Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
I’m from an agricultural family: my grandfather was a small field crops farmer in the Beauce region, one of the premier grain producing regions of France, and the world. Many of my uncles and cousins are still in the farming business. My father was a corn breeder when I was young, and has been in the seed business his whole life. So I guess you could say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
However bizarre it sounds, I don’t think I knew I wanted to be a crop scientist for quite a while. I was just good at science, particularly enjoyed biology, and things moved from there. I ended up in France’s prime crop science school, the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon, now known as AgroParisTech. The defining moment there was a specific conference by the late Bertrand Ney, on modeling crop canopy and crop disease interactions on the case of field peas. A year and a half later, I was hired by my first employer, Arvalis – Institut du vegetal, to do exactly that for the primary wheat disease in Europe, Septoria tritici.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I’ve worked for almost all my career in French “technical agricultural institutes”. These are non-profit applied research organizations that are financed and managed by farmers that represent the different grower and commodity boards. I started at Arvalis, a 400 person institute that works on cereals, maize, potatoes, forages, flax and tobacco. I’ve since moved on to Terres Inovia, a 150 person institute that works on oil and protein crops. Our general work consists in finding operational solutions to growers’ problems, in fields ranging from crop genetics all the way to farm economics.
I started working on crop and disease modeling: I developed a disease prediction model and the associated decision support service, SeptoLIS®. I later also developed a prediction model for brown rust that is also currently widely used by French wheat growers. Afterwards, I became in charge of crop physiology for Arvalis. This led me to be heavily involved in a reference study on the recent impacts of climate change on wheat yields, and climate change effects on agriculture in general. I also contributed to the continued development of Farmstar®, a remote sensing system that is used to advise growers on fertilization of their cereals and rapeseed crops on close to 10% of cropland area in France.
Afterwards, I worked at Arvalis where I was in charge of genetics, managing the support of French cereal and maize growers to improved varieties. The majority of our projects involved developing tools to pursue the adaptation of crops to climate change and devastating diseases. A few highlights, from the many possible projects, are the development of a few state of the art digital phenotyping systems [PDF, article] and the creation of a start-up that furthers these developments.
What crop enhancements are you working on?
As Deputy Director of Terres Inovia, I oversee the Institute’s general research strategy for the benefit of oil and protein crop growers across the whole country. Our major challenge is accompanying the shift away from pesticides; the French government is imposing this at a pace that is most often faster than what farmers, the crop protection industry and ourselves can keep up with. Currently the biggest challenges are insect pests of rapeseed and fungal diseases of peas.
Can you describe how damaging these pests can be for farmers?
Just one example: faba bean was a very interesting crop in terms of overall sustainability. It provided good revenues to growers, because there was a high value market exporting it to Egypt, where it is a staple part of the traditional diet. It is a legume, so it does not require nitrogen fertilization, and even provides nitrogen to the soil for the following crop, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes to providing alternatives to animal sources of protein.
In short, it is a poster crop for sustainability and had great momentum just a few years ago in France. But an insect pest, bruchid, creates small puncture wounds in the seeds that are unacceptable to consumers in Egypt. Growers used to control this efficiently with insecticide treatments that were managed optimally with a decision support system. But legislation has banned the insecticide from being used during the flowering period of the crop. Since then faba bean acreage has fallen by more than half, and is still declining. We are working on understanding and using the volatile compounds that attract this pest to limit its impact. But this example typically shows how legislation passed before novel crop protection solutions are found, can literally eradicate a crop from a nation’s farmland.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
Crop science has helped meet the challenges of feeding the world and putting nations on the path to development time and time again. It’s this vision that set Norman Borlaug, the ultimate Food hero, on the path to creating what would become the CGIAR centers. I’ve been fortunate enough to work to work in diverse agricultural science disciplines – genetics and breeding, pathology, physiology. In all these disciplines, we can better understand how our crops function depending upon the wide variability of environmental conditions crops are faced with. This understanding is essential to allow us to continue increasing food production in the midst of climate change and reduced synthetic inputs. We can create better varieties, develop new crop protection strategies, improve cropping practices, and, one of my favorites, develop tools to help growers in the increasingly complex decisions they have to take to manage their farms.
What inspires you about your job?
What I always tell undergraduate students hesitating whether to go into our field, is that the greatest thing about my job is how meaningful it is. Knowing that you can contribute, however small that contribution may be, to advancing agriculture and food security is a great feeling. Among the moments I love, the field days our technical institutes organize are a highlight. Spending a few days interacting with hundreds of growers gives you a very direct sense of the impact of your work. Having your work challenged also provides some of the best ideas to improve it further.
David is Deputy Director and Director of Research for Terres Inovia in Paris, France.