“A down-to-earth attitude, grounded in practical reality”

05.06.2024 Urs Scheidegger, a founding member of the International Agriculture (IL) team and former head of the BSc degree programme, was interviewed about his thoughts on this year’s 30th anniversary of IL at BFH-HAFL. As always, he was inspiring, informed and humble.

Although unable to join the majority of celebrations for 30 Years of International Agriculture (IL) at HAFL this year, Urs Scheidegger happily shared his memories and views on the importance of IL before leaving to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in America.
Although unable to join the majority of celebrations for 30 Years of International Agriculture (IL) at HAFL this year, Urs Scheidegger happily shared his memories and views on the importance of IL before leaving to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in America.

Looking back on your time as one of the leaders of IL at HAFL, what are some of the most significant changes or developments you’ve witnessed?

When we started out, in the first 10 years, there was a lot of development in IT. When I started to work here (in 1993) we were sharing one desktop computer between two of us. There was no internet, no emails. I keep telling students that if they think literature searches are complicated now, it was 20 times more complicated before.

In the late 90s, we switched our teaching language to English, which was really strange at that time but made sense, as some international agricultural terms didn’t exist in German. It was the students who proposed it.

Then in 2008 we had another development – that was the introduction of Problem Based Learning (PBL). We didn’t have lectures as such anymore. Then in 2009 it was the introduction of the master’s course which brought a lot to International Agriculture – we had something like 25–30% of students from overseas.

What are the biggest achievements made or milestones reached by the division over the past 30 years?

The first big achievement was the consolidation of international agriculture at HAFL. This culminated in the curriculum reform in 2000. From then on, all agricultural students had some exposure to topics in international agriculture.   

And then there’s the internships. We started out with internships with the first students in 1994, 30 years ago. Students work for six months in a host organisation in a developing country. It worked well. Oh, we had some problems – we had to evacuate a student in the first year from Rwanda, for instance, but it worked well, by and large. The students integrated themselves in the host institutions and most of them did a good job. They’re often nervous before leaving Switzerland, so we made a point to visit everybody early during their internship. It was like meeting completely changed people – they were self-confident and saw how they could contribute to the work of the host organisation.

About eight years later, we were on an excursion to Germany to visit some like-minded universities with a graduate class. I still remember getting to Gottingen. The staff there didn't just want to give a presentation about what they did in International Agriculture, they wanted to stimulate the dialogue and they asked our students about what they did and so on. Those students were talking about the internships, because it had happened very recently, and they hadn’t started their working lives yet, so the internship was the thing to talk about. The Gottingen staff were quite intrigued and they said, ‘Well, the way we understand your students, you're using them to open up contacts or to keep in contact with organisations in the Global South. We allow our students to go there to do their thesis work, and we had rather the opposite experience – the students destroyed the contacts rather than to help deepening them.’

I was talking later to different universities, not only in Germany but also in Holland and so on, and this was kind of a widespread problem. And we then tried to analyse what makes our internship so successful, why is that the big success, and I think it has to do with basically two things: First of all, it's well embedded in courses, to really prepare the students for not only the technical side of working in tropical countries, but also the more socioeconomic aspects of working and living in tropical countries. It's not a course on socio-economics of Africa or something like that, that won't help, or maybe it would help, but that's not the way our teaching goes here at HAFL. It was rather just imbedded in teaching about rice and teaching about water buffaloes and yeah, in teaching about the technical things or the economics of it.

The other factor that contributed to this success was that we visited each student. That was associated with quite some costs, especially time, but we could normally combine it with mandates we had in that country or region, so it was not too bad. And it really helped to solve problems – first of all, problems that could occur between students and host organisations, and also to deepen our contacts with the host organisations and not just communicating by email or fax, but also face-to-face.

Do you think other universities ended up changing because of your model?

I think some of them tried, but maybe it’s not so easy to do that in an academic university setting. Because the difference between the universities of applied sciences and the academic universities is really the way of thinking about teaching students.

These fields out there (he says, pointing out the window to the HAFL fields), in summer this is our largest classroom. It's all there – small experiments and demonstrations and so on. That is our most important classroom, and we use it quite frequently. Now this is just one aspect of typical HAFL teaching. Now, if you translate that to topics of international agriculture, of course you cannot just walk out of the door and find everything there. You have to be a little bit more innovative. But you can do the same thing – you can actually set the scene so that the students can make positive experiences and that helps. That is not possible for all institutions. I was teaching at ETH Zurich also, just individual courses, and it was different with the students there because, first of all, you're in the middle of Zurich and then it's a little bit more rigid and there was more separation between exercises and lectures, whereas at HAFL, teaching is fully integrated.

How would you describe the growth and evolution of IL?

I think one of the most striking things that is obvious to me, but to many other people it's not so clear, is we started out with four scientific staff in 1993 with a total employment rate of 320%. Now we have something like 25 scientific staff in IL, and that is basically with only a slightly increased teaching load in the bachelor’s programme. There was the master’s programme that came, in addition, but most of this growth was financed with third-party funds, mandates and research projects that have allowed us to grow and specialise. Imagine this: with three professors at the beginning, we each had to cover a broad range of topics. We helped ourselves with guest lecturers, too, but now it's roughly 25 people. It allows for much more specialisation, and it allows also that staff are in continuous contact with practice. Again, you have to have projects and mandates, to be in contact with real work life, and we cannot just walk out of the door and ask, like our colleagues teaching in Swiss agriculture can, but for us it’s just as important to maintain this contact in practical life.

Was it easier then or now to create these connections and get these mandates?

It is certainly harder now. It has become harder, especially for mandates, because now you have to develop an offer and there’s competitive bidding and it's getting very complicated, whereas back 20–25 years, you could just wait for people to ask you. But having said this, it's also a little bit different; I mean, the first three people teaching were very well connected in national and international areas of international agriculture and development cooperation. People knew us and that's why they were phoning us. But it was different when we employed young scientific staff. Nobody wanted to give a mandate to them. I often said I don't have time, but, for example, I have an excellent person with a PhD and French as a mother tongue, so for Haiti she would be much better than me, but ohhh there were a lot of excuses. It took us a lot of effort to integrate the young people who didn't have that experience and track record of having done things in many parts of the world in mandates. It’s still difficult, but I think we manage pretty well there, just by insisting and insisting, and giving the younger staff a platform to show what they're doing and what they can do.

Can you share any memorable moments, funny anecdotes or experiences that stand out to you from your time here?

Yeah, it was maybe in relation with the first mandates we did and returning back to HAFL after a few weeks. Colleagues were asking us, ‘Where have you been?’ An older professor at that time here said, ‘If you do such a mandate in Ecuador for SDC, do they pay your plane ticket and other travel expenses?’ I told him that this is the case and that in addition we are paid for our working time at normal, standard private consultant’s rates. He was so astonished that this was possible! But this was the basis of how we could grow. We were successful in the acquisition of third-party funding and this allowed us to finance more staff to work here.

HAFL, or the Swiss College of Agriculture as it was called at that time, was quite a different organisation as well, in general, and not only related to international agriculture. In the 1990s, many professors would just come here, do the teaching and go home. Home Office was already there for them. But that also meant that it was difficult to contact them. On the other side, when we started out at IL we were a small team, three or four people, doing something completely new and doing it together. At the beginning we had to discuss a lot of things, and we were here throughout the whole week, not only coming for teaching. After some years, this became the rule rather than the exception for many of the staff. Being in the office was important, so that students could contact you and colleagues could find you to discuss new projects face-to-face. That was much less the case at the beginning.

At the beginning, did you feel like you had a really long leash – free reign almost – or were there always set structures?

There were set structures, but not so many, as there were less staff at that time. It was much smaller. First of all, the governing body was the so-called “Teachers Conference”, and we were sitting in a 30-person classroom, which was still big enough for all the teachers at that time. We could work with less rules, the director was very open, very supportive and allowing for a long leash, certainly, so that was fortunate for the development of International Agriculture. Then the colleagues … there were both – some who were highly interested and some who were rather critical of what we were doing, and we had to show that of course we were not using money that was meant for Swiss agriculture to do research in Kenya or anywhere, ever.

Has something ever happened to you in the field – an eye-opening experience – when you realised this is different or I've got the best job in the world? Was there a moment that you remember where you felt ‘This is where I'm supposed to be’?

One thing that I remember now was when we started out with the master’s course, the idea was that our best bachelor students would go into the master’s programme. Yet, in the beginning there was a lot of hesitation and many of the bachelor students told me, ‘We want to be in the field, we want to get our hands dirty. If we do the master, won’t we have less possibilities to do that?’ I said to look at me as an example. I thought the same thing before doing the PhD – if I do it, maybe it takes me away from the field … and now I'm still in the field a lot! Every year I'm having more possibilities and opportunities and the freedom to actually do fieldwork, in the sense of the term, standing in the field getting my hands dirty. So that was an eye opener for me as well. Maybe that's not valid for everybody, but if you try and if you are really determined to go this way, you can still keep your contact with the field and make it work. The better education you have, the more freedom you have, and the more flexibility you can create for yourself to continue that way.

What do you feel personally were the biggest challenges IL faced and how were they addressed?

One of the constant challenges was the low number of students that we had because, of course, if you have low numbers of students, then the cost per student will be high. So we were always in the order of 10, sometimes 15, students per year, and that gave us a headache. The interesting thing was when students first registered to come to HAFL, many of them said their first choice was International Agriculture. But then, they had to do the pre-study internship of one year, where they worked on a Swiss farm. They learned a lot from the usually very-well-educated farmers, on both practical and theoretical aspects. And then many of the students started to develop an interest in Swiss agriculture, so after the pre-study internship the picture changed and there were only 10–15 remaining with IL.

What did we do? You can reduce the cost by novel teaching approaches, by giving more responsibility to students themselves for their own learning, and by that reduce the staffing costs, because it's about staff time. And still without neglecting direct contact with the students because that is important – the individual contact with the students. So that was one challenge, and I think it's still there.

Then another challenge was security issues that were growing, especially for the internships, but also for mandates. That was very obvious over these 30 years – really a problem. An own experience which is not related to the work illustrates this … I drove a car from Switzerland to Cameroon in 2004 and now most of the countries I was travelling through you can’t go to anymore: Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria …

That really illustrates how things were deteriorating and this affected our work, and also the students. Our answer to that was to develop a security concept that was completed recently. It really addresses in a systematic way all the problems that can occur and comes up with solutions: how to avoid things going wrong and what to do if they still go wrong, without giving too narrow limits to staff. If we try to be 100% on the safe side, it will be difficult to do anything at all.

Another challenge is that acquisition is becoming more demanding – acquisition of mandates, especially. It is now usually competitive bidding, which means we have to develop quite elaborate offers. Out of 10 offers submitted, we may gain only three to four.

Reflecting on the past three decades, what do you think were the biggest challenges for the agricultural sector as a whole (nationally, internationally)?

Internationally, what I lived through during the 25 years that I was really working here – because the last four to five years, I was not full-time here ­­­– I think one important thing that came up is sustainability. Making production systems more sustainable both internationally and in Switzerland. In Switzerland, in that sense, I think we were more advanced than in many other places in the world. So, there was some catching up to do in international agriculture and Switzerland has played an important role there, especially when it came to the International Agriculture Research Centres. There are 15 of those CGIAR centres that are spread out in the Global South. The donors, like SDC in Switzerland, were pushing for sustainability in the 1980s, and many of the later IL staff were working in these centres and helped from the other side to push towards a more sustainable way of addressing things. That was an issue that started very early.

Another issue is climate change. It has bothered us really over the last 20 years. Farmers in Africa are coming up and saying, ‘OK, we have this problem. The onset of the rainy season is often later now than 10 years ago, so we need another type of millet that tolerates later sowing.’ We saw the effects of climate change here over the last 20 years, unfortunately in the Global South it started earlier than in the north, but now, over the last five to 10 years, farmers in Switzerland have felt it as well.

Then another challenge is gender issues. That was a discussion that started in the Global South towards the end of the 1980s as a response to problems to reach farmers with new technologies. Often, we worked with the wrong people. For many farming activities, women are responsible. So, we have to talk to the women, and we have to find ways to involve them in innovation development and how to reach them with consultancy services. Depending on the culture, this can be difficult. But it is the only way to have impact in women’s crops. So that was something that was important for us in our work already, before we joined the team of International Agriculture, and it continued to become important in teaching. Considering gender issues and involving women in agricultural development is of course easier if you have a gender-balanced team. Yet, the percentage of female students in agriculture was low in the 1990s; therefore, we developed a project to get women into studying agriculture at HAFL and managed to get funding for it in 2001. Then, the percentage of female students in agriculture grew from 15% to over 25% within two years.

Nowadays, in agriculture worldwide, we are facing a formidable challenge of producing more food with less land, less water, and less fertilisers and with climate change already negatively affecting productivity in many countries, especially in the South. And all this while we cannot do as much harm to the environment as they have done in the past – this is pretty clear. We have to reduce the harm to the environment also because in many cases this is our own natural resource base that we're destroying here, the basis for agriculture – soil and the equilibrium of biodiversity in all senses. And this challenge will continue for many years to come, until we have reached 10 billion and population growth will level out. But that's not the end of the story because if everybody wants to eat as much meat and dairy products as we in the Western economies, there is still a lot more agricultural output needed to feed all these animals. So that's probably not the way to go. It's also, of course, kind of part of the solution, because if we manage to reduce the area used to feed animals, then we can put this towards a lot more food directly for humans. It’s like a reserve that we have. But many people don't look at it like that, especially in emerging economies.

What role do you think IL has played in Switzerland and the broader agricultural sector?

It has a lot to do with innovation, fostering innovation by thinking outside the box. That's something that certainly IL students learn and it's also certainly something that when recruiting the additional IL staff, we look for, too – people who have the broader horizon and have experience from different continents and not only from Europe. This helps to foster innovation. Many of the former IL students work in Switzerland. It’s not that everybody's in African, Latin America and Asia but they usually have jobs that require more innovation capacity than the average jobs, that require project management skills and “thinking out of the box” attitudes. So, that is a significant contribution, I think.

Then we have also learned from the Global South in several respects. For instance, when it comes to research methods, farmer participation in research, in innovation development – people like to call that the co-creation of knowledge nowadays – is more advanced in the south than in Switzerland. Fortunately, there are also some people in Switzerland, especially from Agroscope, who are interested in this because they experienced these approaches overseas and are very interested in introducing them in applied agricultural research in Switzerland.

Another series of lessons that have been learned or could be learned from the Global South by Switzerland have to do with biodiversity. Biodiversity preservation and maintenance, or even enhancing biodiversity through use. I see key issues there, like intercropping, agroforestry and preserving the genetic diversity in the varieties that we develop. The latter is something that not many people know about in Europe. But agroforestry and intercropping have gained some importance in European farming in the last 20 to 30 years. So, there's a lot that can be learned from the South. It’s not that all of that has been brought to Switzerland by IL – that would be nice (laughs), but it's not the case.

And maybe a final thing is that in Switzerland we are increasingly growing crops coming from the Global South, like rice, sweet potatoes, chickpeas or soybeans. IL has not played a major role in introducing these crops to Switzerland, but having some knowledge available certainly helps. Also, there has been more interaction between professors for European agriculture and professors of International Agriculture, thanks to new challenges with these new crops coming into Switzerland.

Looking towards the future, what do you envision for International Agriculture and HAFL, in terms of its programmes and research?

I think one thing is very important here, and that’s the whole topic of climate change … We need more efforts to fully understand the mechanisms by which agriculture is contributing to climate change and to develop realistic measures to reduce this contribution, in other words mitigation. On the other hand, we need to better understand, how climate change is affecting yield and agricultural production in general and how we can offset the negative effects, that is adaptation. In teaching, we have already done a good job here, with the minor in climate change and several specific modules in the master’s. But in research, we need to do more in this respect, both in the South and increasingly in the North.  

I think HAFL has to be more agile in its communication. Since I’ve been away (retired) from HAFL for four years now, I’m getting now an outsider’s view of research and background knowledge communication by universities, based on newspapers and news in the radio and TV. When media  interview people from universities, I often think that HAFL staff would have a better idea about the issue presented than the people that are talking. This may have to do with geography, with Zurich based universities, both academic and of applied sciences, being closer to the big media. But there could be more done proactively. You have to participate in the networks, you have to make yourself known in the community, and you have to create the free capacity to react the same day or overnight.

Do you think in Switzerland there’s a kind of ‘snobbery’ that we’re a university of applied sciences, so the media asks ETH or bigger universities? Do you think that plays a role?

It could play a role, but the examples that are more striking to me have to do with ZHAW, our sister organisation in Zurich. They're doing a really good job of being present in the press and public awareness. That’s now an outsider’s perspective. I have certain fields of interest and often read or hear from ZHAW, while at BFH you could find the same information, sometimes more relevant or more science-based.  

I think looking towards the future, a big opportunity for HAFL is this whole discussion that was started out by Lancet, the Eat Lancet thing, feeding 10 billion people a healthy diet and yet doing less harm to the natural resources. This is a discussion at the interface between agriculture and nutrition. At the Master level, there already exist common platforms between the programmes in Agricultural Science and in Food, Nutrition and Health. HAFL could build on this. With its expertise in sustainable food production and healthy nutrition, HAFL could contribute more to the discussions around healthy diets within planetary boundaries, as recently initiated by the EAT-Lancet Commission. Working at this interface could really be very rewarding, because it addresses one of the biggest challenges for humanity, and also because we have the human resources and the knowledge at HAFL – we know how to produce sustainably, we know what is the greenhouse gas emission of producing rice versus producing potatoes or producing cheese or producing whatever in different settings in these production systems.

Joining more the food and agricultural divisions?

Yes, to work together. You don’t have to reorganise anything, but there should exists a platform where you can work together. And teaching should also then benefit from that, but this would more or less happen automatically. for teaching there's so much flexibility in the system that you can actually relatively easily put up a new optional module that would look at these interactions. I'm sure there would be some interest by students.

In your opinion, what are some of the emerging trends or areas of opportunity that IL should focus on in the coming years?

I think it's exactly that problem that I was just addressing – integrating agricultural production with food, nutrition and health. Working at this interface because if you look at the Eat-Lancet study, it's well done from the food, nutrition and health part, but there are some questionable ideas in there when it comes to agricultural production. So, I think to be credible there should be more work on the interface and those thoughts to move forward. That certainly is an issue or an emerging trend.

Another emerging trend that I see that is rather a negative thing, but it is all a bit linked: you have all the vegans and the flexitarians and people eating in many different ways. A lot of the things I read is simply rubbish when it comes to food and nutrition. Not of course the scientific literature, but what I’m reading just from the public. We, and when I say we I mean the whole of BFH, have the competence to mediate, to make public discussions more fact and science-based on what we should eat just for health reasons. There, HAFL could play an important role. I’m not so much talking about IL now, but more about HAFL in general. We're getting away from the IL topic, but it's always linked because it has to do with the limited resources to produce food. So, we should make the best use of the food that we can produce.

There's lots of discussion on the importance of protein in the diet in Switzerland. I'm not sure, but I think that our diet is rich enough in proteins and we may eat too much protein, in many cases, and this is a hype that is going in this direction. And then you have all these superfoods that are changing from time to time though. Quinoa was a wonderful example, when it was propagated by the UN about six years ago, and everybody was going for quinoa and then a little bit later it was chia seeds. Everything is a superfood, a miracle food, and then people in Europe and North America are going for that, you know.

Quinoa has important nutritional benefits, and it can help in many cases. Quinoa has a reasonable percentage of protein and a good protein quality. So, where protein is lacking – especially where the protein quality is an issue, quinoa could help against malnutrition. But that’s not so much the problem in Switzerland, that’s what I mean. It’s good that we know quinoa, it's good that this is an option, but expecting quinoa to solve all our health problems is certainly not a very intelligent idea. This discussion should be a bit more science-based.

And the other thing is sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are from Peru, like the “real” potatoes, too. In Peru, every time there was an El Niño event and the Irish potatoes, as they call it, had a low harvest, the people had to switch to sweet potatoes, which were also produced on the coast (you could fit in an additional crop there, to help to feed the people). The big worry of nutritionists there was that the sweet potatoes don’t have the same percentage of protein and the same quality of protein as the Irish potatoes and that could lead to malnutrition of especially the poor people. In Switzerland, on the other hand, sweet potatoes are now propagated as the new superfood.

As someone who has been deeply involved with IL, do you have any advice for its current staff and students?

First, I think for students, one thing that is important, and the staff also has to work towards that in the preparation of their internship, is they should not be nervous. We should avoid everything to make them more nervous. I mentioned earlier that at the beginning we were having a lot of guest lecturers and all these guest lecturers had a lot of experience in developing countries. They were all telling their stories how they had problems and how they managed, so in the end, as a student, you must have gotten the idea that you had to be a superhuman to at least survive there, much less to do some reasonable work there in this environment! So, students were really nervous and staff at that time said ok, let’s be conscious about that the effect of our stories on students, and avoid making them even more nervous.

Second, put people first, be that students, or farmers, or staff in partner organisations. It’s worthwhile and it’s the way to make progress. They will do a better job. Then also, staff should continue to be adventurous, to go for crazy ideas and also take some risks sometimes. I’m not talking about going to difficult countries, but just the risks of failing when following unconventional ways and crazy ideas. If we are too afraid of all these things, then we’re just staying within the same boundaries all the time. Finally, working at IL is a great job, we have the opportunity to travel to many different places and see beautiful landscapes and interact with interesting people, so let’s make the best out of it. It is also part of the rewards for our work. We should not try to put all that adventurous part to the side. It’s hard work, of course it’s hard work, but it’s also fun.

If we look forward to the next 30 years, what legacy do you think IL will have then? What do you believe will be its lasting impact on the field of agriculture and education?

I hope international agriculture will continue to go for the principles of sustainability, of considering gender issues, of impact-oriented research, and knowing about climate change and what to do for mitigation and adaptation. That IL will be known for that internationally, in the Global South, but also within HAFL and within Switzerland. That's more oriented towards HAFL as a whole.

I hope 30 years from now HAFL is still recognised as an institution with a down-to-earth attitude, grounded in practical reality, be that in Switzerland or any place in the world, but based on science, worldwide developments and global perspectives. That’s what I hope HAFL will be known for, as it is pretty much well known for now. I also hope that HAFL will be known for making a big contribution to discussions on sustainability issues, agricultural production, and linking that to nutrition and health issues.

How strong do you feel that IL still has a place at HAFL?

I think IL still has a strong place at HAFL because there are more and more aspects of internationality. IL has contributed to, and spearheaded, certain pilot activities and opened doors for not just IL students but a wider community.

Is there anything we haven’t addressed or something that you would like to add?

There’s one thing that comes to my mind – the focus on small farmers. IL was always focused on small farmers in the Global South. In a few countries, there exist also large holdings and there was some exposure of students also to plantations, like oil palm production, which is difficult to do in small units in Europe, the concentration of farmland is continuing, with farms getting bigger and bigger, but in the Global South we have the opposite. In most types of farming systems, farms are getting smaller and more crops are actually abandoned by large farms and then picked up by small farms. It doesn't hold true for every country in the Global South, but it's a trend that we see in many countries there.

So, we were focusing from the very beginning on small farmers, as they are the ones who produce the lion’s share of food. Sometimes we were opposed even by our partners in the South who wanted to go with large scale agriculture. But all these attempts, to my knowledge, have failed, so we were on the right track. And then there was this “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)” concluded in 2008, where more than 400 scientists from around the world came to the same conclusion.

It is important to work with small farmers. There's a lot of possibility there, which doesn't automatically mean we have to exclude the larger holdings. But it's good that there's somebody focusing on small farmers, because many other organisations are focusing on the larger units and say it's easier, because they have the resources, they have the computers to do that and whatever to implement change. It seems easier to work with them to have more impact. But that’s not so clear; I mean, the small farmers have higher yields than large farmers and have higher land productivity than large farms – there’s enough scientific evidence for that and I think this is important to continue. I think it's an achievement that we stayed focused on the small farmers over the past 30 years.

Interview by Angela Wade

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Subject area: Resource-efficient agricultural production systems
Category: International