Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), foot-and-mouth disease, Nitrofen (a fertilizer) in organic food--there has never been more public angst about food quality. Just this week, with concerns over hormone-infested forage, contaminated meat is in the headlines again. Over the past few years, agriculture and food production in Germany, and throughout Europe, have been severely shaken by a number of food scandals. But apart from short-term scandals, major changes in European agriculture are on the verge. Last week, EC Commissioner Franz Fischler announced that in the future European farmers will be required to fulfil high quality and environmental standards in order to qualify for subsidies. The German government?s reaction to BSE, introducing the so-called "Agrarwende" ("turning point in agriculture"--agricultural reform) in early 2001, means putting the priority on food quality in future, rather than quantity. One of the ambitious goals is that organic produce should have 20% of the market share by 2010. But while changes in the agricultural sector are under way, despite lobbying by traditionalists, what of Germany?s researchers--is the new paradigm also having an impact on them?

In May 2001, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research ( BMBF) started the exploratory phase of a new interdisciplinary research field called ? socio-ecological research.? The major focus of this field is gaining knowledge about the interactions between human beings and their natural and social environment. The BMBF sought projects which were problem-focused and interdisciplinary, and aimed at combining the expertise of natural and social scientists. The programme was launched in May 2002. It will provide funding for 10 projects in five thematic fields (see box) over the next 5 years. All of these projects involve working groups consisting of up to five young scientists at both the doctoral and postdoctoral level.

Socio-Ecological Research

The BMBF is funding research under five different themes:

  • long-term strategies for sustainable consumption patterns,

  • socio-ecological transformations in the public utilities sector,

  • political strategies for addressing global change

  • socio-ecological changes in open space

  • key technologies and socio-ecological change

More information is available at http://www.sozial-oekologische-forschung.org (currently in German only).

One of the successful projects is ? Agricultural Politics at a Turning Point: Distributional, Land-use, Framing and Evaluational Conflicts" based at the University of Hamburg?s Research Center for Biotechnology, Society and the Environment ( BIOGUM). Started on 1 July, the project will take an interdisciplinary approach to conflicts in Germany?s new agricultural policy. ?Our objective is an unbiased, critical assessment of whether the agricultural reform is a worthwhile effort by describing the conflicts implied by the proposed changes in agricultural policy?, says programme coordinator Dr. Peter H. Feindt. ?Our team will eventually consist of three postdocs and two PhD candidates, each working on a different project.? With a 5-year, ? 1.63 million budget, the project is one of the largest under the BMBF funding scheme. Already, four positions have been filled, with two biologists, a political scientist, and an engineer, proving the interdisciplinary approach. Another postdoc position, starting 1 October, is currently open for applications.

Two small enterprises will work with the BIOGUM Research Center as co-operating partners. Indeed Antonia Reihlen, a biologist from Ökopol, and engineer Manuel Gottschick from SUmBi are full members of the scientific work group.

The research tasks of the team vary widely. Reihlen focuses on the ecological impact of the changes to farming practices being introduced and is trying to identify additional functions farmers could be involved in besides common agriculture (tourism, energy generation, biodiversity conservation, establishing rural community values) for the benefit of society. Scientifically -- as well as in the political arena -- these functions are being described as ? multifunctional agriculture.? Gottschick will use his colleagues? findings to develop interactive assessment tools for multifunctional agriculture on a regional level. These tools will include a computer model and other interactive instruments that allow stakeholders to evaluate agricultural activities. Susanne Thölke, also a biologist, is looking at gender implications of the agricultural reforms. ?I am especially interested in the role of women in agriculture for my research?, she says, explaining that she would like to find out whether women show a higher sensitivity than men towards social and environmental aspects of farming practices, for example. Thölke, who will write her PhD dissertation about this project, is planning to include interviews in her research, but is aware of the difficulties: ?This requires excellent preparation. Farmers are feeling insecure because of the changes. Also, prejudices might prevail because scientists from a university are often perceived as experts in theory, but not in practical agriculture.? The institutional requirements for socio-ecological reforms are Feindt?s field of research: The reform of Germany?s agricultural policy aims at including environmental and consumer issues. Feindt will try to evaluate the general conditions for such a change. ?One question is: Are there windows of opportunity and are they being used? In this context, another interesting opportunity for our project is that our research results provide practical policy advice?, he says.

Although the individual projects cover different disciplines, the working group takes teamwork seriously. ?It is important to know what everyone is doing. We are defining our goals together in a consensual way?, says Reihlen. To ensure the quality of the research, a mentor group has been established. Seven senior researchers from all over Germany will evaluate the project and provide feedback for the group. Internal and open seminars and workshops complete the mix aimed at making this unusual working structure function.

For all team members, the long-term perspective of the project was intriguing and a key factor in their decisions to join the group. ?It is quite unusual to have such long-term security to do high-quality research in Germany?, says Gottschick. Reihlen agrees, but also points out the other advantages of her work: ?Considering that we are working on a current hot topic, our project provides tremendous opportunities. Also, working in a team of young and motivated scientists makes it much more fun."