". It is no longer sufficient to produce "knowledge for Bavarian small business managers", mocks Wenzel. Internationally competitive agricultural research must increase yields with even more high-tech because the old methods have been taken as far as they can go, he says; entire genomes can be determined increasingly affordably by computer, and favourable characteristics transferred ever faster. "It's fascinating!", he enthuses. "Biology could become an engineering science!" That's why he, and, even more dynamically, TUM President Wolfgang Hermann declared the subject the "leading discipline" of a new "Centre of Life and Food Sciences" (Wissenschaftszentrum für Ernährung, Landnutzung und Umwelt, WZW) in the year 2000. Much to the dismay of agricultural economist Alois Heißenhuber, who sees his discipline as a "system science" where everything is considered together: production, public goods such as water and soil, the market. So the robust Bavarian became a spokesman for the opposition: "The agricultural sciences must not be reduced to applied biology!" And his aims were shared by the real rebels, the practitioners: the agricultural industry and the farmers' association. This lobby pressured the dominant CSU party, the ministries and the state parliament until it had pushed through three new professorships and its own central agricultural institute. A plot of land on the Weihenstephan campus has already been set aside for the "peasants' uni", as the papers scoffed. The institute is now tasked with establishing ties between top-flight research and practice.

The new watchword in general is: co-operation. Several higher education institutions are for example connected in each of the "competence networks" for which the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has just forked out €40m. One of these is Synbreed, where Munich's plant breeders are investigating the possibility of an interdisciplinary genome research centre together with colleagues in bioinformatics, molecular biology and animal breeding in Göttingen. There, at the edge of the Harz mountains, co-operation has also begun on a regional level: the time-honoured Georg August University and the nearby Research Centre for Ecology and Agriculture in Witzenhausen are hoping to create added value for research and teaching by collaborating. A not always harmonious clash of civilisations: on one side the productivity-oriented academics from Göttingen, on the other their counterparts from Witzenhausen, long suspected of esoteric leanings, who with their traditional focus on healthy soils, crop rotation and grassland are now greatly in demand in the quest for climate-neutral agriculture.

Two joint professorships have been created and a degree course in international sustainable agriculture set up. Its manager, Eva Schlecht, an expert on animal husbandry in the tropics, and her students from all over the world now commute between Göttingen's inner city campus and the romantic half-timbered ensemble of Witzenhausen, where farmers were already trained for deployment to southern climes during the colonial period. Göttingen grassland scientist Johannes Isselstein observes that "the willingness to cooperate in joint projects" has increased significantly. Grassland is ecologically especially valuable, and the lush meadows are particularly endangered when climate change causes more rain in winter and less in summer. Resilient grass varieties must be used. But which are suitable for which soils, how are they accepted by cows, how do they affect bovine digestive processes and methane emissions, milk, flora and fauna, the landscape? Along with Isselstein's experts, geo botanists, soil scientists, phytopathologists, animal nutritionists and sociologists are also necessary to examine such questions. But system studies fare badly in the recognition systems of the scientific establishment. The German Research Foundation only funds basic research and often considers agricultural topics too application-related. But its sponsorship is often valued more highly than funds from other sources when research excellence is assessed.

Moreover, those who wish to stand out against the competition must have as many publications to their name as possible. But systems thinking rarely fits into specialised journals. And then it can sometimes take years until results become available - a law of nature, so to speak: comparing three growth phases simply takes rather a long time. During the same period, a molecular biologist describing gene functions will already have published eight articles. And thus important perspectives are still being inadequately explored: how can trees and field crops in agroforestry systems be combined in such a way as to benefit soil, microclimate, and therefore also humidity, and still yield high returns? Which energy and nutritional plants offer each other advantages instead of competing? Which methods could rid organic farming of toxic copper (the only pest control agent it allows)? Which nutritional plants other than those currently prevalent could help in the fight against famine and climate change? What breeds of animal can cope with long phases of drought? Questions like these are especially important for developing countries, where lack of funds is already causing many farmers to produce "organics of necessity", as Eva Schlecht calls it. Göttingen as a centre of tropical agriculture and forestry has many years of experience and worldwide contacts in this field.

Its forest scientists for example are currently supporting Vietnam in screening thousands of indigenous tree types in search of alternatives to eucalyptus monocultures. Agricultural research ranges from rhizobia in soil to the rising price and speculation curves on the world markets. Göttingen agricultural economist Matin Qaim has no doubt: "There is no other science that can deal so comprehensively with humanity's problems."

From DIE ZEIT :: 31.12.2010