If Hackett Professor Kadambot Siddique was more swayed by first impressions, WA would almost certainly not be home to one of the world’s leading agricultural scientists – the first in his field to be named WA Scientist of the Year (2023).
In 1981 the in-demand master’s graduate, lured from India to complete a PhD at The University of Western Australia, arrived at the old Perth Airport in the middle of a winter night to resounding silence.
“There had been a miscommunication,” Professor Siddique recalls. “My supervisor (the late Professor Ralph Sedgley) miscalculated the time and so there was no-one to pick us up.”
Cold and wet, having dragged their baggage across the tarmac in the rain, Professor Siddique and his new wife Almaz found some coins to use a pay phone, having located the supervisor’s number in the White Pages.
“He was very apologetic and said ‘I’ll be there in an hour’. He arrived in a tiny two-door Honda Civic,” Professor Siddique laughs, “into which we somehow fitted all our luggage and ourselves. Then he drove us to the Travelodge Motel on the Great Eastern Highway and told us someone would pick us up in the morning.”
Fortunately, the Professor soon found his feet, immersing himself in the State’s agricultural sector by travelling vast distances each week to collect data for his research on chickpea adaptation and physiology. But it made for long periods of isolation for Almaz until the couple had forged some friendships.
Tragically, among those friendships were several couples who invited them on an ill-fated trip to Margaret River about six months after the Siddiques’ arrival in WA.
“We went to Denmark one day and some of the group was jumping in the waves, probably in an area we shouldn’t have been,” he says.
“I didn’t want to join in but Almaz told me not to just sit on the sand, so I joined them and suddenly these undercurrents came and I just remember grabbing Almaz and another woman’s hair. The next thing I knew I was in an ambulance.
“We both nearly died that day. In the hospital in Denmark we were told that two bodies had been found and another one was missing from our group. It was a very traumatic time. The accident would just keep playing in our heads.”
From little things, big things grow
Though the grief-stricken pair considered going back to India at this time – Professor Siddique’s father-in-law blocked his family from reading about what happened in the international newspapers – the determined scientist persevered, ultimately completing his PhD in just three-and-a-half years. That research produced several published papers and proved critical in the early growth of Australia’s then non-existent chickpea industry.
“After completing my master’s, I had worked with grain legumes in Aleppo, Syria, at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and I often thought that the drylands climate of Australia would be similar to that environment,” Professor Siddique says, “so I said I wanted to do my PhD on chickpeas, but I was told no you can’t, work on something else. The chickpea was nothing in Australia then. But I insisted and it was the first PhD on chickpeas completed in Australia. Now we have a thriving pulse export industry in this country. How we have grown.”
Indeed, Australia is now the world’s largest exporter of chickpeas, producing about one-third of global exports over the past 10 years. Professor Siddique has contributed immeasurably to that growth, having personally developed 13 new varieties of pulses (including seven chickpea varieties), among them the very successful ‘Kimberley Large’ kabuli chickpea, grown in the Ord River Irrigation Area, that consistently yields large-sized peas. He also named one of the varieties after wife Almaz, who he describes as his “backbone”.
In tandem with his ongoing work in legume production, Professor Siddique has published hundreds of papers – more than 950 and counting – across all areas of agricultural research, including crop physiology, production agronomy, farming systems, genetic resources and breeding.
His work has been instrumental in developing opportunities for yield improvements in wheat and pulses across southern Australia, and his international collaborations include ground-breaking projects with researchers in China, India, Pakistan and the Middle East.
Working closely with farmers on the land has long been a defining aspect of Professor Siddique’s research. It’s an approach he adopted during the 15 years he spent working with WA’s then Department of Agriculture (now DPIRD) after completing his PhD.
“It’s important to me that our work is making an impact,” Professor Siddique explains. “I like working on practical problems and applying a scientific rigour. To do that, you need to get out in the field – practicality is key. During my industry years, I would write up everything that we did. A lot of people don’t do that because it’s hard, but I believe that you can make a greater impact on an industry with good research.”
Leading the way for global change
After successfully leading UWA’s Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture from 2000-2006, Professor Siddique took up leadership of The UWA Institute of Agriculture, having been one of the key agitators for its re-establishment. He says he has never looked back.
“UWA Agriculture is now number one in Australia and 22nd in the world,” Professor Siddique says. “I am surrounded by very clever, passionate people and I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved together. Every day I jump out of bed because I love coming to work at UWA so much.”
Incredibly, the Professor still finds time to lecture and teach, having supervised more than 60 PhD students and with another 29 currently under his wing. He wants to ensure that the next generation of researchers is equipped to meet the imminent threats facing agriculture – climate change and sustainability – and that the industry more broadly rises to the challenge of feeding the world.
“760 million people in the world go hungry every day, and that number is rising,” Professor Siddique says. “The average Australian farmer produces enough food to feed 150 people at home and 450 people overseas – that’s not a bad effort. But the United Nations predicts that by 2050, agricultural production must increase by at least 50 per cent globally to meet food demand.
“Key to overcoming hunger and malnutrition is greater funding and support for innovative, impactful agricultural research that is conducted in collaboration with industry and working with farmers. We might not be able to feed Asia but we can certainly help build their capacity, with our knowledge and technology, to feed themselves.”
Professor Kadambot Siddique AM CitWA FTSE is the Hackett Professor of Agriculture and Chair and Director of The UWA Institute of Agriculture. From 2024, he will join an exclusive group of fewer than 500 esteemed scientists around the globe as a Fellow of The World Academy of Sciences. He was also recognised last month – in two fields of agricultural sciences; and plant and animal science – among Clarivate’s Highly Cited Researchers for 2023.