My Lifelong Journey from Academia to Regenerative Agriculture

A bit over 3 years ago, I left academic research. The truth of it was my 25-plus year career in medical research had left me feeling really disillusioned. I had spent the last 10 years in Perth, WA and I’d had enough of feeling frustrated at the lack of opportunity and job security within a system that, in my opinion, is failing. On top of that I was exhausted navigating my way through all kinds of biases, both conscious and unconscious, to interact with people that seemed self serving and closed off. I needed time out to gather my thoughts, re-energise and take stock of where I was at, where I wanted to be and the difference I wanted to make.

Many years ago, I thought I could nor would ever do anything but academic research. Now, it’s the opposite, I never want to go back. My time away from academia has given me an opportunity to reflect on my science career and I’ve come to appreciate the good. But I also now clearly see the pitfalls of the academic system.

Scientists publish for other scientists

A major limitation of academia is that scientists mainly publish for other scientists. On one hand this makes sense. Research can be complex and only other scientists will really understand the detail. However, very little of what gets published is accessible to the public without paying exorbitant journal fees. Plus, the content is usually not written in a way lay people will easily understand.

Science is big business

Today science is big business. Research has to translate and demonstrate a national benefit. Long gone are the days when scientists simply followed their passion and did research to discover new things. Not surprisingly, modern research and our institutions are highly entrenched in new technologies. This is largely driven by the economic benefit that new technology brings but also because of our prevailing mechanical mindset that we can overcome any problem with technological intervention. Collectively, we want innovation and unfortunately, we often overlook simple solutions because they’re not novel.

I am not technophobe by any stretch and I love clever ideas. The renewable energy sector appeals to me because it is full of clever ideas. However, I’m more aware now and realise that in some contexts like agriculture, new technology is not necessarily the solution.

Growing food re-ignited my scientific curiosity

Since we met 8 years ago, my wife and business partner, Barb Howard, has been an incredible influence on me. I have learnt much from her about our environment and growing nutritious food. During the Covid-19 pandemic Barb’s desire to grow our own food increased, and because of her resolve we have proudly transformed our home into a productive, urban regenerative farm.

Our front yard before and after transformation into a regenerative urban farm. Photo: Bernard Callus, Alinjarra, WA

While transforming our garden and growing our own food may have started as a hobby, it has ignited into a new passion for me. Harvesting seeds and planting them has aroused my scientific curiosity in germination and caused me to think more about the conditions needed to grow healthy plants. I feel like I imagine geneticist Gregor Mendel, of tall pea/dwarf pea fame, did embarking on his life’s work.

Regenerative agriculture is a solution to many crises

Truthfully, before meeting Barb, I wasn’t especially interested in our environment nor what goes into growing our food. Barb helped raise my awareness about industrial agricultural practices, like spraying glyphosate, and the damage this herbicide does to our environment and to our health.

I am a molecular biologist so I understand about microbes. However, until recently I didn’t appreciate how important they are for healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy food and ultimately, our health. A key focus of regenerative agriculture is to restore soil biology, and ultimately gut health.

What I’ve since discovered is that changing to regenerative agriculture affords multiple benefits for us and our environment. These benefits include: flood and drought resilience; safely sequestering atmospheric carbon; mitigating the effects of climate change; restoring our depleted topsoil; enhancing food nutrient density; minimising industrial use of chemical fertilisers and herbicides; growing healthy food that ultimately enriches human health and reduces the national burden of disease.

Although it has taken me a lifetime to get here, I can now see a meaningful future outside academia. Through the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, with my expertise and experience I am well-positioned to 1) educate people to care about how their food is grown and 2) empower urban and commercial regenerative agriculture to grow healthy nutritious food to enhance human health. I look forward to sharing more soon.