Katrien Descheemaeker to head Plant Production Systems group

Published on
June 9, 2022

Katrien Descheemaeker has been appointed chair holder of the Plant Production Systems group by the Wageningen University and Research Executive Board as of 1 June 2022. She came to Wageningen via Ethiopia and Australia ten years ago and will now succeed prof. Ken Giller.

Katrien Descheemaeker grew up in Belgium, where she studied bio-engineering sciences at Leuven Catholic University. ‘My interest in the environment and food security was instantly piqued. Thus, I chose a major in Forestry and Nature Management and a minor in Tropical agriculture.’

For her PhD, she travelled to the densely populated Ethiopian highlands. ‘Decades of overgrazing had affected the grazing lands. Moreover, erosion was a serious issue’, Descheemaeker says. ‘Some areas were closed for grazing, which enabled the natural vegetation to be revitalised. The vegetation prevented further soil erosion, and facilitated infiltration, preventing water from being lost from the system.’

Crop and cattle systems

After her doctorate, Descheemaeker shifted focus to mixed systems in which crop farming and livestock farming are combined. She focused on this production system in Africa and Australia and gained insight into different farming contexts and how the various factors that determine this context are interrelated.

With the farmers

From Australia, she returned to Europe and started a tenure track position within the Plant Production Systems group at WUR. Her research takes her to farmers in different locations, where new methods are tested in practice. The results are then used in models that can show outcomes at the farm and regional level. Thus, Descheemaeker helps farmers find the solutions that work best for their specific circumstances.

Sustainable intensification

‘This domain has so many wonderful challenges. For example, how to make knowledge relevant and understandable for farmers with limited education. We seek solutions to intensify their farm together. In order to produce sufficient food, the yield must increase. But this must be done in a sustainable way’, says Descheemaeker. Options include intercropping with legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil and improve the production.

Extra challenge due to climate

‘What works depends on the context, making this a complex but rewarding domain. You make systems more robust, also in light of climate change.’ In the coming years, Descheemaeker will focus on this mission with researchers in her group. ‘On the one hand, agriculture must adapt to a changing climate because yields are declining in many areas. On the other hand, agriculture contributes to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases. Thus, the agricultural sector faces two major challenges with regard to the climate. Our group aims to contribute to addressing these issues.’