The softness of a rabbit’s fur, the acidic flavour of apples, and food security are just some of the topics researched by INRA, the French National Institute for Agronomic Research. Whilst its laboratories focus primarily on problems specific to France, the solutions it produces often serve as examples for the rest of the world relating to a crucial and increasingly urgent issue: providing enough food for the world whilst protecting the environment.
The INRA is not simply a Parisian institute based on the very chic Left Bank. Its uniqueness comes from its extremely dense and varied network of centres across both mainland France and its overseas departments and territories. Together, the 19 centres employ 8,500 researchers, engineers and technicians in every part of the country. From the game-rich forests of the Ardennes to the marshes of Berry and from the mountains of the French Alps to the jagged coastline of Brittany, the INRA has over 200 research units and 50 testing stations. The INRA’s field of experience is not simply a country covering an area of 675,417 km2, but a series of highly contrasting landscapes with different climates. This undoubtedly provides a rich natural heritage on an extensive scale but it does bring with it a series of complexities in relation to agriculture, livestock farming and forestry. The INRA’s aim is not to allow complexities of this kind to become insoluble problems. The large number of centres in its network – unparalleled in Europe – puts the INRA in first place amongst European agronomic research institutes and in second place worldwide.
Apples and rabbits
The problems tackled by the INRA extend far beyond France’s national borders. The climate, natural constraints and even the condition of the soil are shared rather than individual concerns. Researchers are trying to provide tangible solutions to what are often widespread problems. After over 24 years of research and repeated crossbreeding, for example, the INRA has developed a new variety of apple called Ariane. The result is without doubt a delicious new variety, but more importantly a “super fruit” with resistance to scab, an extremely common parasite across the whole of Europe. Another example dates back to the 1980s, when the INRA successfully produced a new breed of rabbit known as Rex du Poitou for its flavoursome meat, and Orylag for its exceptionally soft fur. The new breed not only represented an economic opportunity for a large number of farmers, but rearing Orylags is also an interesting alternative as a commercial replacement for chinchilla fur, helping to substitute for a Latin American species which is under threat. The project is a good illustration of one of the aims of the INRA, namely to identify solutions that will improve the efficiency of agriculture and livestock farming whilst minimising their impact on the environment.
Like the Poitou rabbit, coming to the rescue of a South American rodent, the reality is that environmental and agricultural issues now have a global dimension. The INRA, conscious of the accelerated pace of the changes now taking place, has joined forces with partners in China, India and Brazil in particular, setting up “laboratories without walls” in which a team from the INRA works in collaboration with a foreign research institute on a joint project. The French institute’s determination to open up to the outside world and learn from the research being carried out in other countries can also be seen in its recruitment decisions: of the 50 or so scientists hired recently, around ten are not French. International partnerships with other European countries are well established, but they are also increasing on the other side of the Atlantic, with North American research institutes.
The INRA, which is governed by the French Ministry of Research and Ministry of Agriculture, has two main strengths. Firstly, it has many years of experience on which to draw. The Institute was founded in 1946, immediately after the Second World War, at a time when France had been bled dry and had a critical need to feed its people. Its other strong point is the large number of fields in which it carries out research, covering everything from human diets to plant biology and animal health. Amongst other things, INRA researchers are currently working on sustainable development, anticipating the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and focusing on viable alternatives. With the world’s population set to increase to over nine billion people by 2050, food security is a critical issue. Working in conjunction with its partner CIRAD, the Centre for Cooperation in Agronomic Research, which focuses primarily on the major agronomic issues faced by countries in the southern hemisphere, the INRA is pursuing the aim of feeding the human population in a healthy and sustainable way.
A priority for the G20
This is a real challenge and one of the priorities for the French presidency of the next G20 summit. Going forward, we will need to produce more, whilst at the same time protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. It is a challenge made all the more complex by the need to manage natural disasters and climatic change caused by global warming. Wheat, for example, one of the three basic foodstuffs, is the focus of an initiative launched by France in 2011. There is an increasing need to produce wheat that is more resistant to the vagaries of the climate, whilst protecting the environment and taking account of economic constraints. The INRA is determined to focus its efforts on tackling these global challenges, whilst recognising that the battle is not only an agricultural one. Experts in energy, climate, geography and urban development also need to be actively involved in making the best possible use of a world facing upheavals caused not only by natural factors but also by human activities.