François Tanguy-Prigent, Minister of Agriculture who signed the law establishing the  National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) on 18 May 1946. © INRA

INRA: where it all began

Humans have farmed the land since time began, but agronomy is a relatively new science. Below are pivotal developments over two centuries which led to the creation in France in 1946 of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) (Law of 18 May, 1946).

By Eric Connehaye, translated by Emma Morton Saliou
Updated on 08/12/2016
Published on 02/23/2016

Until the 18th century, agriculture was primarily an art, founded on thousands of years of tradition. Progress came with increased literacy rates and the amalgamation of farm land.  Fields became suitable for a wide range of experiments: studying crop disease, seeds, wheat storage, and the development of new farming tools such as seed drills and ploughs. In the 1750s, the technical solutions suggested by “farming scientists” were applied by farmers living next to these test sites. In 1757, the first agriculture and economics society was created in Rennes. Similar groups appeared across Europe and began to exchange expertise and seeds, and the seed of agronomy germinated gradually.

Von Liebig: a new era

Institutionalisation increased following the creation of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1839.  In 19th century France, the State began funding agricultural education: farm-schools offering test fields and basic instruction opened in each département (county), with regional schools (for secondary-level agricultural schooling) and the National Agronomy Institute in Versailles at the top of the pyramid.
In the sphere of science, it is a revolution. In 1840, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) proved that plants draw everything they need to grow from the soil. The theory of mineral nutrition in plants was born. By showing that fertilisers replenish the soil of minerals taken by plants, the German agronomist took agriculture into a new era.

From agricultural research stations to the IRA

Colmar Halle Agricultural research station, April-May 1929 Marker for a comparative study of potato. Glass plate 9x12 cm. © INRA
Colmar Halle Agricultural research station, April-May 1929 Marker for a comparative study of potato. Glass plate 9x12 cm © INRA
The first laboratories designed for agricultural study were opened at the end of the 19th century to control the quality of fertilisers and prevent fraud. Louis Pasteur made a name for himself at the first conference of agricultural research station directors held in Versailles. In the early 20th century, 82 research stations studied the properties of soil before working with pioneers in the field on improving livestock.
In 1921, the Agronomic Research Institute (IRA) was created following French Finance minister Henri Chéron’s famous statement: ‘l’épi sauvera le franc’ (‘agriculture will save the currency’).  Agronomic laboratories and stations were immediately placed under the authority of the Institute. The IRA was divided into scientific research divisions: agronomy, plant pathology, agricultural zoology, plant breeding, bioclimatology and plant protection. However zootechnical and veterinary research were not fields covered by the Institute. After the stock market crash of 1929, the IRA was closed and its activities transferred directly to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1934.

1946: a technical revolution

François Tanguy-Prigent, Minister of Agriculture who signed the law establishing the  National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) on 18 May 1946. © INRA
François Tanguy-Prigent, Minister of Agriculture who signed the law establishing the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) on 18 May 1946 © INRA
In 1944, in an essay on agriculture in France, René Dumont called for the restructuring and reorganisation of research concentrated, up to that point, within the research and experimentation services of the Ministry, as illustrated by the existence of three centres, in Versailles, Clermont-Ferrand and Bordeaux.
Five deputies submitted a bill  in February 1946 for the restructuring of agricultural research and the creation of a “National Institute for Agricultural Research”.  The Law of 18 May was published in the Official Journal on 19 May 1946. The French daily Le Monde described the event as being “of immense political importance for agriculture, which has reached a crossroads and must undergo a total technical revolution to bring it to the same level as Danish, Dutch, American and other foreign farming systems.” INRA was created in the wake of WWII to “feed France” in a context of food shortages. 70 years later in a globalised world focused on climate change, biodiversity, animal and plant health and biotechnology, the goal is just as clear: feed the world.