On January 1, 2020, INRA and IRSTEA fused to form a new institute: INRAE. Jean-François Soussana is INRAE’s vice-president of international research policy, and he shares his goals for the coming years here:
"As the number-one institute worldwide for research in the interrelated fields of agriculture, food, and the environment, INRAE has a responsibility to tackle this century's pressing issues: climate change; the loss of biodiversity; soil degradation; lack of access to clean water; the energy crisis; and food security. The UN formally described these challenges in 2015 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
With its three overlapping research specialties, INRAE will be able to develop solutions with multiple applications, which can be used, for example, to facilitate the agroecological transition and the transition to healthier and more sustainable dietary regimes. The institute's systematic approach will generate a range of options for policy-makers in France, Europe, and the rest of the world.
To meet its ambitious goals, INRAE will need to build and reinforce European and international partnerships because the challenges that we will face between now and 2050 are greater than any one country can manage alone. The institute will also need to put its excellent basic research skills to full use to create and rigorously evaluate all possible solutions. Maintaining our scientific excellence and our international visibility will therefore be crucial for INRAE.”
Working in teams and networks enhances creativity
Soussana states, "Today's research is carried out by global research networks." Over the course of his career, he has become an internationally recognized figure in the environmental sciences. In March 2017, he took the natural next step by accepting to serve as INRA's vice president of international policy. His objectives are the following: to expand the institute's scientific impact, promote its priorities via international policies, improve the tools used in European and international collaborations, and emphasize the contributions made by INRA research and expertise in the quest to solve global challenges.
Scientists must join forces to save the environment
In 2015, France hosted two global climate change conferences, one in Montpellier (Climate Smart Agriculture) and one in Paris (COP 21). Soussana served on the scientific committees for both. The three-day COP 21 brought in 2,200 participants from 95 countries and elicited the strong engagement of scientists and politicians alike. During COP 21, Soussana coordinated the conference's scientific activities, from disseminating up-to-date knowledge to brainstorming about future research directions. The Paris Agreement gave rise to a unique initiative that is being led by France, with help from INRA, CIRAD, IRD, and the CGIAR consortium: 4 per 1000, or carbon sequestration in soils for food security and the climate. The goal is to implement agricultural and forestry practices that increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration with a view to increasing the amount of carbon in the top 40 cm of soils by 0.4% per year at a global scale. Soussana explains, "Promising results have been obtained in Europe and other parts of the world. In Portugal, where carbon storage levels have been monitored since 2009, the restoration of degraded grasslands has helped store 1 million tons of carbon. This result was accomplished by seeding lands with grass-legume mixtures and providing extra phosphorus." This work is the culmination of long-term research projects of which Soussana has been a participant since the earliest days of his career.
Grasslands as bioindicators of climate change
In the 1980s, Soussana earned his master's degree and PhD at Montpellier SupAgro (then known as ENSAM). He comments, “I have always been interested in questions related to the environment and natural systems. I therefore felt that attending a school specialized in agricultural research would take me in the right direction. However, little did I know that I would end up pursuing a career in research.”
Hired as a research scientist at the INRA of Clermont-Theix in 1986, Soussana conducted experiments at the interface between ecology and agronomy, studying the role of legumes in grasslands. He explains, “I first tackled fundamental questions related to the functional importance of plant enzymes and studied how plants controlled nitrogen fixation. The goal was to reduce the need for fertilizers and increase production quality.”
Starting in the 1990s, he became interested in studying the effects of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. He took part in one of INRA’s first research programs to address climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases. His research team consequently launched multigeneration experiments. Those of the fourth and last generation are focused on the impacts of extreme climatic events, such as the one experienced in 2003 and those expected to occur towards the end of the century. Soussana says, “We now have a better understanding of the combined effect of these factors and the role of climate variability.” This experimental research has occurred in tandem with the development of detailed models, which can be used to predict the consequences of climate change. He states, “These models, which take into plant diversity and the interactions between plants and soil organisms, are adding to our knowledge of how ecosystems functionally respond to global change.”
An international expert who translates knowledge into action
Very quickly, those in charge of international research projects sought out Soussana and his expertise. Unexpected and intriguing results emerged from the first European project he led on the role of grasslands and livestock farms in greenhouse gas dynamics (i.e., carbon, nitrogen, and methane). He comments, "European grasslands generally act as sinks for carbon. Indeed, their removal of atmospheric carbon may outstrip emissions of methane and N2O, in CO2 equivalents. This finding may mean that grasslands provide environmental benefits, even if the associated production of livestock results in net greenhouse gas emissions.”
In 1998, Soussana became a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a watershed moment for his career. In 2007, the IPCC—and therefore Soussana—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He reflects, “This type of collective expertise has had a tremendous impact at the global scale. The amount of knowledge we have acquired is impressive, and we are in the process of testing numerous hypotheses.” Soussana has published 156 articles in peer-reviewed journals and several books, which have also contributed to his scientific renown. Through his participation in different international scientific committees, he is engaged in raising scientific awareness in the general public, defining research strategies, and finding science-based solutions. His extensive contributions resulted in his being named INRA's scientific director for the environment in 2010.
Soussana is now INRAE vice president for international policy. His main challenge is balancing the increasing number of responsibilities he has taken on over the years. He remarks, “When you are participating in several research programs and activities, all of which interest you, the problem is finding the requisite time and energy, as well as developing the necessary organizational skills. It often seems like I am trying to juggle several different careers.” He feels lucky to be able to rely on the INRA research powerhouse, which he sees as deriving its strength from an extended internal network of skilled individuals.
- 57 years old
- Married with two children
- Professional Background: Agricultural engineer and PhD in the sciences
- Hired as a research scientist by INRA of Clermont-Ferrand-Theix in 1986
- Served as INRA's scientific director for the environment from 2010–2017
- Currently serving as INRA's vice president for international policy
Leader of several scientific committees, including the following:
- Co-president of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA) since 2016. GRA is an international consortium whose participants come from 47 countries.
- Member of the steering committee of the Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community (Climate KIC) since 2016. The Climate KIC was established by the European Institute for Technology.
- Head of the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security, and Climate Change (FACCE JPI) from 2010 to 2015. The JPI FACCE has united the efforts of 20 European countries.
- Member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1998
Soussana has received numerous awards, including the following:
- 2007 Nobel Peace Prize given to the IPCC, of which he is a member
- 2009 Order of Merit (Knight level) from the French Ministry of Agriculture
- 2011 Gold Medal from the French Academy of Agriculture
- 2013 Norbert Gerbier-MUMM Award from the World Meteorological Organization