INRA, CIRAD, AgroParisTech, AgrocampusOuest, Montpellier SupAgro and ENV Toulouse were the six founding members of the research consortium AGREENIUM. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe

Marion Guillou: spokeswoman for global food security

As INRA’s first female president, Marion Guillou often underscored the importance of worldwide food security. She also reminded decision makers of the importance of the agricultural sciences and shifted the institute’s research towards the challenges of the future.

Updated on 08/10/2016
Published on 02/16/2016

“You need to come packing your dreams.” This phrase beautifully captures Marion Guillou’s personality. Her philosophy is that you should take up noble causes, never forget the bigger picture, and push yourself further and harder. You should also always come in first. And Guillou has had many firsts: she was the first female technical advisor to the minister of agriculture, Pierre Méhaignerie, in 1980, the first female director general for food in 1996, INRA’s first female director general (2000–2004) and president (2004–2012), and finally the first female chairwoman of the board of directors at the École Polytechnique (2008–present).

A stellar background

Guillou was born in 1954 in southern France, in Marseille. Friends and family describe her as modest but determined: a hard worker who was also academically brilliant. She ended up earning a degree in agricultural and environmental engineering and a doctorate in chemical physics. She was also one of the first women to graduate from the École Polytechnique (Class of 1973). Once she had completed her studies, she decided to follow her husband to western France. She adroitly juggled motherhood (three children) and research on nuclear magnetic resonance sensors for the food industry. In 1993, Guillou moved to London to work as the agricultural attachée for the Embassy of France. Thanks to her expert handling of the mad cow crisis, she shot up through the French administrative ranks.
Upon her return to France in 1996, Guillou became director general for food at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. She reorganized the department so that its focus became the quality and security of agricultural and food products. When the mad cow crisis struck, she was starting to be known at the highest levels of the government and invested herself fully in developing the health-related components of the French law on food security.

Looking to the future

We need to figure out the impacts on agriculture, now that we know that humans are playing a decisive role

When Guillou requested a change of scenery in 2000, Minister of Agriculture Jean Glavany offered to make her director general at INRA. Her abilities and conciliatory nature earned her the respect of researchers and politicians alike. Pierre Méhaignerie says of her: “She is a true scientist, with a rich and diverse professional background.” She served on INRA’s management board for a total of 12 years: from 2000 to 2004 as director general and from 2004 to 2012 as president. Ever looking to the future, her goal was to “transform potential future scenarios into clear-cut research questions and concrete challenges.”  Harkening back to her work as director general for food, she always sought to emphasize issues related to food, food security, and nutrition. Guillou also made INRA more of an actor on the global stage by orienting the institute’s research towards major worldwide concerns. As she once wrote in a message to INRA employees: “Global warming, food, environmental balance in rural regions, emerging diseases, sustainable and competitive agricultural approaches…these are all concerns that have made decision makers sit up and take note of the importance of the agricultural sciences. And INRA is where scientists come together to conduct significant, multidisciplinary research that will help solve global problems. We need to figure out the impacts on agriculture, now that we know that humans are playing a decisive role.”

After finishing her term at INRA, she continued serving as the director of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers and as president of the French Institute for Agricultural, Forestry and Veterinary Sciences (IAVFF). Five years ago, Guillou took her fight for sustainable development and food security a step further: she published a book entitled “The World’s Challenge: Feeding 9 Billion People.” Her eyes are ever turned to the future.

The world's challenge. Feeding 9 billion people. © INRA

On the subject of

Feeding the world fairly

Food security is a major challenge for the world. It guarantees a population sufficient food both in quantity and in quality. While in theory we produce enough food to feed the world’s population, the reality is quite different. 30% of the world’s food production is squandered through various phenomena of loss (food storage, climate conditions, etc) and waste (price fluctuation, distribution, access to food, etc). The result is a widening gap between rich and developing countries. Throughout the world, there are currently 900 million undernourished individuals and 1.5 billion overweight people. Worse still, the diet in developing countries is gradually following ours. So how can we correctly feed 9 billion people in 2050, knowing that we have to show more respect for the environment and we have less cultivable land available. All this requires innovating, reducing losses and waste, reducing excessive and unbalanced food consumption. A major challenge when we know that food security rhymes with peace in the world.

"The world’s challenge. Feeding 9 billion people”, written by Marion Guillou and Gérard Matheron