Swiss Senior Researcher Reflects on Experience at Penn State

Dr. Heidrun Moschitz reflects on her experiences working with Socioeconomic Scientists at Penn State while visiting from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland
Swiss Senior Researcher Reflects on Experience at Penn State - News


Heidrun Moschitz a Rural Sociologist specializes in Urban Food Systems and Policy Networks associated with Organic Agriculture in Switzerland

Placing yourself in a different environment is always inspiring, allowing new perspectives and a chance to reflect on daily work. I was very lucky this year to be able to spend two exciting months as a visiting scholar in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, hosted by Clare Hinrichs, Professor of Rural Sociology. As I worked on writing a paper dealing with food frames in Swiss politics, the exchange with colleagues here enabled me to reflect on my findings from a new angle. Although one knows theoretically about cultural differences, to experience them on a daily basis – be it when shopping in a supermarket or at the local farmers’ markets – makes a difference and added greatly to my reflection about my own work. For example, one remarkable difference in food culture is what I saw as fairly high skepticism about certified organic agriculture among critical consumers in the U.S. compared to the very high level of trust Swiss consumers have in the organic farming organization’s (certified) organic label. Yet it is hard to nail down THE ONE THING I learned during my stay in Pennsylvania. I believe that a lot of what I discussed, including rural sociology, women’s studies, alternative food networks, food ethics and more, with the very open and welcoming faculty and students from across the College of Agricultural Sciences will feed into work to come at my home institution, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL in Switzerland.

Situated in the northern (German speaking) part of Switzerland and having today about 175 staff, the Research Institute’s roots lie in the Swiss organic movement. Back in 1973, this movement decided that the mainstream farm advisory system and research was not sufficiently adapted to the needs of organic farms. Over the years the Research Institute grew from a handful of staff to its current numbers and now has four research departments (soil science, crop science, livestock science, and socioeconomics), one communication and extension department, and an international cooperation department. If you are interested in learning more about the work of me and my colleagues, please visit our website or watch one of the videos mostly geared towards a practice audience on our youtube channel – there are a couple of English videos available.

Because the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture is independently structured, its researchers can develop their own fields of interest (as long as these fit the Institute’s overall claim of “excellence for sustainability”). Making use of this freedom allowed me to develop my research field focused on urban food systems, which I have now been following for several years, along with conducting research on learning and innovation, policy networks, and rural development from my home in the socioeconomics department. My interest stems from working on alternative food systems for a long time, and realizing that with 75 percent of people now living in cities, alternative food and agriculture cannot only be dealt with as a “rural” question, but requires taking into account the “urban.” In my research, I ask how looking at the food system from an urban perspective can lead to new conceptions in urban-rural relationships and finally to new inspirations for agricultural and food policy as a whole. In the course of a research project in Basel, a city close by the Institute, I could initiate a discussion process among food system actors, including those based in administration, civil society, and the market. While many U.S. cities have already set up food policy councils or the like, such approaches are rather new in Switzerland – so it’s exciting to be part of this development! My visit to Penn State certainly gave me additional drive to pursue this path of research.

For any further questions about FiBL (the institute where I work), my own research or possibilities for conducting masters thesis research at our institute, feel free to contact me:!