How breeding new crop varieties can help shift trends in agriculture

April 4, 2023 | Sustainability through smart farming – a portrait of Dr. Stefan Gerth

"Right now, it can take 10 to 15 years for a new variety to come onto the market. We just don't have that kind of time anymore." Dr. Stefan Gerth is head of department at the Development Center for X-ray Technology, and he is convinced that smart farming can guide agriculture toward a sustainable future. 

What are the goals of the Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming project?

Our goal is to collaborate with the Fraunhofer Center for Plant Phenotyping Technologies in Triesdorf to further increase implementation of phenotyping technologies in industrial agriculture. This means paving the way for the creation of an infrastructure for small and medium-sized enterprises, among other things. Not everyone can afford to purchase a massive sensor system just to test whether it might be the right solution for their individual needs.

We also work on the topic of sustainability. Climate change poses numerous challenges when it comes to breeding new plant varieties. More specifically, our work involves finding varieties that are better equipped to thrive under current or future climate conditions. In the context of that research, our overarching aim is to rapidly identify objective plant characteristics through the use of computed tomography, optical sensor systems, and all of the data processing involved in these technologies. Such characteristics help breeders make decisions about which varieties to cross in order to achieve the best outcomes.

What do you personally value about your work?

There are many answers to that question. First, there's teamwork. I find it very, very rewarding to work together toward achieving a goal and getting all the different disciplines involved wherever possible. I really enjoy being a coordinator within the team and engaging in interdisciplinary communication. Another facet is sustainability and securing the future of food production. Every day, I ask myself the question: What can I contribute, and what can we contribute? Naturally, with the technologies we provide, we're situated right at the beginning of the whole value creation chain. That means we contribute by breeding new varieties, and that contribution extends all the way from selecting the seed to evaluating plant development. The way I see it, this is the foundation we need to secure the future of our food supply without continuing to adversely impact the climate. We have to keep pushing to accelerate the breeding process. Right now, it can take 10 to 15 years for a variety to come onto the market. We just don't have that kind of time anymore. One of our main goals is to develop methods that make it possible to objectively evaluate different plant characteristics so that we can ultimately achieve food security, both in Europe and around the world.

What is your vision for the future of smart farming?

Working together to promote widespread use of our technologies. This is a very complex task, because all of the actors involved have distinct and divergent needs. A farmer and a breeder need different kinds of solutions, for example. A grocer or retailer has an entirely different set of demands. Our overarching aim is to establish a sustainable food production system that is tailored to meet all these varying requirements. Every part of the system is interconnected – from breeding and farming all the way to production. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves how we want to live and feed ourselves in the future. Our planet can't take this kind of strain for much longer. So, we have to alter current trends.

How long will it take for smart farming to become a mainstream practice?

Our solutions are already firmly embedded in some parts of the industry. Of course, we are constantly working to expand those areas of application. In the area of plant breeding, one of the goals we've set is to make objective evaluation of breeding criteria marketable within the next four years – we want to move on from early adopters to the majority of breeders. We have to ask ourselves how we plan to move our work from the controlled environment in which we perform our tests and closely examine individual plants out onto the field

So, the key is accessibility, right?

Yes, accessibility is the deciding factor. It's not just a matter of building a sensor. We are covering the complete value creation chain – from data creation and preparation all the way to decision-making together with customers. Nobody wants to end up with a CT system to analyze individual images; instead, the goal is to create, say, a comprehensive system to measure the length of roots. And to address that topic, we have to engage in dialogue with our end users. It's the only way we can ascertain what part of the data we collect is relevant for specific markets.

Tell us a little bit about your career up to this point.

I started out at the Development Center for X-ray Technology (EZRT) in 2013. After completing my doctorate, I became a postdoctoral research associate there and had the opportunity to get involved in agriculture. As part of that work, I developed a concrete idea for a non-destructive way to evaluate a plant's underground growth. We were able to leverage our knowledge of computed tomography to, say, observe the growth of potato tubers. That was the focus of our early research projects.

I became group manager in 2016 and established a group for this particular topic. In 2020, I accepted the position as head of department in a co-leadership role together with Alexander Ennen. As head of department, I'm focused on integrating X-ray systems in general in different business areas – from portable systems all the way to extremely large, high-energy X-ray systems. One of our successes as a team is the way we turned computed tomography into a tool for plant phenotyping. Since then, our work has advanced to the point where we are integrating computed tomography systems into conveyor belt operations for plant testing at companies and research institutes.

How would you describe your particular skills?

One of the things that contributed most to our success was, to a large extent, interdisciplinary communication with our project partners: How can we initiate successful projects that involve different disciplines? It goes without saying that a biologist has a completely different perspective than I do as a physicist, and we have different ways of approaching the same question. That might sound trivial at first, but significant investment goes into establishing a mutual understanding and making sure everyone is on the same page. That's the only way we can identify a solution that works for everyone.

And what about your skills as a team leader?

Listening! We, too, have a highly interdisciplinary, technically minded team. You have to ask yourself: Where do our differences lie? How can we merge different approaches and maybe find a solution that can be implemented in different areas?

What is the focus of your work and research?

Within the research project Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming, I focus mainly on supervising the project for Fraunhofer IIS. That means I consider which questions we should address and which partners we need for the project, how to get them involved. I also identify the places in which our work intersects with that of other institutions and pinpoint key stakeholders in industry, science, and politics. Project management and controlling are the most time-consuming aspects. Additionally, I contribute my knowledge and ideas when it comes to plant phenotyping: I think about which sensor solutions we can employ to solve specific stakeholder questions and what kind of development we need to achieve in order to make progress.

So, would you say that your role has changed dramatically over the years?

At the beginning of my career – back when I was a research associate – I was much more heavily involved in research and project work. As a group manager, I focused more on coordinating the projects. And now, as head of department, I coordinate multiple groups, and on top of that, I manage the Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming project. I've continued to move further away from research over the years, but now I have the opportunity to shape our projects and assess which direction is best for our development going forward. And to top it off, I'm lucky to have the continued support of an amazing team along the way.

Dr. Stefan Gerth, thank you for your time.


Article by Lucas Westermann, Editor Fraunhofer IIS Magazine

Further information


Development Center for X-ray Technology / 25.10.2021

“Our systems help find the perfect plant”

The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS sees itself as one of the drivers of innovation within the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s strategic research areas.


Development Center for X-ray Technology / 6.11.2018

Smart surveying of the plant world

Phenotyping involves recording plants’ typing reactions to environmental influences. But what does nondestructive testing have to do with it?


Development Center for X-ray Technology / 4.9.2020

Can X-ray technology help plants withstand climate change?


Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT


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