illustration Francesco Accatino: keeping the fun in functional ecology

Agroecology 5 min

Francesco Accatino: keeping the fun in functional ecology

INRAE researcher Francesco Accatino studies the link between sustainability and social perceptions in agricultural systems. At the institute, he is carrying out a wide range of projects that combine modelling with semi-quantitative approaches.

Published on 19 July 2021

An Italian city of renown, Milan boasts a beautiful opera house and hosted the 2015 World Expo. Less well known, perhaps, is its outstanding polytechnic university, where INRAE scientist Francesco Accatino received his degree. Francesco is a member of the Joint Research Unit—Science for Action and Sustainable Development: Activities, Products, Territories (SADAPT; INRAE, AgroParisTech). The career he is building in Paris draws upon his many trips, meetings, and experiences.

The university of the world

Upon the completion of his master’s degree in environmental engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan, Francesco immediately began a PhD focused on ecosystem modelling. Combining mathematics and ecology, he set about to untangle the biology of tropical savannas and, more precisely, the dynamics of tropical and subtropical vegetation.

To broaden his skill set, he spent a few months at the University of Göttingen in Germany and then, to gain direct experience with his study system, travelled to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. His time in South Africa allowed him to mix research with pleasure and explore the natural treasures of the southern tip of the continent, from Swaziland to Mozambique and from the region of Drakensberg to the city of Durban. He got to observe Africa’s charismatic fauna (lions, elephants, leopards, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceroses) and discover iconic members of the local flora.

His work then took him to the University of Western Ontario in Canada. While he spent his summers in North America, he returned to Italy during the winter to teach environmental hydrobiology. Although he admits his original plan was to escape his host country’s harsh winters, he took advantage of his transcontinental travels to integrate the social sciences into his work on ecosystem dynamics. Ultimately, he developed a socioecological model representing landscape dynamics in wetlands under different management regimes.

A new research adventure: exploring agroecosystem services

Francesco took the plane from Canada to France to interview for a position as a research scientist at INRA (later to become INRAE). He outshone the competition and began his work at SADAPT in December 2015. While Paris lacks the wide-open spaces of South Africa and North America, Francesco has nonetheless happily settled in France. 

Using modelling to answer scientific questions, simulate future scenarios, and develop management strategies

The switch in research institutions has also led him to switch research gears. At INRAE, he is delving into functional ecology by modelling the synergistic and antagonistic interactions among the different services provided by European agroecosystems. The broader goal is to promote system viability and resilience. In particular, Francesco is constructing multiscale models with a view to better managing ecosystem service trade-offs and synergies. These models also help predict the patterns of such services, as well as biodiversity dynamics in agricultural ecosystems (i.e., in livestock and crops).

In 2018, Francesco joined the Climate Change and Land Use (CLAND) Convergence Institute, where he is studying trade-offs among large-scale ecosystem services and examining the influences of agricultural production systems and greenhouse gas emissions.

Simulations, optimisation, and a launch pad

Over the years, Francesco has come to recognise that certain aspects of sustainability cannot be fully modelled or quantified. He thus began to mix dynamic modelling with the results of semi-qualitative methods, including findings from surveys, participatory workshops, and metrics of agricultural system sustainability. He has utilised this approach in many EU projects and in his students’ research.

For example, the EU project AnimalFuture—Steering Animal Production Systems Towards a Sustainable Future (2017–2020:) sought to improve livestock systems by evaluating innovative practices based on environmental, economic, and societal metrics of sustainability. AnimalFuture was the brainchild of Muriel Tichit, who passed away before the project came to full fruition. Francesco expresses that it was an honour and challenge to continue Muriel Tichit’s work. With much regret and emotion in his voice, he explains that she was his intellectual mentor, helping him easily grasp the key concepts associated with livestock farming at regional scales.

The EU project SURE-Farm—Sustainable Resilient EU Farming Systems (2017–2021) aims to explore, assess, and improve the resilience and sustainability of European farms and farming systems. As part of SURE-Farm, Francesco is co-advising a PhD student who is modelling agricultural systems (including components such as crops, livestock, and nitrogen fluxes) at small regional scales and who is exploring system resilience to gradual declines in nitrogen fertiliser availability. Furthermore, he himself is working on reformulating qualitative information obtained from case studies carried out in central France (Auvergne). Francesco is also collaborating with researchers at the University of Padua to examine livestock farming practices and perceptions between France and Italy, a comparison inspired by the historical exportation of cattle from the Bourbonnais region in France across the countries’ shared border.

Within the EU project MIXED—Multi-actor and transdisciplinary development of efficient and resilient MIXED farming and agroforestry systems (2020–2024), Francesco is leading research aimed at better integrating different livestock and crops at the landscape scale.

 “Over the years, I have matured in my thinking. Modelling is a useful approach, but it should not stand alone. By combining it with other elements, you can somewhat leave behind the formalities of theory to embrace more practical applications,” Francesco reflects.

A thirst for teaching...and learning

He has been quick to translate these perspectives into practice. For example, one of his master’s students is examining the definitions of the sustainability indicators commonly seen in the scientific literature. Francesco comments, “There are a few environmental indicators, which are all highly similar. In contrast, societal indicators differ greatly in their definitions". Working with another student and several colleagues, he is currently analysing the different communication campaigns employed by the world of livestock farming (e.g., the language, arguments, and messages). This research arose from his observation that the livestock industry and the general public rarely engage with each other.

He is continuing to expand his research horizons as well. His focus has shifted from livestock farming to mixed crop-livestock farming. He now examines regional resilience in addition to system sustainability. His interests are also stretching beyond Europe: he has begun to explore the interactions between livestock farming and food self-sufficiency in different regions of China.

As a consequence of this highly developed work, over the past two years, Francesco has been coordinating his unit’s transversal research on agricultural system sustainability while continuing to grow his scientific expertise. His career is off to a promising start.



To find out more

- Accatino F. et al. 2019. Trade-offs and synergies between livestock production and other ecosystem services. Agricultural Systems, 168, 58.
- Li Y. et al. 2021. Spatial distribution and driving factors determining local food and feed self-sufficiency in the eastern regions of China. Food and Energy Security, 00 :e296
- Pinsard C. et al. 2021. Robustness to import decline of three types of European farming systems assessed with a dynamic nitrogen flow model. In press.



Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemanntranslated by Jessica Pearce


Francesco AccatinoScience for Action and Sustainable Development: Activities, Products, Territories (SADAPT; INRAE, AgroParisTech).


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