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Dr Jean-Francois Soussana - Stories of Change

Updated Thursday 10th December 2015

Dr Jean-Francois Soussana, Scientific Director, INRA, is interviewed by Roger Harrabin for 'Stories of Change'. 

Jean Francois Soussana Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jean Francois Soussana Since 2010, Dr. Jean-Francois Soussana is scientific director for environment at Inra, Paris, France. He obtained his PhD in plant physiology at USTL Montpellier in 1986 after a degree in agronomy. After becoming a senior scientist at Inra he led during 8 years an Inra research unit on grassland ecosystems and global change.

Since 1998, Dr. Soussana is member of the Working Group II of IPCC on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. He was Lead Author for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports in the field of agriculture, forests and ecosystems and shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007. He has contributed to international research programs (GCTE, Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems; GCP, Global Carbon Project) and to scientific expertise for FAO. He has coordinated research projects on climate change and agriculture and currently leads a large European (FP7) project on livestock and climate change involving four continents. J-F Soussana has also chaired a national scientific committee on ‘Ecosystems and Sustainable Development’ for the French national research agency (ANR) and is currently chairing the scientific advisory board of the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE JPI, 21 countries). He also leads a group of the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases (36 countries) and an activity of the AgMIP international program on climate change impacts on agriculture. He currently chairs the scientific committee of the Third Global Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture.

Dr. Soussana has published over 130 refereed research papers in international journals as well as two books and a dozen book chapters. He has developed novel experimental and mathematical modelling approaches to the impacts of climate change on agro-ecosystems and food supply and to the role of agricultural management and biodiversity for the carbon and nitrogen cycles and for greenhouse gas emissions.

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Stories of Change

Jean Francois Soussana interview


RH:      = Roger Harrabin, interviewer

JFS:    = Jean Francois Soussana, Scientific Director, INRA, participant


RH:         Please say your name and what you do.

JFS:       Jean Francois Soussana.  I’m Scientific Director for Environment at INRA which is a French research institution.

RH:         Tell me, you’ve been looking at the issue of land use and climate change, tell me about the fundamentals of your presentation.

JFS:       We can see that there are large risks still in the future for food security, not only of climate change per se, but also of interaction with the social economic storylines, if we end up with a world with high population and high poverty obviously this would have impact. And it is also important to mention that we would have impact on land use change, on tropical deforestation and that the sector may end up, if we have decarbonisation in other sectors, in being one of the major emitters, and this would really create a risk. So that’s also why we are considering possibilities to store carbon in the soils, for instance, as a major action to reduce the emissions from the sector.

RH:         So you’re saying the way we use land could end up as one of our major sources of carbon in the future?

JFS:       If we do have decarbonisation in the energy and transportation sectors, in either sector, it would. The problem is that it is not really obvious to see how you can reduce the emissions from the agricultural sector, you can reduce by say 20% with some of the best practices, but then maybe you need also to reduce food wastes and losses and also to change the consumption patterns. But you have also this possibility with sequestration.

RH:         So this is not trivial what you’re saying, we have to change consumption patterns and what you’re meaning is to eat less meat.

JFS:       Well, I think we should not be over simplistic with this because there are some grazing systems where you actually can demonstrate there is a lot of carbon that flows into the soil where it is stored, for some years at least.  We have some possibilities to reduce emissions also from the livestock sector, but all-in-all we need to go towards sustainable pathways where we would have some changes towards less losses in the food systems and possibly avoid over consumption of meat.

RH:         When you say over consumption of meat, what do you project consumption of meat should be?

JFS:       There are some guidelines in terms of the diets for health reasons as they not only point out meat consumption, they certainly point also at the excess of sugar and fat consumption. So we can consider that staying within some guidelines for health can also help for the environment.

RH:         And how much meat eating per week would that mean?

JFS:       You would not find this easily in any of the WHO recommendations, so I think we cannot conclude on this directly.

RH:         So meat every day?

JFS:       You may have meat every day but I think that you should not consider such… this should be an over consumption together with a lot fats, with a lot of sugars and then you enter in some chronicle diseases possibly after experiencing such a diet for many years.

RH:         I’m thinking of a climate point of view, should you have say a steak a day?

JFS:       I think we should not focus too much on this issue, there are many other issues really, the balance in the diet, the reduction in the losses and in the waste can help us a lot and here again we can shift the agricultural systems to have something which is far more sustainable for healthy soils. Yesterday we had a panel discussion and one of our eminent colleagues was mentioning that we need to move to a soil-based revolution in agricultural systems. So you can do a lot by better-managing your soils.

RH:         The French are quite partial to their meat, are you avoiding setting out guidelines on meat because it would be just too controversial, you don’t want to be involved with that level of controversy?

JFS:       I think it’s just a bit biased to focus on a single issue, when considering all the challenges in the sector you need to consider that this sector is going to be major for the bioenergy production, for instance, and we need to create a lot of biomass as this biomass needs to be used for bioenergy, and here again, we are not going to do this without restoring degraded ecosystems, without restoring degraded soils. So there is a tremendous challenge on that side.

RH:         So tell me a little bit more about that, what do we have to do, how can we store carbon better in the soil?

JFS:       Well, basically it’s a matter of having plant productivity all year round and also to have a higher productivity of the plants, I’d say provide more substrate to the soil so that the carbon can build up in this organic matter.

RH:         Just explain the science about it, exactly what happens because most people won’t be aware of carbon being stored in the soil, just talk me through it.

JFS:       Right. So you start with photosynthesis, you have this huge CO2 uptake and as you see we have not just the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere but we also have a compensation through the carbon sequestration happening already because we can demonstrate there is a land-based carbon sink, so the ecosystems are already storing carbon in biomass and in soils.

RH:         So how does the carbon get stored in the soil?

JFS:       So It is through the plant material that returns to the soil as litter, also debris from the roots and this is decomposed and you have then this organic carbon staying in the soils – it can stay for 20/30 years in top soil, it can stay whole millennia in the deep soil. So if you can get part of this carbon down into the soil where it is really staying for a long time you can achieve a lot in terms of carbon sequestration.

RH:         And how do you do that in terms of running your agricultural system, how do you persuade farmers to farm in that way?

JFS:       It would be a big shift in the agricultural systems really. It is getting us closer to what we call agro-ecology which is a combination of the use of our understanding of ecological regulations and of agricultural sciences. And you certainly also have a social dimension, it needs to be adapted to the small holders, but there is a lot happening already in that direction with many small holders adopting some conservation agriculture practices, some integrated systems like agro-forestry or like crop-livestock integration.

RH:         But you still have the world pushing to create more food for more people wanting to eat western style diets, you still have massive intensification of agriculture, what’s the effect of that?

JFS:       Yes, that’s really where you have opposite trends because it is true that many of the commercial farming systems have no need to consider this aspect. So you are talking here about what are the possibilities to also have some funding, some carbon funding getting into the sector to help shifting the system towards this massive carbon sequestration we need.

RH:         Because at the moment I think intensive agriculture is losing carbon to the atmosphere rather than the other way around, is it not?

JFS:       In many intensive cropping system we can observe this indeed, so it is reverting that trend which fairly important.

RH:         And grants go to farmers at the moment, should they be going to the farmers more to store carbon than they are?

JFS:       Well, generally speaking we need to consider how incentives can help the environment, and certainly this issue about climate action in agriculture is also a major issue for future policies.

RH:         So basically the spotlight should be much more on farmers when we’re talking about climate change than it is at the moment?

JFS:       Oh definitely, this sector is really part of the possible solutions, it will create the bioenergy that is needed, it will create the food that is needed, it can help in the ecosystem services and it can help in mitigation through that action that we can have on restoring soils.

RH:         So at the moment it’s a problem, you need to turn agriculture from a problem into a solution.

JFS:       Exactly, that’s precisely what we need to invest in.

RH:         It’s a heck of a challenge.

JFS:       It is a huge challenge.            

<End of Interview>


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