When cows meet robots

Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich

  • Naturwissenschaften
Listen to “When cows meet robots”
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


In the past, the goal of agricultural sciences mainly involved the intensification of food production. Today, the focus is on sustainable management issues. The following examples show how sustainability is being implemented in research and teaching in the Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich.

Grassland biodiversity pays off

Everyone’s talking about biodiversity. Can biodiversity also pay off in forage production? This question was investigated by the Grassland Sciences group together with the Agricultural Economics and Policy Group and Agroscope in the interdisciplinary “DiversGrass” research project. “Biodiversity in grasslands, i.e. in forage management, is a production factor,” emphasises Nina Buchmann, Professor of Grassland Sciences. “We’ve been able to show that yields rise with increased biodiversity and, above all, that they are more resistant to environmental influences – and that this also pays off for the producer.” Buchmann assumes that greater biodiversity is also worthwhile in arable farming and agroforestry.

A meadow with more than ten species yields more than a meadow with just one.
A meadow with more than ten species yields more than a meadow with just one. (Image: Valentin Klaus)

Higher yields thanks to mixed cropping

Christian Schöb and his team are working with multiple crops for agriculture. In trial fields in Switzerland and southern Spain, the researchers sowed two or four plant species directly alongside each other. A future scenario for agriculture in drier and warmer environments? The team found that mixed crops were more productive than arable monocultures in both cases. In mixtures with two species, the yield increased by 3 percent in Spain and 21 percent in Switzerland compared with monoculture. When four species were sown side by side, the yield was as much as 13 percent higher in Spain, and 44 percent higher in Switzerland. The researchers suspect that cultivating different species means that the resources on the fields are better used, and natural pest control is more effective.

In mixed cropping, several plant species are sown alongside each other, and the mixing leads to better functioning of the entire ecosystem.
In mixed cropping, several plant species are sown alongside each other, and the mixing leads to better functioning of the entire ecosystem. (Image: Christian Schöb, Crop Diversity Experiment/ETH Zurich)
Harvest time in the Crop Diversity Experiment at the Aprisco research station in Spain. Research and family come together in the busy experimental garden. (Image: Christian Schöb)
Harvest time in the Crop Diversity Experiment at the Aprisco research station in Spain. Research and family come together in the busy experimental garden. (Image: Christian Schöb)
Just a few plants left for the harvest. Samples from four experiments wait in paper bags to be processed.
Just a few plants left for the harvest. Samples from four experiments wait in paper bags to be processed. (Image: Christian Schöb)

Making cows climate-friendly

There’s no way a cow can actively intend to cause harm just by eating. But in fact, it does indeed contribute to climate change with its digestion. The methane produced during digestion is particularly problematic. Despite being more short-lived than carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that is around 28 times more damaging for the environment. And a cow emits around 300 litres of it every day, severely tilting the greenhouse gas balance of agriculture as it does so. Researchers around the world are searching for a solution to this problem. They want to make cows – and thus every piece of cheese, butter or beef that reaches our tables – more climate-friendly.

The methane originates in the rumen, which, with its capacity of 150 litres, is the largest of the cattle’s four stomach compartments. Grass, hay or silage: the feed makes its first stop in the rumen, where it is decomposed by the microorganisms found there. As the fibres are broken down, hydrogen is produced as an intermediate product and is “eaten” by archaea microbes. Good for cattle, because too much hydrogen impedes digestion. Bad for the climate, because the archaea produce methane. The gas escapes, usually via burping. The Animal Nutrition group at ETH Zurich has therefore been testing various feed additives that can reduce this effect.

Learning to think in systems

Moving away from thinking in terms of individual measures, and towards thinking in systems. Agricultural sciences have developed networks with other disciplines, including social and environmental sciences. This approach is now being integrated more actively into teaching, with a course «Agroecology and the Transition to Sustainable Food Systems»being created and offered for the first time in autumn 2021. The “Agroecology and the Transition to Sustainable Food Systems” course is designed to encourage students to reflect critically on the key characteristics and pros and cons of agroecological systems and approaches.

It is based on the ten elements of agroecology defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). These elements help politicians, practitioners and others involved in the food system to plan, manage and evaluate agroecological transitions to sustainable food systems. The course is open to the public, and guests are invited to participate in a lively and critical debate.

Chapter 3

World Food System Center

Food production, processing and distribution are resource and energy intensive. While climate change further threatens global food and nutrition security, the need for healthy, sustainable food is growing. In 2011, the ETH competence centre, the World Food System Center, was established to support new cross-disciplinary and solution-oriented research that addresses these challenges. It promotes research and education as well as public discourse on food system issues and global food and nutrition security.

Education, outreach and dialogue

Sustainable solutions to the challenges facing our food system can only emerge if actors – from local to global – work together. This conviction, coupled with the then newly defined strategic focus on “food systems” at ETH Zurich, led to the founding of the World Food System Center in 2011. Since the beginning, research, education, outreach and dialogue have been at the heart of the Center work.

A strong cooperation – for the past 10 years

From an initial 20 ETH professors and one executive director, the World Food System Center has now grown to 49 research groups from seven different departments of ETH Zurich, Eawag and Empa, as well as an executive office with several employees. It acts as a link between these diverse groups, connecting agricultural sciences with food sciences, water sciences, biology and materials sciences.

“The World Food System Center bases its work on the conviction that only a systemic approach enables the building of sustainable and resilient food systems, thus ensuring food and nutrition security in the long term,” says Robert Finger, Chair of the World Food System Center since 2021. “However, a food systems approach will only be successful if experts from different fields bring together their diverse experiences and expertise to jointly develop appropriate interventions.”

The world food system is a complex system, comprised of many interconnected local and regional subsystems. Outcomes of a sustainable food system are food and nutrition security, environmental health and quality, and social well-being. These outcomes, however, are always a result of a complex interplay of various factors and trade-offs. (Graphic: WFSC)

Active research and versatile partnerships

The competence centre aims to generate new scientific knowledge that have an impact in the real world. In large flagship projects, the Center bundles targeted research on particularly urgent issues such as alternative protein sources and resilient food systems. In all the projects, cooperation with partners from research and practice plays a decisive role.

Committed to education

Another important focus is the education of the future generation of decision makers. Since its inception, the Center has organised the World Food System Summer School. In an intensive two-week course, young students and professionals from around the world gain insight into a wide variety of areas of the food system and develop a foundation that will enable them to subsequently work on or even design solutions for a sustainable food system.

ETH Zurich students at the FAO in Rome. (Image: World Food System Center)

However, the Center also participates in teaching at ETH Zurich, for example with a course at the FAO in Rome or the new lecture series “Agroecology and the Transition to Sustainable Food Systems”. By offering short courses for professionalsworking in food systems, the World Food System Center underlines its practical orientation. What is important in all these offerings is providing the big picture, interdisciplinarity and the inclusion of practice (transdisciplinarity).

Telling stories from research

The Center’s work is also intended to reach the general public and create awareness of the challenges in the world food system and possible solutions. The World Food System Center is therefore strongly committed to outreach and dialogue, e.g. the YouTube channel. Since its foundation ten years ago, the Centre has (co-)organised a wide variety of events and has been involved in major national and international events. To reach as many people as possible, different formats are used – from the more traditional lectures or discussion panels to exhibitions and short films.

Sharing research results with the public is one of the World Food System Center’s main activities
Episode 4

Global local

In many parts of the world, land degradation, water shortages and mismanagement are having an adverse effect on agricultural production, and climate change poses additional challenges. How to improve the supply of food around the world? Last century, for Friedrich Traugott Wahlen, the fight against hunger and malnutrition was an important issue. By founding the “Service for Technical Cooperation for the Financial and Technological Support of the Third World”, he laid the foundations of today’s Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

F.T. Wahlen: A pioneer in international development cooperation

ETH Zurich’s involvement in international development cooperation began with Friedrich Traugott Wahlen. The former Professor of Plant Cultivation had already made it clear shortly after the Second World War that for ethical, social, and political reasons, significant differences in the quality of life of people around the world could not be tolerated. In the years following the war, ETH Zurich initially coordinated Switzerland’s international development cooperation and provided the biggest number of experts. This was partly thanks to Wahlen, not least because from 1949 he was Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As a Federal Councillor, from 1959 onwards, Wahlen campaigned for the establishment of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Switzerland’s collaboration with this organisation. In 1962 he voted for Switzerland’s full participation in the Council of Europe, and in 1961 he founded the Service for Technical Cooperation for the Financial and Technological Support of the Third World, thereby laying the foundations of today’s Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Federal Councillor Friedrich Traugott Wahlen and wife arriving at the 70th anniversary of Carl Jacob Burckhardt in Amriswil, 1961. (Photo: Comet Photo AG. ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive)
Election to the Federal Council, 1958. (Photo: Hans Gerber. ETH Library Zürich, Image Archive)
Election to the Federal Council, 1958. (Photo: Hans Gerber. ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive)
Friedrich Traugott Wahlen, ca. 1940. (Photo: Hans Staub / Fotostiftung Schweiz)

World Bank and Swiss cheese

It was to take another ten years before the first professor for development cooperation was appointed at ETH Zurich. From 1971 to 1977, Marc R. Bachmann was Associate Professor of Dairy Industry Studies and International Development Cooperation, and from 1977 to 1990 he was Full Professor in this subject. He oversaw various development programmes and was, among other things, a technical advisor for the World Bank. Marc R. Bachmann’s main fields of activity were promoting food production in developing countries, and commercial cheese production in Switzerland.

A journey of discovery in Bhutan

Another person involved with international development cooperation was Martin Menzi. The agronomist lectured at both the Division of Agriculture and the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. His professorship, in the rather unusual field of Animal Production and Problems in Developing Countries, was however affiliated to Division XII (Humanities and Social Sciences), where from 1981 to 1991 he was also the lead on ETH Zurich’s postgraduate course for developing countries (NADEL).

Martin Menzi studied Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich, completing his doctorate on a topic in poultry farming. As a result, he began his career at the Swiss School of Poultry Farming in Zollikofen (today known as Aviforum). In 1968, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC, then known as the Service for Technical Cooperation for the Financial and Technological Support of the Third World) sent him and his family to India, where he coordinated a livestock farming, forage management and dairy industry project. Returning to Switzerland, in 1977, Martin Menzi worked as a senior research assistant for the SDC in Bern. At the same time, he took on senior management responsibilities at Helvetas, becoming director of the organisation in 1982. In his professional capacity at the SDC and Helvetas, Martin Menzi often travelled to Bhutan, where he advised the government chiefly on livestock farming, the dairy industry and rural development, later helping to establish what is today the Green Faculty at the Royal University of Bhutan.

The SDC and ETH Zurich: Working hand in hand

Working with other Federal Offices, the Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is responsible for the overall coordination with other federal authorities of development cooperation and cooperation with Eastern Europe as well as for humanitarian aid delivered by the Swiss Confederation. Currently, there are around 160 agriculture and food security projects under way, with further ones at the planning stage. There is still today a very strong connection between the SDC and ETH Zurich: not only did Thomas Gass, Vice-Director of the SDC, study Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich, but Patrizia Danzi, Director of the SDC, studied in Lincoln, Nebraska and Zurich, completing her studies with a Master’s in Geography and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Through the global Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the SDC still today supports a variety of research projects in which ETH Zurich is also involved.

Episode 5

The future

Agriculture should become more efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable. To get closer to this goal, various groups at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences are pushing ahead with the development of modern technologies. For example, various weeding and milking robots have already been co-developed at the institute. Stefano Mintchev, Professor of Environmental Robotics at ETH Zurich, is taking this approach one step further. His drones, for example, are able to move around even in seemingly impenetrable treetops.

The flying object emits a low buzzing sound. Elegantly it rises into the air, flies into a tree and lands on one of the numerous branches. A mixture of model airplane and science fiction? In the CYbER (CanopY Exploration Robots) project, the Environmental Robotics group at ETH Zurich is developing semi-autonomous, multimodal robots. These collect images and biological samples and are currently being tested primarily in the forestry sector. In the future, however, the football-sized flying objects will also be used in agriculture. For example, drones could collect samples from fruit trees or count blossoms to predict yield, or sensors and cameras could detect pests and diseases in dense plant stocks. To this end, the Environmental Robotics Group has developed the "Hedgehog" drone, for example.

Stefano Mintchev with Kristy Deiner, Professor of Environmental DNA, testing the "Hedgehog" drone developed by the Environmental Robotics Lab. (Photo: Gottardo Pestalozzi, WSL)
The «Hedgehog» drone in the dense branches of a treetop. (Photo: Environmental Robotics Lab)

Drawing inspiration from nature

Mintchev’s drones are strongly inspired by nature. Just like bees that take a hit and keep flying, drones must also be able to withstand collisions without breaking. The bees' wings are thin but very robust because they remain flexible thanks to inclusions of soft protein joints. For the drone construction, Mintchev's group precisely took these properties as an inspiration. "Bioinspired dual-stiffness origami" is what Mintchev calls this principle, and for his drones he worked with a pre-stretched elastomer membrane sandwiched between rigid plates. Similar to an origami object, the drone can fold and yield on impact to prevent permanent damage.

Similar to a bird of prey that can move at high speed through narrow gaps in the vegetation, the drones are also meant to be able to find their way in the dense branches of a tree canopy. For exploring narrow spaces, the Environmental Robotics group developed a soft drone that adapts its shape to the situation.

Bird’s flight of through a narrow gap. (Photo: Antrittsvorlesung von Stefano Mintchev, Minute 15:05)

A tree crown as a complex environment

Forests cover about one third of the earth’s surface, and are enormously important for biodiversity, climate regulation and ecological balance. However, researching them has up until now not been easy: Trees can grow up to 60 metres high, and their canopy and intricate network of branches make them difficult to access. For this reason, drones previously flew over the vegetation rather than into it.

Stefano Mintchev wants to change this. The 35-year-old Italian studied mechanical engineering in Pisa and earned his doctorate in the field of biorobotics. “The move from conventional drones to our drones flying inside vegetation allows us to gain a whole new perspective,” explains Mintchev.

Agriculture of the future

The Crop Science Group in Lindau-Eschikon in the Canton of Zurich is also conducting research on the possible use of drones and robots in agriculture. Among other things, new machines for the agriculture of the future are being planned, developed and tested here. For example, the researchers are working with state-of-the-art camera technology to closely examine the condition of a wheat field. They are also training a robot autonomously controlled by a drone to keep a closer eye on damaged plants, precisely apply pesticides when needed, and weed only where necessary.

New technologies, broad application

So, will a robot take over the field work in the future? “It’s not quite that simple,” says Achim Walter, Professor of Crop Science at ETH Zurich, “but the new technologies are already quite promising.”

Mintchev’s little helpers could also help manage the use of fertilisers and pesticides more efficiently in the future. Another goal would be to use them as search robots for humans or for assessing damages after climate disasters. “The development trend is from pure observation to action,” says Stefano Mintchev, summarising the development. “At some point we will reach the stage where plants, animals and robots will interact and help each other.”

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