PhD Programme in Agriculture, Food and Environment


Compared to a few decades ago, agricultural sciences have taken important steps towards the principles of sustainability. The limits of industrial agriculture – based on high consumption of fossil energy and extreme specialization – are now widely recognized, as is the positive value of ecosystem services related to agriculture. Nevertheless, agricultural sciences will face new and important challenges over the next decade. A large part of food in Europe is still produced with unsustainable techniques that involve a strong dependence on external inputs (feed, fertilizers, pesticides), high consumption of natural resources such as water and land, high levels of carbon and nutrient emissions in the environment and a simplification of production processes, which severely limits the natural cycle of nutrients and the conservation of biodiversity. However, population growth and the need to ensure safe access to food for the greatest number of people in the world are putting pressure on agricultural systems, which are also subjected to the challenges related to climate change. This scenario, on the whole, raises concerns about the resilience of agri-food systems and calls for adaptation and mitigation strategies that have also been mentioned in the recent COP21 agreements.

FAO, in defining the Sustainable Development Goals, has clearly indicated that agriculture in the coming decades will have to constantly reduce its environmental impact, improve access to food and strategic nutrients for a constantly growing world population, while guaranteeing a decent income to agricultural producers and helping to keep rural areas alive. It is therefore a question of guaranteeing the three cornerstones of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. The use of a wide range of new emerging technologies – based on omics sciences, information technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence – will contribute to the achievement of these goals. At the same time there is an emerging need – already recognized by international organizations – for the innovation paths based on these technologies to integrate with agroecological principles, so that production systems are redesigned taking into account the specificities of rural communities and territories in which they develop. In this context of growing demand for enabling technologies capable of improving the efficiency of agricultural systems by reducing their environmental impact, there is the need to fully seize the opportunities offered by the so-called “bioeconomic revolution”, based on strong progress in the transformation processes of biomass in bioproducts.

The PhD programme

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. Marcello Mele ( and the teaching staff consists of 75 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.

Sustainability is also a multidimensional concept, and 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

The PhD course in Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences aims to train researchers (also through agreements with external public and private bodies and with the business world) who have the necessary skills to face the challenges of sustainability in the agri-food sector and the need to ensure the greatest efficiency of production systems, food high nutritional quality, and safe access to food. To this end, the main research topics developed within the PhD program concern: the study of sustainable and resilient agricultural systems with respect to the challenges of climate change; the application of plant, animal and microbial biotechnologies; the application of the principles of agroecology to production systems; the study of ecology, physiology, genomics, proteomics and metabolomics of animals and plants for food use; the development of sustainable food technologies; the study of the quality of plant and animal foods and of the main genetic and environmental factors that determine their variability; the application of enabling technologies for the development of precision farming systems in the context of plant and animal production processes; technologies for plant and soil protection and environmental remediation, even in urban environments; the development of technologies for the application of the principles of the bioeconomy, with particular reference to the use of by-products of the agri-food supply chains for the production of feed, fertilizers, soil improvers, biostimulants and as sources of substances with a nutraceutical effect.

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 encourages the development of a common systemic approach through its training program, which is 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.

The PhD program and the National Recovery and Resilience Plan

Some PhD scholarships have been funded or co-financed by the Ministry of University and Research (MUR) through the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). In fact, the educational objectives of the PhD course are consistent with the issues of the NRRP relating to the green and ecological transition of the economy and the society and with the digital transition and the technological innovation needs of companies and public administrations. In particular, in the first case, various scientific disciplinary sectors relating to the doctorate have active research lines in the field of agroecology, the protection and conservation of agricultural biodiversity, the circular economy, the reduction of chemical inputs, the reduction of gas emissions with greenhouse effect and the release of nutrients into the environment, with reference to both agricultural processes and those of food processing and conservation.

In the wake of the tradition that has seen the agricultural school of Pisa engaged since its foundation in the development of sustainable agriculture models, the research lines of the department that are expressed in the PhD program pay particular attention to the ecological transition of agriculture through the introduction of innovations that make agricultural systems more sustainable. The experimental facilities of the “Enrico Avanzi” Agro-environmental Research Center of the University of Pisa (to which almost all the teachers of the college belong) also guarantees the possibility for PhD students to carry out research on different scales and to obtain results readily transferable to agri-food companies. In the second case, there are just as many research initiatives related to the development of enabling and intelligent technologies to improve production efficiency and the sustainability of agricultural and transformation processes and to make more effective the certification and quality control systems of products and processes. The research lines on precision agriculture cover all areas of agricultural production, from crops to livestock and provide for applications both at the level of primary production companies and at the level of food companies. The models and tools dedicated to fostering the digital transition do not neglect the need to involve the public administration as well, envisaging digitization approaches that are also useful in those sectors of the public administration dedicated to the development and implementation of European policies in the agri-food sector, consistent with plans of rural development. These lines of research are active on both European and national projects. The activity of the scientists of the PhD board in technology transfer is also very significant, an aspect that guarantees a broad applicability of the results of these lines of research to the world of agri-food companies and a higher probability for PhDs to achieve important work positions. In fact, the disciplinary areas and the issues addressed are consistent with the needs of the country, as well as of the regional territories interested in the PhD program, in terms of highly qualified figures oriented to meet the innovation needs of the companies referred to in the PNRR.

How to Apply

The first admission call for 2024 will be open in February and the selection will take place in May. Other calls are expected to follow before November. The candidates should check the  UNIPI  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 available research themes. The Doctorate Board establishes a number of research lines available each year for PhD students, which will be reported in this webpage.

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. For the previous cycle XXXIX (2022-2025) nineteen grants were available, one of which was reserved for candidates who completed their Master’s Degree abroad.

The scholarship consists of a salary of approx. € 13,600 per year (in addition to the 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. Each 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 PhD 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.

2024 Research Topics

The research lines that are available for the XL PhD cycle are the following:

  • Transformative innovation in food systems
  • Smart agricultural tools and practices for improving crop seed quality in a precision agriculture context
  • AI applied to autonomous mowers
  • Effects of physical and chemical elicitors and biostimulants on the vegetative-productive activity of the vines and on the quality of the grapes
  • Study of the dynamics of genomic innovation by exploring models of new gene creation in plant evolution
  • Root water uptake processes in heterogeneous cropping systems using soil resistivity meters and surface energy balance models
  • Development and application of autonomous robots in agriculture and landscape
  • Biology, ecology, and management of grapevine pests
  • Early diagnosis of diseases and disorders of crops and sustainable protection strategies
  • Innovative and sustainable solutions for agriculture and the environment: new biofertilizers from the enhancement of woody biomass and other natural organic matrices. The role of biochar and wood distillate in reducing the fertilization soil and mitigating of atmospheric emissions
  • Digitization and innovation for the quality of animal products and the resilience of livestock systems
  • In vitro neo-organogenesis functional responses of aromatic and ornamental plants under environmental stress conditions and biostimulants

There will also be two competitions reserved for these two themes:

  • Role of legume crops in agroecological cropping systems: meta-analytic approach and participatory research
  • Metagenomic study to identify the phylogenetic origin of the Xylella fastidiosa strain responsible for the Monte Argentario outbreak

Other competitions on reserved topics may be added later.




25-30 September 2023

Tenuta di Suvignano, Monteroni d’Arbia

The Department of Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences organizes the first edition of the Tenuta Lab in Suvignano, as part of RinnovaMENTI RURALI: Great rural challenges that enable the territory towards innovation and regeneration. Training and co-planning program for nature, legality, entrepreneurship in rural areas and communities in transition. There will be 5 days of study, research and co-creation, which will involve the community of PhD students, researchers and professors of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences of the University of Pisa.

PhD students coming from different studies and sectors will have the opportunity to get to know each other and work in groups. Research and study activities will alternate with experiential and team-building activities. Through the acquisition of facilitation techniques, creative research methodologies, design thinking and participatory approaches, PhD students will experiment with new ways of working and doing research, of generating ideas and research projects, of mapping and analyzing the company’s resources, enhancing the resources of the territory in a transdisciplinary and innovative way. The Tenuta Lab training program for PhD students includes operational discussion sessions with field activities, direct observation, thematic workshops, meetings with local administrators, entrepreneurs, stakeholders, in English and Italian.

Contacts: Prof. Andrea Serra (


“Strengthening crosssectors to integrate humansanimalsecosystems: a One Health approach declined in agriculture science

22-23 november 2023

Department of Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences

The first and second year PhD students organize, as every year, a scientific conference in which they will present their research, together with national and international experts in their respective research fields.


  • 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: