Linking up researchers, elected officials, embassies and international agencies
Ségolène Halley des Fontaines is INRAE’s Director of International Relations. She began by explaining, “My day starts off with a call to one of the four corners of the Earth or by reviewing upcoming missions or the arrival of a delegation with my team. Several team members focus on specific geographic areas such as Latin America, the Pacific Islands, North America, China-Japan, the Mediterranean or India-Southern Asia, as well on relations with international bodies or conventions/agreements. One colleague oversees and supports the mechanisms that structure our relationships with our main international partners.” Team meetings are vital for sharing information on key upcoming dates on the global agenda and identifying opportunities for the Institute. “Then we respond to requests from our international partners, ministries, French and foreign research agencies along with those from INRAE researchers, division heads and centre presidents to have good contacts, make good connections and get the best possible impact at the international level (…) What interests me most is successfully linking up researchers, who have projects or models; elected officials, who have to meet expectations; and embassies, international agencies, and the like, which provide opportunities and often have resources that converge with our objectives, subject in some cases to exerting a bit of influence,” Ségolène said with smile.
From public health to the environment
Public health, international regulations and diplomatic relations were the key-words of Ségolène Halley des Fontaines’s early career. “In particular, I did an internship at Danone on the issue of the relationship between science, regulations and information about food products, including special types of food, e.g. for the elderly, children, those who are ill, and their effect on world trade. I then learned to leverage other types of public action such as ministry budgets, but I quickly returned to the international scene, multicultural contacts, diplomacy, influence and negotiations.”
Seeing the world through a dual lens: the short- and long-terms simultaneously
She then took charge of France’s forestry policy for five years, an experience that opened new horizons for her. “It showed me the need to see the world through a double lens, i.e. the short- and long-terms simultaneously,” she explained. So, while the short term is needed to make commitments, sign agreements, approve regulations, manage budgets or day-to-day matters, she realised that the very long-term and sustainability are concepts that need to be kept constantly on our radars. “It taught me that in our everyday decisions we always need to examine the longer term impact of our actions, sometimes above and beyond our own lifetimes, and not limit our thinking to the short term, for the good of the forests, but beyond that, the good of the climate and biodiversity and ultimately our humanity.”
The right knowledge for the right decisions
She joined INRA in September 2017 and was appointed to work with Jean-François Soussana, Vice-President for International Affairs, on implementing the Institute’s action plan at the international level. “I joined INRA after serving as the Agriculture and Food Security Adviser to the Ambassador who represents France and its positions at FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) in Rome.” During that time, she had noticed a deep “thirst for knowledge” in international forums on the issue of natural resources so as to inform decisions, particularly during COP 21 and preparations for the Paris Agreement, and during approval of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She realised the tremendous strengths but undervalued potential of French research in those areas. “For example, with the Paris Agreement, the idea was to go from a North-South divide on agriculture to a consensus around the concept of sustainable and responsible farming that would take into account climate change and food security issues,” she said. In that way the dual nature of the issue of agriculture was acknowledged, i.e. the need to adapt it to climate change to ensure food security, on the one hand; and its potential to mitigate the effects of climate change, on the other. That is how the “4 per 1000” Initiative on soil and climate change came into being.
A French school of thought
Dietary habits are a major determinant in changes to farming systems
“Governments make agricultural and food policy decisions. But in order to change farming practices, they need to understand the interconnections between topics like non-communicable disease trends in humans, soil fertility, pesticide use, anti-microbial resistance, the growing water scarcity, farming practices, etc. INRA and CIRAD scientists had powerful voices at the international level when I worked with the FAO because a French school of thought exists that is truly innovative and generates a wide range of solutions. That is why I wanted to become part of INRA but also work with CIRAD. The potential for solutions has been substantially strengthened in INRAE, notably through research on the water cycle.” Now her goal is to tie INRAE research to the international agenda and position that research as a means of providing solutions to global issues. In addition to environmental concerns, we are faced with a growing three-pronged burden in public health, i.e. undernutrition, obesity and overnutrition, and malnutrition. “I am convinced that dietary habits are a major determinant in changes to farming systems. It is vital to think about how the two are linked in order to facilitate these crucial transitions!” Ségolène Halley des Fontaines recalled.
“I have 4 children, teens and pre-teens, who I spend time with and share my curiosity about the world, my enthusiasm about meeting and getting to know other cultures.”