Rare prize goes to crop scientist in field of his own

Tuesday, 2nd January, 2018

FLOWER POWER – Graham Farquhar has become the first Australian to win the Kyoto Prize. Photo: Stuart Hay

IN A rare tribute, 70-year-old ACT scientist Graham Farquhar has become the first Australian to win the Kyoto Prize – the most prestigious award in the world for fields not recognised by the Nobel Prize.

The Australian National University biophysicist received the award at the Kyoto International Conven-tion Centre in November.

Dr Farquhar was honoured for groundbreaking work that has seen him devise a mathematical formula to determine how particular species photosynthesise and which trace elements they require to grow.

The formula has helped pave the way for cross- breeding of different strains of plants in order to make plants and crops more durable in unfriendly conditions.

Dr Farquhar started working on the formula in the late 1970s with a goal of determining which particular elements or conditions were limiting for commercial strains of plants.

“It was a way of assessing different sub-components and providing a language to describe in a qualitative sense their capacity for photosynthesis,” he said.

A major area of interest was the examination of stomata – tiny holes in leaves that assist photosynthesis but can reduce a plant’s capacity to retain water.

After devising his formula, Dr Farquhar approached Richard Richards – an old school friend who is now a plant breeder for the CSIRO – and the pair began “back-crossing” strains of different plants.

“It’s (back-crossing) a way of maintaining the best properties of commercial strains while crossing them with strains that will improve performance in certain areas,” he said.

The process will eventually result in a number of hardier plant species, such as wheat crops capable of growing in drier conditions –  an innovation that could be essential to sustainability in a changing climate.

Dr Farquhar grew up visiting farms in the Hobart and Burnie areas with his father,  who was the district agricultural officer, and said the idea of “improving the lot of the farmer” had been implanted from a very young age.

He said he was proud but humbled to receive the award.

“There’s something sort of weird about it,” he said. “People are asking lots of questions and you start to wonder if it warrants all the attention.

“It’s very hard to avoid feeling like an imposter.”

The Kyoto Prize heads an impressive list of awards won by Dr Farquhar.

In 2014, he and Dr Richards won the UK-based Rank Prize in human and animal nutrition and crop husbandry, while the following year he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

He was made an Officer of the  Order of Australia in  2013 and is the ACT’s Senior Australian of the Year for 2018.

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