A growing population, changing climate and limited resources presents huge challenges to the world’s ability to meet agriculture demand. As society has evolved, so must food production to ensure an abundant supply for the sakes of people everywhere.
Not only must supply rise to curb prices but more food must be grown from less as land is limited with an ever growing population. To achieve long-term stability, science-based solutions need to be developed and so is the demand for scientists in this particular professional to help advise on production, technology and food policies.
Today, we have the opportunity to speak with Dr Matthew Cahill, Agricultural Scientist who shares his own passion for his career, why it’s rewarding and the importance of what he does and how it helps the community.
Dr. Matthew Cahill, BAgrSc MPhil PHD
What is your current job title?
Consulting Advisory – Agricultural Science
Where is your current place or employment?
Currently a consultant providing advice to corporates and government bodies.
Why did you choose agricultural science as your profession?
I always wanted to be a farmer when I was younger. I had friends that owned farms, all different sorts such as dairy farms, cereal farms, wheat and cotton farms where I stay with them, got involved in activities which led to my interest into food production.
When you’re younger, everyone grows up with an ideal and for me that was feed the world. If you look at India and China 20 years ago, they weren’t self sufficient if not for science which demonstrates the power and importance of scientific endeavours.
With food, this becomes even more so as demand becomes exponential. In fact, to meet food demand, we will need to grow more food in the next 50 years than all of human years combined.
AH: There’s a theory called the Methuselah effect that is based on catastrophic overpopulation. A trend where people are living longer threatening to overwhelm economical and welfare systems. I imagine that would include food and land as well.
MC: Right, there’s no more land, no more water, urbanisation is rampant with few farmers and ever-increasing population growth which presents huge challenges that only science can address.
AH: So do you support genetic modified foods?
MC: Absolutely, GM foods and other sustainable sources of farming such as urban farming. There’s a lot of investment currently in converting old warehouses into farms.
What is the best part of being in Agricultural Science?
After 30 years in this field, there’s always something new happening. What’s interesting is there is now an increase awareness in consumers regarding where their food comes from. People want to know where their food is coming from, providence of their food and the technology currently helps support that need.
Technology platforms that track food, where it was grown, where it’s processed, how it was delivered and then allowing consumers to use that information to help do their part in the world.
Most consumers buy on price but if they understand where the food is coming from, they’re prepared to pay more for it if it comes from an ethical manner
What are the challenges of being in Agricultural Science?
There’s a lot of perception that agriculture is just a dusty old farmer with a straw hanging out of his mouth but it’s a very technical role. It’s important to change this perception because many scientists and farmers are always looking at the best technological solution as it’s about stewardship of the country side so engagement is important.
This reputation is damaging as you’re no longer attracting people to the industry. We need the brightest people doing it. This damage also reduces political voice because politicians don’t see farming communities as influential.
Urbanisation and a growing population continue to challenge agricultural supply
What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Visiting farms and getting out there are the highlights of my career. I was in Tasmania a couple of weeks ago implementing sensing technology to measure environmental parameters in farms that are used for good decision making. Also the opportunity to visit wineries, oyster farms, grow vegetable seed farms that give you a sense of different sorts of farms out there.
Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a scientist?
Personally, it was getting a scholarship to Cambridge and was profound for me as it took me from a technical role to a research role. For the industry, it’s the gradual accumulation of knowledge.
Do you have any hobbies or other interests?
I swim everyday. Gardening is also on the list; veggies and asparagus being my favourite.
A couple of books I’m reading at the moment are Thinking – Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Man Booker Prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton that proposes hard work, rather than creative genius, is the true source of innovation
Where did you go to university? What degrees did you earn?
UNE, Cambridge – Bachelor of Science and Agriculture
Master of Philosophy
Fellow of the Entomological Society
What classes would you recommend that student take in high school if they wish to pursue a STEM degree?
Depends on your interests, you can do an electronics degree without doing a biology degree. Maths applies to everything. I’d also do arts because if I wasn’t going to be a scientist, it would have been an architect.
People shouldn’t separate arts from science. Great renaissance figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci was both artist and scientist. The book How to Fly a Horse is a very valuable book in science and STEM yet also covers arts and creativity.
How have things changed in your field or science while you’ve been in it?
Social license to operate is being affected. What social license to operate refers to is the level of acceptance or approval by the general public to a project, opinion or practice. What happens is that someone who has a platform and voices an opinion that’s not grounded in science, in their bias, turns into a social movement that isn’t bound by any technical reasons which can be damaging.
Thus social license to operate needs to be guarded and stewarded as well. If not, trust becomes eroded but the resolution to that, to restore trust, needs to be done based on evidence based practice. That there is proper legitimate science and research supporting any opinion.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
I’d say to them to go get their boots dirty. Go visit farms, go do some practical work and it also helps you understand who your customers are. Finally perseverance because it always wins.
What’s your favourite food dish?
Favourite meal is Sunday night with family, every Sunday
If you could have any actor play you, who would it be and why?
Richard Gere as he has a big social conscience and strong political opinions that I admire his efforts to try and do good.