Dr Bruce Campbell led the team of scientists that saved the kiwifruit industry from the Psa bacteria, winning this year's Prime Minister's Science Prize. The Plant and Food Research boss believes biological solutions are our best defence against threats to food production.

1 When Psa was discovered in a Te Puke orchard in 2010, threatening the entire kiwifruit industry, what sort of pressure was your team under to find a solution?

The pressure was intense from the moment Psa was discovered. The finance community needed confidence to continue backing the kiwifruit industry and it was up to science to provide the answers. At first we tried to contain the disease but as it spread further the response shifted from eradication to finding ways to live with it. That was a challenge because when a disease travels to a new place it can operate in very different ways and Psa was already looking much more aggressive here. We mobilised a multi-disciplinary team of more than 100 scientists to find a solution.

2 In what ways did the time pressures force you to work differently?

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Science is very risk averse. When scientists make a statement, they want to be 99 per cent confident it's correct, having done a wide range of tests over a long period of time. We didn't have that luxury so at certain points we'd have to make a call based on the odds being better than 50 per cent. We'd try to narrow the range of options and then do the more stringent testing afterwards.

3 What was the scariest call you had to make?

We'd been testing hundreds of varieties of kiwifruit for tolerance to Psa and had one cultivar, Gold3, that looked promising. It wasn't fully resistant but we thought it might work in combination with improved monitoring and spraying. We only had one crack at this new variety because orchardists had to cut off all their vines and replant them. We hadn't tested it on a regional scale so we were in uncharted territory. A lot of people were losing a lot of sleep. We worked incredibly long hours to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum. I'm absolutely delighted we were able to do it.

4 Has the Psa case changed the way you prepare for potential future threats to food production?

Yes, we're increasingly looking for biological ways to control pest and disease incursions, rather than relying on chemicals. You can find micro-organisms that provide plants with a better defence mechanism than chemicals, have a much lighter environmental footprint and are more acceptable to consumers. Plant and Food Research is creating a new generation of scientists to take on our future food-production challenges. More than 300 students have come through our internship programme.

5 Globally are we facing increased threats to food production and why?

Yes, we're seeing an explosion of threats to food crops worldwide as things move around the globe much faster and food production intensifies; mono-cultures are more vulnerable. One option to reduce risk is growing food in completely covered systems. In Japan they're growing food in old tunnels and central city buildings. Other options are recycling more waste, shared urban gardens, supermarkets may grow some of their own food on roofs. Water is also coming under increasing pressure as we saw in Cape Town this year.

6 Should we be eating less meat?

A lot of people are shifting to more plant-based foods. It could well be better for the environment but we can also find different ways to produce animal protein. People are going to want more diversity in their diet and that's a big opportunity. Plant and Food does a lot of research on emerging food sectors which are well below the potential they could reach with better investment.

Dr Bruce Campbell, chief operating officer of Plant and Food Research. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dr Bruce Campbell, chief operating officer of Plant and Food Research. Photo / Jason Oxenham

7 Growing up in Christchurch, was science a big part of your childhood?

As a kid I loved growing plants in pots in our playhouse and writing little stories about them. It's interesting how much the way people eat has changed just in my lifetime. When my parents bought their first home in Shirley we had no refrigerator; there was a safe to keep food cold. We'd buy fish, veges and bread from trucks that would come to our street.

8 How did you learn the art of team-based science?

Looking at the impacts of climate change on the pastoral industries in the late 1980s was a watershed moment in my career. You need to build an international team to address problems that complex. I didn't have any real resources or control to do this so I had to engage people by inspiring them to participate in something bigger. Our aim was to reduce uncertainty about climate change to a point where decision makers could take action. Insurance companies, banks and regional councils treated the issue as real from quite early on because their survival was at stake.

9 Fast forward to 2018, how do you think society is doing in engaging with climate change?

I can remember thinking, "I hope I live long enough to see people acknowledging that this is real and doing something about it" so I'm really pleased we're approaching that point. At the early stage it was about developed countries vs developing countries. China has come a long way in a short time and is really starting to engage. I'm an optimist. I believe people are adaptable. From the recent past we can see a whole range of new technology like solar panels and electric cars has come in quickly. I think the big challenges for the future like water care, sustainable food-growing systems and equity in society will get rolled into one so we'll be looking at ways to optimise the whole system rather than trying to solve things in isolation.

10 Should scientists get more involved in politics?

Scientists who stray into the advocacy can quickly lose credibility. On the other hand, I think science is going to have to engage more closely with communities. As the world becomes swamped with information, we've seen a reduction in respect for the professions. There's benefit from science opening up, but it carries some challenges. Things were done that way to allow the science community to seek the truth and report it without interference, so we need to find new ways to protect that.

11 Has the Prime Minister's $500,000 Science Prize ever been awarded to a team before?

Not one this size. We identified 35 key contributors from our team of more than 100 people and a number of them have said that recognition was the highlight of their career.

12 If you weren't a scientist what would you be?

A barista because I love being able to talk to people and understand their story and work out how we can connect with them. I'd like to see science increasingly engaging with people, understanding their story and finding ways to connect.