The Great Hall, 6 May, 2011

Brian S Fisher

Professor McCallum, Deans Adams and Taylor, distinguished guests, colleagues, new graduates and your families.

I have had a long-term personal and professional link to agriculture. But growing up on a dairy farm on the north coast of New South Wales in the 1950s and 60s I would not have thought that I’d be standing here to give this address. I consider the recognition conferred on me today by The University as one of the great accomplishments of my career. I thank the Senate and The University for the honour.

I acknowledge too that the recognition extends to all those who have contributed to my professional training, a large part of which was formally undertaken here at The University. Those who have worked with me over many years also deserve much credit. My experience is that you can always achieve much more with a team than alone but of course personal effort is also crucial.

I welcome the opportunity to be among the first to congratulate each new graduate. I complement those of you who have obtained higher degrees. I know that a degree from this University will stand you in good stead for the future. I wish you all the very best in your chosen careers.

A degree in agriculture or the related field of veterinary science has provided you with strong applied professional training that opens up the potential for many career paths and the opportunity to solve some of the challenges facing the world today.

Fifty years ago there were 3 billion people on the planet. Today there are close to 7 billion and best estimates suggest that there will be over 9 billion by 2050. As each year goes by, real world income is growing so consumption is also rising strongly. The challenge we face as each person in the developing world strives for a better material life is to find ways to sustainably supply all the goods and services that the world will demand in the future in a way that minimises the chance of serious human conflict.

When I was a relatively new graduate in the early 70s it was common to hear projections that the world would run out of certain resources in the near term, that as a consequence, prices of key commodities would reach unimaginable levels and that the industrial underpinnings of society would collapse. Debates about ‘peak oil’, that is, when we might reach the point where conventional oil fields have reached their maximum output level, are a modern manifestation of the same issue.

The concerns of those who raised these issues in the early 1970s were soon swamped by the growth in agricultural output flowing from the green revolution, that is, the application of modern agricultural production techniques and plant breeding in the developing world. Added to this was the growth in output in much of the developed world that was stimulated by government policy designed to shield agriculture from world markets. The combination of better technology and protectionist government policy, particularly in Europe and the United States was enough to turn the tide of scarcity into one of surplus. The result was low agricultural prices, depressed farm incomes and structural adjustment pressure on the farm sector.

During this period in the 1970s and 80s I spent much of my time teaching and doing research in the Agriculture Faculty here at The University. I am proud to have held the Chair in Agricultural Economics following my mentor, Keith Campbell’s retirement.

The realisation that domestic agricultural and trade policy in large countries can have a serious impact on the future growth path of agriculture led me on a new career path in government. I was the Executive Director of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics for nearly 17 years. The skill set required as a senior government official, particularly the skills necessary if you are to become involved in international negotiations, are radically different from those needed as a successful research scientist. But your newly completed professional training in agriculture has provided you with good base training that can be readily extended into new fields.

During the 1990s, the concerns of resource scarcity of the early 1970s were expressed in a more sophisticated way and the ‘sustainability’ debate emerged. At the same time, concerns about climate change moved out of the scientific literature into public debate and into government policy. For me this was a whole new field of endeavour and the opportunity not only to manage the development of new economic modelling but also to participate in the international climate negotiations and the domestic policy debate.

As an undergraduate whose principal interest was in agricultural economics I often wondered why it was necessary for me to learn about the intricate details of plant stomata for example but that scientific background was of much help many years later when I needed to consider the effects on agricultural productivity of carbon dioxide fertilisation as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere grows. Such broad technical knowledge can find a use even in what is often a deeply political debate in some arcane UN negotiation.

I have now moved from government into the private sector and I work largely in the mining industry. But agriculture is never far away. Consider what happens when one or two world-class mineral deposits are opened up in a small developing country like Mongolia. Mongolia has a little less than 3 million people and a traditional economy dependent on livestock herding. When mining takes off, a construction boom begins, skilled labour shortages develop and real wages start to rise sharply and the exchange rate appreciates.

The massive growth in wealth is good for the country overall but strong pressure for structural adjustment will develop in the traditional export sectors. If you are a cashmere and camel wool producer in the south Gobi for example you will face several challenges. First, the appreciating domestic currency will mean that you are paid less for your cashmere on world markets – that goes straight to reducing your bottom line. Second, if you want someone to help you from outside your family you will have to pay them a higher wage because the opportunity to do other work has increased. And finally, your immediate family may be less likely to come and help during the busy times because they all have better jobs and are growing to like the city life.

The solution to this problem is not to stop mining – because that will reduce the country’s wealth – but to devise policies that ease the structural adjustment pressures on the traditional sectors and to work with local agricultural producers to help lift productivity. The opportunities to lift the productivity of the livestock sector in the south Gobi using a few well-known animal husbandry practices are large. The opportunity to increase sustainable food production in Mongolia simply by picking best technology from around the world is also large.

Mining companies have a strong interest in these issues, not because they wish to involve themselves directly in agriculture but because their social license to operate depends on fostering healthy communities around their mines and more broadly within the economies in which they operate. So perhaps if there is someone among you who wants to become an expert in Bactrian camel husbandry I can introduce you to my camels.

I think, largely because of my training here at The University, I have been able to follow three related but different career paths over the past 40 odd years. If I have any messages for you as you start out I think they are best encapsulated in something that an old friend of mine, a previous chief agricultural economist of the United States told me. Those messages are: technology will surprise on the up-side; never under-estimate the power of the price incentive to drive change; and keep a weather eye out for the impacts of risk. And perhaps to slightly mis-quote my old friend from Arkansas, he put it to me this way: ‘if the price of eggs gets high enough even the roosters will lay but even the roosters will find it hard to concentrate if they are as nervous as a long-tailed tom cat in a room full of rocking chairs’.

New research and doing the hard science will continue to be needed to feed the 9 billion people that we will have by 2050. But at the same time, it is amazing what can be done simply by an innovative combination of what we know already.

I am convinced that knowledge can and will solve all challenges and I know that each of you will strive to make a positive contribution to that effort. I wish you all the best for the future.