Just 16 years after federation, Prime Minister Billy Hughes, looking to harness the as yet untapped power of the fledgling nation, announced an unprecedented Commonwealth initiative focused almost entirely on growing the agricultural sector.
His plan has proved prescient, ultimately eradicating catastrophic problems including prickly pear, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (pleuro) and coast disease and introducing rabbit control in Myxomatosis and calicivirus.
First called the Advisory Council of Science and Industry, the institution Mr Hughes founded evolved into the Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Mr Hughes detailed a lofty vision when he announced the organisation’s mission to “solve problems that seemed insoluble” and to “open a thousand new avenues for capital and labour”.
Over time CSIRO widened its focus to mining, technology and beyond.
Its work has not just solved problems, it revolutionised farm practices, improved the landscape and changed society.
Think of the introduction of cotton farming, dung beetles and zebu cattle in northern Australia.
CSIRO’s contribution to the Second World War effort gave us radar, with Wi-Fi follwoing in the 1990s.
According to honorary fellow and recently retired director of CSIRO agriculture, food and health Brian Keating CSIRO’s work is defined by four characteristics.
It is problem solving, innovative, Australian-focused and collaborative, co-ordinating and utilising the strengths of other organisations across the Commonwealth.
CSIRO’s success is built on a “deep connection” to Australian farmers.
“You don’t have to look far to see farmers involved as significant partners.. they have been central to the success,” Mr Keating said.
CSIRO's role remains the same, to deliver research that benefits primary and secondary industry, and extend it beyond the farmgate.
“Governments always have investment under the microscope. We wouldn’t exist without a strong signal from our stakeholders that this is of value.”
Mr Keating said CSIRO’s plant breeding is some of its most exciting work today, including drought resistant C4 photosynthesis, high grade oil crops and aquaculture for protein rich animal feed.
“It’s not just targeting yields, it’s also looking at creating higher value crops which could lead to new industries.”
He said one of CSIRO’s first milestones was prickly pear control. By the early 1920s it had spread into a crippling plague and took over 24 million hectares in Queensland and NSW.
Prickly pear was introduced to home gardens, but in the absence of predators and disease it ran wild.
“It was so bad they couldn’t get a horse through the country. They tried everthring to solve it, insects, burning - they even thought about using World War One tanks to crush it,” Mr Keating said.
In 1926 CSIRO hit a solution when the larvae of the Argentinian moth Cactoblastis cactorum was released.
“Within a decade the problem was solved and people built monuments to the grub. It was a sustainable solution and they are still there doing their job.”
Mr Hughes announced an advisory council of science and industry in 1916. The anniversary of CSIRO falls one year later, when the state officials and university and industry representatives that comprised the council came to Melbourne on November 9 1917 to formalise a new national science agency.
Innovation for AgDay
Fostering a sense of pride for all Australians in the agricultural sector is the motivation behind a new national initiative, National Agriculture and Related Industry Day, or AgDay.
Agriculture generates $60 billion of on-farm production, feeds 61 million people globally, is our second largest export industry and drives local economies across the country, employing more than 1.5 million workers across the value chain.
“This is a day for people who grow food, eat food and move food,” said Liverpool Plains farmer and National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson.
National AgDay will be held on November 21. Fairfax Agricultural Media is the media partner of the event.
Visit the official website to find out how to get involved in the celebrations: www.agday.org.au
A bevy of events are scheduled to celebrate AgDay, see the calendar of events.
For those interested in hosting an event, contact the National Farmers Federation to add the event to the calendar: firstname.lastname@example.org