PhD Programme in Agriculture, Food and Environment

State of the art

In comparison to a few decades ago, agricultural science has made important steps towards aligning its paradigms to sustainability principles. The limits of industrial agriculture – based on oil-based external inputs and on extreme specialization – are now largely recognized, as well as the positive value of agriculture-related ecosystem services. Nevertheless, in the next decade agricultural science will face new and important challenges. A large share of European food is still produced with unsustainable techniques – intensive livestocks, monocultures, excessive use of water, energy and chemicals – and at global level the quality and quantity of natural resources necessary to food production is being eroded. Population increase and dietary transitions are putting agricultural systems under pressure. Climate change raise concerns about the resilience of the food systems also in western countries and urges for adaptation and mitigation strategies. The ‘bioeconomy revolution’, based on strong advancements in the processes turning biomass into bioproducts, has raised concerns about potential conflict on resource use between food and non-food.

As a result of COP21 and Sustainable Development goals agreements, agriculture in the next decades will have to reduce consistently its environmental footprint, improve food quality (first of all its nutritional quality), guarantee a decent income to agricultural producers and contribute to keep rural areas alive. A wide range of emerging new technologies – based on life science, information technologies, robots, renewable energies -are being proposed to contribute to these goals, but at the same time there is an emerging need – already acknowledged in international bodies – to develop new innovation pathways based on agro-ecological principles, largely overlooked by the ‘green revolution’.

The PhD program

The PhD program of Agriculture, Food and Environment is a three-year post-graduate research course at the homonymous department (DAFE) of the University of Pisa. The University of Pisa (UNIPI) is one of the most important universities in Italy and has a long tradition of excellence in terms of education and scientific research. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment is dedicated to research at the frontiers of agricultural, food and agro-environmental sciences. The Director of DAFE is currently Prof. Alberto Pardossi ( and the teaching staff consists of 66 professors and researchers.

The PhD program moves from the awareness that food sustainability is a goal to be achieved through a set of activities that range from production to consumption, involves a myriad of actors and mobilizes natural and human-made resources. Focus on sustainability implies that specialization of agricultural science, necessary to deal with increasing complexity, is accompanied by a strong commitment to take into account systemic implications, including unintended consequences of given technological solutions.

The Phd program also moves from the awareness that sustainability is a multidimensional concept, and that its assessment can be carried out against a multeplicity of criteria, namely environmental, social, economic, and health-related, so that the choice between technological trajectories may face trade-offs, contradictions, different perspectives and interests. For this reason, a large involvement of stakeholders in the definition of sustainability goals, research goals and methods is needed.

Aims and scope

Given these premises, the Phd course has as central theme ‘Food sustainability’ and can be ascribed to the EC “Food 2030” strategy. It refers to different ERC areas as LS9 (Applied Life Sciences), LS2 (Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology), SH3 (Environment, Space and Population), SH1 (Individuals, Institutions and Markets). The course aims at training researchers with an up-to-date, excellent disciplinary ground and with a deep understanding of the systemic implications of their specific field of activity and awareness of the importance of mutual learning with enterprises, administrations and civil society.

To this purpose, we have built an interdisciplinary program combining agricultural sciences with a selected range of biological disciplines. Its scope is articulated around three main areas:

  • biological basis of food sustainability
  • sustainability of food production systems
  • food quality and safety

The Phd program will encourage the development of a common systemic approach through its training program, which will be centered upon the principles of sustainability science, and through its partnership strategy. In this sense, specific agreements with external institutions (Italian National Research Council, F.A.O.) and also with some firms (as for example ABOCA s.r.l.) are established for specific research themes, with double (university and external institution) supervision.

PhD Program overview

The Doctorate Board includes 22 professors at the University of Pisa and three senior scientists at research institutes in Italy or abroad. Currently, 30 PhD students are attending the course or are waiting for the final examination; five students come from overseas universities.

The PhD program essentially consists in conducting an original research work under supervision and writing a dissertation (thesis) concerning the following topics:

  • food science and technology;
  • genomics, proteomics and metabolomics of species of agricultural interest;
  • multifunctional agriculture;
  • plant and animal production systems, even in urban environment;
  • plant physiology, ecology and biochemistry;
  • plant, animal and microbial biotechnologies;
  • technologies for plant and soil protection and environmental bioremediation.

Each PhD student is supported by a supervisor at DAFE. An opponent is assigned to PhD students at the beginning of the course. The official language of the PhD course is English.

The PhD students also supervise MSc students and participate in educational activities such as courses, seminars, summer schools and congresses organized by the University of Pisa or other institutions in Italy or abroad, following a tailor-made training plan aimed at achieving in-depth knowledge of specific scientific issues and improving general skills.

In particular, during the first year, the PhD students attend these courses:

  • “Scientific English” (held by a mother tongue lecturer, in february-march)
  • “Statistics” (held by Dr. G. Conte and Prof. N. Macciotta, in march-april)
  • “Publishing in International Scientific Journals” (held by Dr. G. Benelli, in june)All the PhD students are invited to spend at least six months in renowned research institutes abroad during the second and/or third year of the course.At the end of each year, each PhD student holds a public seminar and prepares a report on his/her academic and research activities, which must evaluated and approved by the Doctorate Board.At the end of the course, the thesis (in English) is preliminary evaluated by two external referees belonging to other Universities in Italy or abroad.Finally, the PhD degree is awarded after a public examination in the form of defense of the dissertation before an external committee, which is appointed by the Doctorate Board.Each candidate must publish at least one scientific paper in an indexed journal (ISI/Web of Science or Scopus) before graduation.From 2014 to 2017, PhD students at DAFE have published nearly 200 articles, including research or review papers in peer-reviewed journals or in conference proceedings. In total, these papers were cited nearly 700 times.



Candidates are required to have a Master’s degree and have to demonstrate good knowledge of the research themes reported above. The Doctorate Board establishes a number of research lines available each year for PhD students, which are listed below.

The number of graduates students admitted to the course varies from year to year depending on the number of grants available and the results of the selection process.

This year (cycle XXXIV, 2018-2021) six grants will be available, one or two of which are reserved for candidates who have completed their Master’s Degree abroad. Two other grants will be reserved for candidates who will carry out a research on “Interactive innovation in agriculture and rural development” and “Ecological, chemical and physiological aspects of wild and cultivated plant species (to be updated)”.

A grant consists of a stipend of approx. € 13,600 per year (including social security contribution) for the whole duration of the PhD program (3 years maximum). The grant is increased by 50% if the student does an internship (at least 15 days) abroad in a foreign academic or research institution. After the first year, each candidate receives an annual research contribution of approximately € 1,600.

The admission call will be open in June and the selection will take place in early September. The candidates should check the website ( regularly for additional information on application, in particular on the date and the venue of interview.

The selection of PhD candidates will be based on their educational (f.i., average exam grade, final numerical grade for the entire degree, honor etc.) and scientific (publications, positions as young scientist, stage abroad etc.) curriculum and on an interview conducted on their master thesis and in one of the research lines available each year for PhD students, which are listed below.

Candidates may also be admitted, at any time, under the supernumerary category if they hold a grant funded by the European Union or, in the case of non-EU citizens, by their country of origin.

2018 Research Lines

The Doctorate Board has deliberated the research lines available for the next 2017 PhD program.

  •  Biochar as fertilizer: changes in chemical and biological characteristics of the soil-plant system in the perspective of a sustainable agriculture
  •  Effects of abiotic stresses on physiology, growth, yield and fruit quality in grapevines and olive trees
  •  CRISPR/Cas9-based genome editing on model plant species
  •  Definition of strategies and realization of innovative machines for physical (mechanical and thermal) weed flora management in agricultural and not agricultural areas
  •  Biological agents to hinder Ailanthus invasion?
  •  Genetic and functional biodiversity of beneficial microorganisms for agri-food productions
  •  The effect of polyphenols on rearing performance of different animal species and on nutritional and technological quality of their products
  •  Physiological response of plants to heavy metals

Other two research lines are granted by a specific application (see Application):

  •  Interactive innovation in agriculture and rural development
  •  Ecological, chemical and physiological aspects of wild and cultivated plant species (to be updated)


  • Contacts

  • Coordinator: Prof. Andrea Cavallini, DAFE, via Del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisa (Italy)Tel. +39 050 2216 663; email:
  • Secretariat: Dr. Stefano Fanti, DAFE, via Del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisa (Italy)Tel. +39 050 2216 083; email: