John Caradus – Scientist focused on helping farmers

Farmers Weekly – 8 February 2021

Grasslanz Technology chief executive John Caradus received the Royal Society’s Thomson Medal for his work, helping to deliver productivity solutions to pastoral farmers, at Government House in Wellington by Governor-General Patsy Reddy.

Royal Society Te Aparangi (RSNZ) Fellow Dr John Caradus was recently awarded the Thomson Medal by the society for his pastoral research leadership in a career that has focused on improving the value of grasslands for NZ farmers. Colin Williscroft reports.

WHEN it comes to research aimed at improving the New Zealand’s pastoral sector’s productivity through delivery of plant and microbial technologies during the past 30 years, chances are John Caradus has had a hand in it somewhere.

That work has not only helped NZ farmers, it’s contributed billions of dollars to the economy.

Chief executive of Grasslanz Technology since 2006, Caradus was appointed white clover breeding team leader when AgResearch was established in 1992, later becoming a science group leader and then science general manager at the organisation before leaving in 2003 to join Dexcel (the research arm of what is now DairyNZ) as chief executive.

His agriculture research career began with a forage plant breeding position at DSIR Grasslands when he was still finishing his Masters degree in Auckland in the mid-1970s, which he later complemented with a PhD from Reading University in the UK in the early 1980s before returning to NZ.

He is grateful for the opportunities that came his way at the time, saying it’s a very different situation for young researchers today.

There was also a different approach to how young researchers were encouraged in their work.

When Caradus began his career he was fortunate to be given space and time to consider how he could add value to the agricultural community.

He says he feels for young researchers today, who not only pay for their studies, but are also not provided the same freedoms he was given to make his mark.

The approach today is more prescriptive and objective-led, which he says can stifle the innovation and free-thinking that past researchers were known for.

He worries that’s led to a loss of flair in young researchers coming through today.

As a plant breeder, Caradus has been involved in developing 16 white clover cultivars, and was recognised for his understanding of the area of Epichloe grass endophytes, a fungal symbiotic partner of grass that can protect it from insect pests.

He was part of the team led by AgResearch’s Dr David Hume that was awarded the 2018 Pickering Medal by RSNZ for work to discover, patent and commercialise the novel ryegrass endophyte AR37, which provides ryegrass with high levels of protection against insect pests, while maintaining the health and productivity of grazing animals, resulting in large gains in farming productivity.

Caradus led the commercialisation of the endophyte, which has been estimated to contribute $3.6 billion to the economy through the life of its patent.

His current job allows him to combine his strong research background with the opportunity to direct R&D investment in developing research outputs and ensuring that they are commercially delivered as technologies that can be used by farmers.

He is full of praise for the way NZ farmers adopt the results of work done by agricultural scientists.

“NZ farmers are some of the most clued up land managers on the planet when it comes to understanding problems and how research can solve them,” he said.

“Their uptake of technologies is faster and more effective than the rest of the world in terms of taking on research information and making their farms work better.

“They are always looking for solutions and when they see one, they go and get it. That’s why they are the best in the world.”

A prolific writer of more than 250 published science papers, he has received several honours for his grassland research and associated technology transfer.

As well as being elected a RSNZ Fellow, he’s an Honorary Fellow of the NZ Institute Agricultural Science (NZIAS), a Fellow of the Agronomy Society NZ and a life member of the NZ Grassland Association (NZGA).

A past-president of the NZGA, NZIAS and the NZ Plant Breeding and Research Association, he is a trustee of the NZ Grassland Trust and the Kathleen Spragg Agricultural Research Trust, and a director of the Foundation for Arable Research, as well as being a member of the NZ Institute of Directors.

Caradus says there has been an attitude surrounding public good research funding that bread and butter agriculture research funding should instead be directed towards hi-tech projects, which he questions.

“Can’t we do both? If we had moved away from agriculture, where would we be now?” he asked.

“We should not be doing (hi-tech projects) at the expense of boots on the ground pastoral agriculture research that keeps things ticking over.

“It’s short-sighted for public good funders to say agriculture is a thing of the past.”

For the agriculture research sector to continue to deliver on its potential, there are still some areas that need to be addressed.

He says NZ needs to have more conversations around GM, with Grasslanz involved in projects where all field testing is done overseas, in places like the United States and Australia.

“There’s a need for debate about why we are so precious about not looking at GM technology to (alleviate) some pressures, such as climate change and issues around waterways,” he said.

“What is the market advantage to us to continue to reject these technologies?

“I’d like to think that we can have those conversations in an emotional-free manner, but there are polarised views.”

In the meantime, NZ researchers are working on projects to deliver products that will be used by other countries. Some of that research is funded by the NZ government, developing technologies that at this time cannot be used here.

“Does NZ want to benefit? And if we do, how are we going to approach it? Both sides will have to move, and a lot will be driven by companies like Zespri and Fonterra and how brave they want to be,” he said.