The MSc Programme in Organic Agriculture (Master of organic agriculture) started at Wageningen University in 2002. The programme adopts an integrative systems approach towards agriculture, with a focus on sustainable animal and plant production and multiple land use. In the three central core courses and the elective options, the gaps between different scientific disciplines are bridged by multidisciplinary groups of teachers.
Increased environmental concern and consumer interest has led to an expansion of markets for organic products and, as a result, organic agriculture has emerged globally as a recognizable sector. In order to meet the challenge of producing healthy, socially responsible and ecologically sound food, the MSc programme in organic agriculture explores food production, food consumption and multi-functional land use using multiple disciplines (i.e. plant, animal, social and environmental sciences), multiple perspectives (i.e. sustainability, health and ethics) and different geographical scales (local, regional and global). At Wageningen UR research and education in organic agriculture both adapt a systems approach. The MSc programme in organic agriculture prepares students for a wide range of positions related to multiple land use, organic agriculture and the food production chain.
The curriculum has been carefully designed to provide a balance between fundamental and applied sciences. University groups working in different areas; such as agronomy, ecology, soil science, animal sciences, pest and disease management, food technology, sociology, communication science and economics all contribute, making this a well-rounded and holistic programme. Special courses have been created in order to ensure that the whole learning experience consists of more than the sum of the individual contributions of each group or discipline. The programme is designed to blend ‘theory-and-practice’ and stresses action learning and action research (Figure 1).
Overview of the programme
Figure 2 presents an overview of the programme. The core of the programme consists of 3 compulsory core courses.
• Analysis and Management of Sustainable Organic Production Chains.
In this course, the students study production chains from an integrated perspective. The ecological, economical and social sustainability of chains are assessed in relation to alternative ways of management.
• Integrated Natural Resource Management in Organic Agriculture.
Here, students examine organic production from different perspectives. Inputs from the agricultural sciences (soil, animal and plant sciences) are integrated with those from the environmental sciences (ecology and rural planning) and rural sociology.
• Masterclass in Organic Agriculture.
This course is a horizontally-structured course with sessions spread throughout the whole 2 year programme. The student group operates as a community of learners. They are updated on topical research in organic agriculture, present their research proposals and results to each other, give feedback on these, organise discussion evenings and participate in an excursion to BIOFACH.
Students have a choice of specialising in either Agroecology or Consumers and Markets. The first specialisation focuses on the natural scientific aspects of organic agriculture, the second on social scientific aspects.
Research areas and thesis opportunities
Students pursuing the MOA have a wide choice of research areas. Several different chair groups (in Organic Farming Systems, Animal Production Systems and Entomology) can supervise theses for the Agroecology specialization. For the Consumers and Markets option the thesis-supervising chair groups include Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Business Economics and Rural Sociology. Examples of thesis research are shown in Box 1.
Box 1: Examples of thesis research within MOA
Societal and institutional mechanisms driving the development of organic agriculture in Nepal
Citizens and government in Nepal are increasingly interested in organic products and getting away from the problems of pesticide residues on conventional produce. A Nepalese MOA student evaluated the status of organic agriculture in her country from an innovation system perspective. She considered the emerging organic sector as a sociological ‘niche’ that aims to become part of the dominant ‘regime’. Based on workshops, interviews and policy documents she identified the key actors, their interrelations and their impact on strengthening the position of the organic sector. The analysis showed how the sector is currently caught in a vicious cycle where a lack of government goals and of entrepreneurship among farmers and market partners is hindering progress. It also identified that there are strong and stable actors in the regional agricultural offices and farmers with ambition who are supported by short term NGO projects. This group offers good prospects for growth in the organic sector if supported by appropriate policies.
Explaining yield levels in organic rice production systems
Auroville is a spiritual community in south India where local farmers provide organic food for the thousands of tourists that visit annually. One of the farms was interested in increasing and stabilising rice production as well as assessing the agro-ecological performance of the farm as a whole. Two MOA students, one from India and one from South Africa, visited the farm for three months to study rice production, using on-farm experiments and collecting bookkeeping data for whole farm analysis. Using the data within mathematical models they were able to eliminate various possible causes of low rice yields, and provided insights into the development options at the whole farm level. Their results provided input for further discussions with the farmers on adapting new practices and strategies.
Organic chairs as a focal point for education and research
Two chairs play a central role in research and education in organic agriculture. The Organic Farming Systems Group (chair: Pablo Tittonell) offers several courses at BSc and MSc level, which also attract students from other programmes at Wageningen and exchange students from other universities. There is also the globally unique ‘special chair’ for Organic Plant Breeding, attached to the Department of Plant Breeding, currently occupied by Edith Lammerts van Bueren. This offers a dedicated MSc course on Organic Plant Breeding and Seed Production and MOA students can do a master thesis or internship in this field.
The first decade of MOA: students and their subsequent careers
In its ten years of existence, slightly over 200 students have registered for the MOA. The group is diverse, with students from more than 40 countries. Although Dutch students were the largest single group, they only make up 25% of the numbers. Other countries that are well represented include Greece, Ethiopia, Nepal, Spain and China. Graduates have found jobs in various sectors although, unfortunately, there is no available recent overview of the careers of all graduates. A substantial part of graduates (estimated at 20%) found or resumed positions in universities, continuing to do PhD research. Other MOA-graduates have gone onto work for organizations that promote organic agriculture, consultancies, educational institutes and public organiations. With this, a number of graduates decided to work on organic agriculture ‘from the grassroots level’, either as an advisor as an active farmer.
Admission requirements: To be admitted to the MOA, candidates need a relevant BSc degree or equivalent with a minimum Grade Point Average of 70%. Proven proficiency in English, statistics and mathematics is also required.