Graduation address given by Professor John Crawford

Professor John Crawford gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 1 May 2009. Professor John Crawford, Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, University of Sydney.

The photo of Professor Crawford giving the occasional address is copyright Memento Photography.

Professor John Crawford

Graduation address

Chancellor, honoured guests, colleagues and graduates, it is genuinely a great honour to be invited to play a part in the celebrations here today. You can look upon graduation as a point in time where you formally acknowledge the end of a period of hard work and accomplishment. I prefer to look on it as the just the beginning of using everything you’ve learned at University to lead a fulfilling personal and professional life. So instead of reflecting back, I’d like to look forward with you.

What does a university education mean in a modern, information-rich world? It is not about simply about parting with a large sum of money in exchange for knowledge. In fact, in the 5000 years or so that they have been thinking about it, philosophers still don’t agree on what knowledge actually is. Nowadays, we can access information at the click of a finger. So if you type the meaning of it all into the Google search engine, you find there are 69, 900, 000 web pages offering the answer. This isn’t really knowledge of course, it is just a disorganised collection of statements and as Plato pointed out, for a statement to be knowledge it must be justified, true and believed. I like this definition because it puts responsibility firmly back with us, as the users of knowledge, to appraise the information we are bombarded with.

Increasingly, the kind of knowledge that society needs doesn’t respect the traditional disciplinary boundaries. IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook points out that most of the challenges we face in the future lie at the interfaces of the traditional disciplines. I strongly believe that a University education, and particularly an education at the best Universities in the world such as Sydney, is about inspiring students to ask the right questions and to give them the skills they need to find the best answers. You shouldn’t be afraid of the fact that these answers might involve branches of knowledge that you don’t know anything about. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been at prestigious international meetings where a scientist is asked about a crucial missing part of an argument, and they retreat behind disciplinary lines and in to their comfort zone. They’ll say something like “… well I’m not a statistician” or such and such. This doesn’t make any sense to me. If it’s important then find out about it, or work with someone who knows. The particular degree you have been awarded with today is very much at the interface between disciplines. It provides you with the skills you need to feel confident in learning new things, and to assemble and communicate effectively with teams of people that bring the right kinds of knowledge to bear on a problem. Don’t forget that your relationship with us doesn’t finish when you walk out the door today. You’ll always be a Sydney graduate and we’ll always be here if you need our help. We like to be called upon by our former students – it makes us feel wanted.

Returning to the role of universities in inspiring its students, it is hard to think of a degree with a more inspiring set of challenges than those associated with feeding the world. And what a set of challenges these are.

The population of the world has tripled in the last century and will increase from the current 6.7B to over 9B in your working life. More significant than this is the growing prosperity of developing countries that is changing global consumption patterns. These countries are starting to eat like the West, with diets that are higher in the amount of meat that is consumed. The production of one kg of pork or beef uses seven times that amount of grain. It has been calculated that between now and the time you retire, agriculture will have to produce more than twice the amount of food it does now to meet the demands of a growing and more prosperous world. Can we do this? In 2007, food shortages led to such high prices that the chairman of the IMF declared that around 30 countries were on the verge of not being able to feed their citizens. About 130million people fell in to food poverty. There is less land available for agricultural production now than there was 10 years ago. Around 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded. An area big enough to feed the whole of Europe has become so severely degraded it can no longer produce food, and this is being added to at a rate of around 10million hectares every year. At this rate, an additional area the size of Australia will have fallen out of production by 2050. One kg of food uses up about 6kg of soil in the US and 18kg of soil in China. Soil is being lost at a rate that is 36 times faster than it is being produced in the developed world and 54 times faster in the developing world. If you add up how much topsoil there is in the world and calculate the average rate of loss and the average rate of production through natural processes, you find out that we have about 60 years before all the topsoil runs out. On top of that, as energy rices rise, food crops are now competing for land with crops grown for biofuel production.

As well as the loss of land, we have to contend with increasing shortage of water. Around 25% of the world’s water sources are currently being used at a rate that exceeds their supply. As the world adopts a more Western lifestyle, it will be more wasteful of water. It takes 140 litres of water to make a single cup of coffee, and 15,000 litres to make a kg of beef compared with just 1300 litres to make 1kg of wheat. In twenty years’ time, if population changes as I have suggested and no new policies are brought in, around half of the world’s population will be living under conditions of severe water stress. Soil and water, two of the most basic requirements or life, can no longer be taken for granted.

After a recent lecture on some of these issues, a student came up to me and asked if I thought there was any hope. I’m a great optimist. This is not the end of the world we’re talking about here. But it is the end of the world as we know it, a world of thoughtless consumption, and that is probably no bad thing. I have no doubt that some kind of new world will emerge out of all this. The forces of economics and government will see to that. But as the recent global economic situation shows, we can’t assume these forces alone will find an optimal solution. I’m sure that there are many possible states for the future, and what we need to find out are the best futures, and how to get from here to there and still prosper. This is the inspiration. We need to find the right questions and pull people together to get the best answers.

And this is where we come back to the reason we are all here. This is the beginning of the future and you are the solution to these issues – no one else is going to do it. Whether you end up working in the agriculture or environment or not, your education will have taught you the value of the land and our natural resources. What ever it is you end up doing, everything you do will touch, and be touched, by these issues in your lifetime. Your time here at Sydney University will have taught you that our land must not to be taken for granted. It will have inspired you and equipped you with the skills to ask the right questions and find the best answers. We live in a democracy, as do most of the developed and developing nations, and that gives you great power to make change. The only thing that is left up to you is to care.

I used to think about what it is that makes us care about some things and not others. Why are we not fascinated by every stone on the ground and every flicker of light? I figured that it must all be down to some kind of Darwinian evolutionary process. Those kinds of people that were fascinated by all those things were not watching out for sabre tooth tigers and so aren’t around any more. Then I had children and I saw that young children are fascinated by everything. When I took my 2 year old son for a walk, it would take us 20 minutes to walk 20m whilst he picked up every stone and examined it. I have repeated that experiment 2 times since with girls, and it’s worse. It takes 40 minutes to get past just three clothes shops. We have wonder built-in from birth, and growing old seems to be a process of losing this capacity to wonder. So as you depart the Great Hall this morning and go out to celebrate your well-deserved achievement, the one bit of advice I’d like to leave you with is this. Never grow up. Continue to wonder about the world around you and to genuinely care. Care enough to challenge everything you read and everything you hear about from people, the media and politicians, and find out for yourself. Modern busy society discourages such things, and you will find plenty of reasons to grow up and care less. As a result, for every one of us that doesn’t grow up there are still plenty that do and that’s fine, they can look out for the tigers. In the end though, it is care and knowledge together that will change things for the good. Be part of that.

“You do not inherit the earth of your ancestors, you borrow it from your children.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery