When cows meet robots

Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich

  • Natural Sciences
Then and now
October 2021
World Food System Center
November 2021
Global local
November 2021
The future
December 2021
Episode 1

Then and now

The history of a higher educational establishment in the field of agriculture dates back to the middle of the 19th century. The agricultural associations in particular campaigned for an agricultural discipline at the Polytechnic Institute – as early as 1860 and 1863, the Federal Council was petitioned by the Société jurassienne d'émulation, the Landwirtschaftlicher Zentralverein and the Verein schweizerischer Landwirte. A year later, the Schweizerische Landwirtschaftliche Verein also submitted a request to the Federal Assembly. It was to take another seven years, however, before the Polytechnic Institute’s forestry divisiont was expanded into an agriculture and forestry division in 1871.

Humble beginnings

The first three professors were soon appointed: Adolf Kraemer for livestock farming, Anton Nowacki for plant production and cultivation and Kraemer’s future son-in-law Ernst Schulze for agrochemistry. While agricultural sciences already had a firm place at universities abroad, especially in Germany, teaching in Switzerland had previously been based primarily on practical knowledge. This was about to change.

The agricultural division took on considerable importance right from the beginning, and the new discipline was awarded 12 per cent of the total ETH Zurich budget available at the time.

Adolf Kraemer, ca. 1886. (Photo: Johannes Ganz. ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive)
Adolf Kraemer
One of the first agricultural books for universities and schools. The Agricultural School of the Federal Polytechnicum in Zurich by Adolf Kraemer; 1871.
At the time of its foundation, Adolf Kraemer, Professor of Livestock Farming, describes the newly created study programme.
The Agricultural School of the Federal Polytechnicum in Zurich by Adolf Kraemer; 1871.
(Photo: Johannes Ganz. ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive)
Federal act of 1869 signed by the presidents and secretaries of the National Council and the Council of States.
Federal act of 1869
Federal act of 1869 signed by the presidents and secretaries of the National Council and the Council of States.

Why Agricultural Sciences?

In 1871, five students took up the initially two-year-long programme in Agricultural Sciences, four of whom graduated: Tommaso Galanti from Venice, Pietro Masetti from Florence, Gilbrecht von Löw from Florstadt (Hesse in Germany) and Joseph Frey from Oberehrendingen in the Canton of Aargau. What exactly were they meant to take away from their studies? Professor Kraemer wrote an article on the new “Landwirthschaftliche Schule des eidgenössischen Polytechnicums zu Zürich” in the agricultural publication Schweizerische Landwirtschaftliche Zeitung.

“This goal can (...) be none other than to develop pupils’ powers of observation and judgement through a scientifically thorough treatment of the subject matter and (...) to enable them to understand the phenomena of their profession from a higher perspective, in order to base their observation of them on sound knowledge free of ambiguities and uncertainties, and to attain the necessary independence in the utilisation, in the application of the result of this knowledge on a practical basis.”

Today, around 315 students are enrolled in the Agricultural Sciences degree programmes. Why study Agricultural Sciences? Two professors and a doctoral student explain what fascinates them about Agricultural Sciences at ETH.

Simple questions – Complex answers

Hunger, malnutrition, environmental destruction and climate change are some of the most pressing issues of recent decades. The ETH Zurich education in Agricultural and Food sciences helps to address these issues in a well-founded approach. “We take it for granted that agriculture is practised, and food is produced. Of course, we know how to do it best. But producing food is a complex matter,” confirms Achim Walter, Professor of Crop Science and former Director of Studies in Agricultural Sciences. “Every form of production, every harvest, indeed every act of collection has consequences and side effects we often only become aware of years or even generations later.” Agricultural Sciences are thinking ahead, also emphasizes Nina Buchmann, Professor of Grassland Sciences.

Dive into the rich history of this diverse discipline, watch our anniversary film and stay informed about upcoming events at agri150.ethz.ch.

Episode 2 – October 2021
What do today’s Agricultural Sciences have to do with sustainability? In the second episode, we’ll present an overview of the current direction in research and teaching.

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