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 68 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 21 professors at the University of Pisa and four senior scientists at research institutes in Italy or abroad. Currently, more than 30 PhD students are attending the course or are waiting for the final examination; eight students come from overseas universities.

The Doctorate Board for the academic year 2019-2020 is composed as follows:
Faculty members: Agnolucci Monica, Angelini Luciana, Arduini Iduna, Bartolini Fabio, Brunori Gianluca, Canale Angelo; Cavallini Andrea, Gucci Riccardo, Guglielminetti Lorenzo , Lorenzini Giacomo, Lucchi Andrea, Massai Rossano, Mazzoncini Marco, Mele Marcello, Nali Cristina, Pardossi Alberto, Pistelli Laura, Raffaelli Michele, Ranieri Annamaria, Serra Andrea, Zinnai Angela.
External experts: Loconto Allison Marie (INRA, Francia), Pezzarossa Beatrice (CNR, Pisa), Ruffoni Barbara (CREA, Sanremo), Scartazza Andrea (CNR, Pisa)

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.

Activities planned during the PhD course (2020/2023, XXXVI cycle)

The PhD students 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 will attend courses and seminars organized in part by the University of Pisa for all its PhD students and in part by the PhD itself, which will offer specific courses for its students.

The so-called “transversal” activity, organized by the University of Pisa for all its PhD students, will include a “Scientific English” course, an “Open Science and Research Data Management” course, a “Statistics for research” course, a “Computer Tools for Research” course, a “Research Promotion” course, and a “Responsible Research and Innovation” course. These courses will be held in the period January-June 2021.

PhD students in Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences will also attend some ad hoc organized courses, such as “Fundamentals of Statistics for Agricultural Research” (held by Profs G. Conte and N. Macciotta, in March-April 2021), “Publishing in International Scientific Journals” (held by Dr. G. Benelli, in June 2021), and “Innovative methodologies in Agricultural Sciences” (which will be held by a teacher yet to be established, in October 2021).All the PhD students will be 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 prepares a report on his/her academic and research activities and holds a public seminar, which will be evaluated and approved by the Doctorate Board.

At the end of the course, the thesis (in English) will be preliminary evaluated by two external referees belonging to other Universities in Italy or abroad. Finally, the PhD degree will be awarded after a public examination in the form of defense of the dissertation before al 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 2018 to 2020, PhD students at DAFE have published nearly 330 articles, including research or review papers in peer-reviewed journals or in conference proceedings. In total, these papers were cited nearly 800 times.


The admission call for 2020 will be open at the end of April and the selection will take place in early June/July. The candidates should check the website  regularly for additional information on application, in particular on the date and the venue of interview.

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.

The last year (cycle XXXV, 2019-2022) ten grants were available, one of which was reserved for candidates who completed their Master’s Degree abroad. Three out of ten grants were reserved for candidates who will carry out a research on “Transition to mixed cropping systems: agri-environmental issues of introduction of agro-forestry in Mediterranean arable cropping systems”, “Analysis of incentivisation mechanisms of agro-environmental and climatic public goods in agriculture”, and “Socio-economic impact of digitisation in agriculture and in rural development”. One grant was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Giulio Regeni and concerned the theme “Food systems as drivers of equality/inequality in livelihoods and food and nutrition security”.

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 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 will be reported on this webpage as soon as delivered by the Doctorate Board.

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.

2020 Research Lines

The Doctorate Board has deliberated the research lines available for the next 2020 PhD program:

  • Innovative business models for sustainable management in rural areas
  • Germplasm Screening and agronomic improvement of new medicinal species for organic farming systems
  • An experimental study for the development of an expert system for the sustainable management of an aquaponic system with sea water
  • Genomics and Breeding of Fig in the Mediterranean area
  • Agro-hydrological sensors and models for sustainable irrigation management under soil water deficit conditions
  • Evaluation and optimization of innovative operative machines and agronomical strategies for conservative horticulture in organic farming
  • Priming effect against biotic and abiotic stresses by UV treatments of plants: from gene to quality of the products
  • Shelf-life of new nutraceutical foods: research and development of process protocols and analysis by means of non destructive technologies and sensorial
  • Molecular and functional biodiversity of microorganisms of fermented foods and beverages
  • Influence of climate change on crops and plant communities: response to waterlogging and drought
  • Insects mass rearing for the development of innovative biological control techniques against harmful insects and as molecular farming units for the production of chitosan and other beneficial molecules

Other three research lines are granted by specific applications (see Application):

  • Agronomic improvement of camelina (Camelina sativa (L.) Crantz) for sustainable poultry feeding and healthy food products
  • Socio-economic impact of digitalization in rural areas
  • Biological control of insects pests of horticultural crops in the Mediterranean area


  • 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: