She wants to bridge the human-nature divide

Johanna Jacobi is Assistant Professor for Agroecological Transitions at ETH Zurich. Through her scientific work, she aims to bring us closer to ecology. A discussion.

"I've always been fascinated by plants and insects. When I was little, I collected lots of things. Sometimes I'd let my spiders out onto the kitchen table. My parents weren't too pleased," she smiles. It's hardly surprising that Johanna Jacobi, now an assistant professor for agroecological transitions at ETH Zurich, started off by studying geography and biology. But as a student, she soon realised that the human side of things was lacking, and so she added social anthropology to her degree. In her view, the three disciplines are of equal importance when it comes to understanding how humans inhabit the Earth and our relationship with the rest of nature.

And what better way to gain this understanding than to set off to discover the societies of the Global South? Jacobi’s Master's thesis investigated agrobiodiversity in wastewater-irrigated peri-urban agriculture in India. For her PhD thesis at the University of Bern, she conducted research into the resilience of cocoa farms in the Bolivian rainforest to climate change. After that, as part of a post-doctoral project, she focused on agroforestry – also in Bolivia, where she lived for six years.

During her Mater’s degree time, she happened to read an international report on agriculture and development. "That was a thunderbolt moment for me. I realised that we need to find a different approach if our society is to have a future. I knew that I wanted to be a part of this," she explains. She decided to join ETH Zurich, since the position at the Department of Environmental Systems Science would enable her to work on ecological and social issues simultaneously. Her primary focus is on how agriculture can become sustainable and fair. "This problem essentially comes from modern societies, because humans here have distanced themselves from nature and each other," she explains.

Finding the link between democracy and sustainability

One of her current research projects, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, examines the role of democracy in agricultural sectors. Jacobi's view is that the global food system is in crisis due to imbalances in power: small farmers, women and the poorest members of society do not have enough of a say in decision-making processes. Yet research into democracy supports the idea that such inclusive deliberation processes are favourable for society's public goods and ecological interests. Jacobi is therefore searching for empirical evidence of this theory in the context of food supply and agriculture, drawing on case studies in the Congo and in Brazil relating to coffee and soya. "These sectors have a massive global impact, both on an environmental and economic level," says Jacobi.

Bridging the human-nature divide. Isn't this a colossal task for just one person? "Everyone can have an impact, and I am part of the change," she replies resolutely. Jacobi is unwaveringly optimistic, although she sometimes gets angry and frustrated, too, because for her, sciences proves that there is an urgent need for change. Even if she has been told on occasion that her research subject is sheer fantasy. Even if she has received threats for having examined the use of pesticides in soya production. And even if it's not always easy for her to reconcile her professional and personal life.

"The way I see it, what I do has a purpose," she says. What's more, in her daily life she practices what she investigates: she lives in an ecological community in the Black Forest, near Basel, with her husband and their two children. She also gets involved in agroecological initiatives, such as in urban agriculture projects in Zurich and in community-supported agriculture. And she conveys her values to the students under her supervision. "I encourage them to be brave, to seek the truth and to think critically. Science is a fantastic way of helping to move things forwards," she concludes.