Anna Brugger is a leading expert in the study of plant diseases and their impact on the environment. In this interview, we will delve into her passion for plant pathology, her research, and how it relates to Sustainable Development Goals. We will also discuss the role of plant pathology in biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.
Various studies calculate crop loss due to harmful organisms such as fungi or insects at 30 to 40% if no crop protection products are used. For some crops, the loss would be close to 100%, and for others much lower. These figures and the demands of consumers for perfect products that are always available, coupled with a growing world population and climate extremes, result in an area of tension that has fascinated me since I was a student. That my field of research therefore never loses its necessity and relevance was one of the main reasons why it fascinated me so much. Today, I work in applied research, and in my current work, I find collaboration with farmers particularly rewarding, in addition to teaching.
My current research focuses on arable farming and how crop protection products and fertilizers can be used most effectively. In many crops, farmers rely on the use of crop protection products to ensure the profitability of growing that crop. This is done according to the principle of integrated pest management, which means that the use of chemical pesticides should only take place when preventive or non-chemical measures do not provide sufficient and economic protection for the crop. Many of my studies start with these preventive measures and investigate questions such as: How can crop rotation reduce disease incidence? Where can the use of mechanical weed control and undersowing reduce herbicide use? Can pests be deflected with the help of early flowering plants?
So this is always about the second goal of the Sustainable Development Goals, growing enough healthy food for the world's population while promoting sustainable agriculture. At the same time, we are also touching on Goal 15, which aims to stop the loss of biodiversity.
The combination of Goal 2 and Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals poses a major challenge. On the one hand, food security must be ensured, on the other hand, the decline of biodiversity has to be stopped. Intensive agriculture and urbanization are changing the habitats of many species’ groups, often reducing the diversity of natural habitats and agro-ecosystems. This has a negative impact on biodiversity. So, we are faced with the big challenge of producing enough food while promoting biodiversity. Starting in 2024 there is a new requirement in Switzerland that all farms must comply with: To promote biodiversity on arable land, various extensive areas must be cultivated on at least 3.5% of the arable land. In this way, not only insects are to be promoted, but also, for example, brown hares and skylarks. At the same time, I see integrated pest management with its motto "as much as needed, as little as possible" as the most important element to combine plant protection and biodiversity conservation. However, this requires a good knowledge of plant pathology, which emphasizes the importance of training farmers. Only when plant diseases and pests are correctly identified can targeted measures be taken against them. In the future, optical sensors that make it possible to precisely localize and identify plant diseases can also play an important role. Thus, the site-specific use of plant protection products can become an important component of integrated plant protection in the future.
To promote sustainable agricultural practices, a sound knowledge of plant development and plant diseases must be available at the practical level. First, it must be known how plant diseases can be prevented. In addition to the choice of varieties, these preventive measures include, for example, soil cultivation and crop rotation. In addition to recognizing plant diseases or insect pests, farmers must also be aware of the stage of plant development at which they can occur. Finally, farmers must be roughly familiar with the modes of action of plant protection products so that the correct choice of product can be made, and resistance can be prevented. This knowledge must be generated from research and tested in applied research. In the next step, it must be communicated to farmers in teaching.
Many of my studies aim to reduce or optimize the use of crop protection products while maintaining the quantity and quality of agricultural production. This is to promote existing habitats and biodiversity. For example, I am investigating whether an undersowing in sunflower not only reduces herbicide use but can also increase sunflower yields due to the nitrogen-fixing property of the undersowing. Another research aspect is if an early-flowering border in canola can distract insects, which in turn reduces insecticide use. We also implement policy measures such as the previously mentioned extensive areas on arable land and show how these areas should be managed and what their effect can be. Since this is applied research, an important part of my work is communication with farmers. This takes place through articles about our new trial results but also through guided tours on our trial plots.
Plant pathology research has changed dramatically in recent years, and precision agriculture has become increasingly prominent. I see great potential in this area so that plant pathology and sustainable production do not contradict each other. With the help of precision agriculture, the use of pesticides and fertilizers can be reduced, and productivity remains constant. However, I see the use of sensors to detect plant diseases or monitor weather data only as a piece of the puzzle. It can only ever be combined with the basic principle of integrated crop protection and, above all, the knowledge of the farmers. I believe that this holistic approach will allow sustainable development of agriculture if precision agriculture succeeds in making the step from research into practice.
Knowledge about plant diseases is only one important component of this research area. Knowledge about plants should not be neglected and, above all, experience in production is crucial. My advice is not to neglect this area, allowing this exciting field to be viewed holistically at the level of the pathogen, the plant, and the interaction.
Anna Brugger (born 1990) grew up in Germany and graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology from Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Bonn. There she specialized in plant diseases and followed up her master's studies with a PhD under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Anne-Katrin Mahlein. In her dissertation, she investigated the detection of plant diseases using optical sensors and focused on the UV range. Since October 2020, Anna has been working in Switzerland at the Arenenberg Education and Advisory Center of the State of Thurgau. Here she focuses on applied research in arable farming and teaches young trainees. She is an associate editor of Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection.