Chemistry loss agriculture's gain

Graeme Robertson.

A chance conversation at university in the 1960s put Graeme Robertson on a career path that would ultimately change the face of the agriculture industry in WA.

Without knowing the impact he would have on thousands of WA farmers in a career spanning more than 40 years, Dr Robertson turned his back on a life as a chemist in favour of agricultural science.

"I had fairly good marks in science, but I hated the indoors. I was standing at the back of a queue at university with a mate, Kevin Goss, and we were both leaning towards chemistry," he said.

"Someone handed us a brochure about doing science outdoors, so I enrolled in agriculture straight away, having never really been on a farm."

After graduating, Dr Robertson was sent to Merredin as a wheat and sheep adviser before being awarded a coveted Rhodes scholarship.

"I went to Oxford in 1971 for my doctorate in plant physiology for three years," he said.

"But when I returned to the department I decided I didn't want a career in plant science, so my first job back in WA was working with Bill Bowden and David Bennett on the economics of how farmers determined the appropriate amount of phosphate to put on their soils, the costs and benefits and the roll-out of Decide, a computerised program optimising the application of superphosphate."

This model was the first of its kind in Australia, which Dr Robertson said became central to fertiliser planning for many WA farmers through the 70s and 80s.

"We ran a series of workshops across the State because in those days we thought farmers were putting far too much phosphate on. But it didn't bother farmers too much because phosphate was very cheap and so the workshops were only modestly attended," he said.

"The last field day was in Katanning, and the night before that the Whitlam government announced they were going to remove the subsidy on superphosphate, and so farmers had that cost dramatically increased overnight.

"The next day farmers drove hundreds of kilometres to attend the day and we had to close the gates on them and run another field day the next day.

"It was an interesting lesson; that unless the impact is a financial one it won't really get much interest."

After this stint as an economist, Dr Robertson spent five years in Kununurra implementing new strategies to re-invigorate the Ord River agricultural area after a succession of failed farming enterprises across the region.

"The really nice legacy from that period of my life is that all the farmland around the Ord is now used in some way for a productive purpose," he said

Dr Robertson was then appointed Commissioner of Soil Conservation, spearheading the State Government's response to WA's burgeoning salinity and erosion crisis.

"At that time, the department was under a lot of pressure because it had been about 30 years since the wave of land clearing of new agricultural areas and salinity was rapidly expanding across the State and the south coast was suffering significant wind erosion events," he said.

"There were areas of wind erosion that were chronic, for example, the road to Jerramungup used to be blocked every year with sand dunes."

During his time as commissioner, Dr Robertson oversaw a major revision to the Soil and Land Conservation Act to address salinity, wind erosion and pastoral land degradation, including the management of land clearing.

"Clearing was limited without great amounts of conflict or court cases, as happened in other States," he said.

"There is now virtually no agricultural land clearing in WA and in the main, the farming industry dealt with what could have been a very controversial issue in a very mature way.

"While there was a small amount of opposition, the WA Farmers Federation had a motion that unanimously supported the limits on clearing so there was pretty strong support across the industry."

Dr Robertson said establishing the hugely successful Land Conservation District Committees was something he remained extremely proud of.

"Behavioural and attitude change were critical to any positive changes in the way farmers managed their land," he said

"You can't change the way people do things until you change the way they think about things.

"So we established the LCDCs and they took off beyond our wildest dreams. We ended up with more than 100 of them."

Appointed deputy director of the Department of Agriculture in 1991, Dr Robertson then went on to be director-general from 1994 until his retirement in 2004, under agriculture ministers Monty House and Kim Chance.

"Their styles were extremely contrasting, but they were both totally committed to agriculture," he said.

"In my agricultural career I was always working with people who were totally committed to the progression of agriculture.

"The objectives for sustainable and profitable agriculture were shared by everyone I dealt with."

After retiring from the department in 2004, Dr Robertson took on the role of director and professor at Muresk Institute of Agriculture and is still an adjunct professor at Curtin University today.

He was also appointed founding chairman of the Federal Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation, and was a board member of the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

These days his time is spent consulting on international projects relating to agricultural development and food security, particularly in the Middle East.

He also holds a position with the Agricultural Produce Commission, which assists small agricultural industries to raise and manage voluntary levies for industry development.

Mr Robertson believes the two largest issues facing broadacre farmers in WA are climate change and the use of genetic modification technology.

"Americans and Canadians have been eating GM products for nearly 20 years, and there are no signs of any problems," he said.

"This fear of GM in Europe and Australia is preventing our farmers from the opportunities that could exist in using GM technology on a much broader scale.

"There is no evidence that changing one bit of DNA for another bit of DNA is going to have an impact on the health and safety of the product.

"You can't ignore the science, but we haven't done a good job of communicating it."