Graduation address given by Professor Richard Trethowan

Professor Richard Trethowan gave the occasional address at the Faculties of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and Veterinary Science graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 4 May 2007. Professor Trethowan is Director of the University’s Plant Breeding Institute at Narrabri.

The photo of Professor Trethowan is copyright Memento Photography.

Professor Richard Trethowan

Occasional address

Firstly, congratulations to the students from the faculties of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and Veterinary Science graduating today! Today is the culmination of many years of commitment and hard work and you have passed the challenge.

I realize that not all of you will follow a research pathway; some of you will return to farms, others will follow different commercial endeavors. However, I believe that what I will speak about today is relevant to us all; we all have a role to play.

In reality the real challenge for each of you is only now beginning. Many of you will tackle some of the most pressing issues facing human kind. We live in world where food security, malnutrition and water availability are issues for billions of people.

Some estimates project that global food supply will need to double by 2050 to keep pace with population increase (no new land). There is also a finite amount of fresh water in the world and agriculture currently accounts for 93% of fresh water consumption. What is alarming is that twice the current consumption of fresh water will be required to produce this food if we stay at current levels of water efficiency.

We’ll need to not only double the productivity of our food systems, but do this using roughly the same amount of water that we do today. A phenomenal challenge! What an exciting time to be a graduate in the biosciences.

Climate change is topical and regardless of the outcome of the current debate, mitigation of the effects of climate change across the world’s farming systems must be achieved. 23% of human induced greenhouse emissions are attributed to activities related to agriculture. 47% of with methane and 88% of nitrous oxide, both important greenhouse gases are linked to agriculture.

So what can we do? The challenges seem bigger than ever before. However, we have better tools, better technology than ever before.

  • Molecular genetics has improved the effectiveness of plant and animal improvement. We can use new genetic diversity, either naturally occurring in plants and animals or the products of gene technology, to improve many traits, including water use efficiency.
  • Crops better adapted to improved conservation agricultural practices will reduce ploughing, conserve fuel and the maintenance of crop residues will increase C sequestration.
  • A United Nations 2006 report stated that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Methane, the main offender, is 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide is at trapping heat in our atmosphere, vaccines have been developed and diets formulated that reduce methane production.
  • In many countries, particularly in the developing world, better agricultural policies will remove the impediments to attaining higher and more sustainable yields.

The examples I can give can go on and on. However, I hope that what is obvious is that many interconnected approaches are possible. Gone are the days when individual scientists could work in isolation and have significant impact.

Your class mates of today will be your collaborators, industry links and research partners tomorrow. Today you become part of a large network of university of Sydney graduates in the biosciences, a great platform from which to launch your professional careers.

I graduated with my PhD from this university in 1988, and some of my most rewarding experiences as a professional plant breeder have come through this network of graduates.

I also believe that scientists who are able to cross disciplinary boundaries will become increasingly important in meeting the challenges of increased and sustainable productivity of food systems. If you’re an expert in one discipline or area of knowledge, make it your business to know more about the disciplines that interact and overlap with yours. This can only improve collaboration and will allow you to see the opportunities more clearly.

As you go out now into your professional lives, be enthusiastic in what you do. Think big and don’t be daunted by comments like, ‘it can’t be done’, ‘we tried that and it didn’t work’. Because there will be plenty of people who are willing to give you this advice!

Let me conclude with an example. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 and is widely accredited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history, was and is someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer. As a professional plant breeder he developed semi-dwarf wheat cultivars in Mexico that were much higher yielding, and when introduced into India in the 1960’s, quadrupled wheat yields in the space of a few years: there hasn’t been wide spread famine in south Asia since. He faced many obstacles, from both colleagues in science who said it couldn’t be done, funding agencies and bureaucrats who doubted his methods and politicians who feared losing face and leverage: a less persistent man would not have initiated what went on to become the Green revolution.

I’m quite fond of one of his quotes, he said “There is the prospect of a spectacular breakthrough ingrain production for India…but…there are conditions that must be met with fact and action, and not with talk and probability”

On this note, and on behalf of both faculties, I wish you well as you begin your professional journey.