The Scientists - Dr. Anika Molesworth

The Scientists - Dr. Anika Molesworth

How do we know what’s true? How do we solve seemingly impossible problems? How do we make real magic? From Covid-19 to the climate crisis, every aspect of public and private life right now reveals our relationship with science and nature. Author Sasha Sagan speaks to female scientists, in different disciplines, born on different continents, about their work, their philosophy, and how they navigate the old boys' club of the lab in the Violet Online series, The Scientists.
Published: 2021/08/03
Updated: 2021/08/30
Sasha Sagan

Dr. Anika Molesworth grew up on a family farm in the rural, semi-arid heartland of Australia. When the devastating Millennium Drought hit in 2000, it changed the course of Anika's life, setting her on a journey of studying agricultural science, climate change, and global food systems, that would eventually take her to every continent on Earth — including Antarctica! But deep down, she remains a farm girl, balancing her international research with tending to her sheep.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sasha Sagan: You're an agricultural scientist and a farmer. How do you spend a typical day on the farm?

Dr. Anika Molesworth: A typical day for me is greeting the sunrise with my dog on an early morning walk. I then head to the stables, feed my horse who is whinnying for her food and gently nuzzling me with her velvet nose as I bring her hay. I then spend much of the day on my computer, speaking with and working alongside farmers around the globe. I’m involved in the incredible farming community, and although we may be geographically distant, we are certainly close in our efforts to improve food and environmental systems. We are constantly learning from one another, discussing challenges, and identifying opportunities. In the evening, I generally go for a drive around our 10,000-acre property, checking the water storages and fences. If it’s a hot day, a sunset swim in the dam is a nice way to see the day out.

Are you a farmer first, or a scientist first? Or are all farmers scientists in a sense?

I think farmers are the ultimate researchers! All the farmers I know are incredibly inquisitive. They study the land and farming methods closely — assessing what works well and what doesn’t. They develop deep knowledge on soils, water, vegetation, and wildlife. They are continually experimenting – testing what is the most efficient and responsible way to grow crops or raise livestock. So in that respect, I think farmers really are citizen scientists!

What do you wish children were taught in school about the food system? About climate change? How would the world be different if that was part of the curriculum?

Climate change impacts all of us via the meal on our plate. I wish that there was greater awareness of this, and that’s what I am hoping to fix. When we experience a drought in the remote region of Australia where my farm is, that has very real impacts on people in cities in the form of decreased food availability, higher food prices, and lower nutritional value. But few people connect those dots.

I hope that the school curriculum of the future can incorporate big topics like environmental sustainability, food security, and climate change, and make them interesting and relevant to students. We need new, creative thinking from the next generation to help solve these challenges, so having educated and inspired students is key.

You talk about how our decisions "set the trajectory" of the future of our planet. What are the most important decisions we can make at the market or in the kitchen to set a better trajectory than the one we're on?

The food on our plates impacts and is impacted by climate change. So we need to choose planet-friendly diets. This means selecting food and consuming it in a way that’s good for our bodies and good for the planet. That generally means eating local, seasonal, nutrient-dense foods and less processed foods that have higher-carbon footprints. Of course, those diets will look different in different parts of the world. One of the big changes we can make also is reducing food waste. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter! Just by preventing food waste, we can have a huge impact on tackling climate change.

"I actually think one of our greatest advancements in recent years has been to pause and look back. To assess how indigenous people managed landscapes and what their food systems looked like. The incorporation of traditional knowledge — much of it retained by indigenous people — into modern farming is critical." - Dr. Anika Molesworth

The interconnectedness of life on Earth is central to many philosophies and religions, (many indigenous traditions emphasise this, for example). How do we instil this idea in a deep, meaningful way to people who come out of traditions that depict humans as separate from the rest of nature?

I think we need to fall in love with nature. We need to build an emotional connection — one that engenders a sense of belonging, a want to nurture the landscape, and a fear and sadness brought about loss and destruction. Too many people don’t feel connected with nature, and therefore don’t try to protect it. But we cherish things that we love. And I think that love of nature comes from spending time with it, by learning about it, by understanding that the incredible environment that surrounds you is actually giving you life.

What has been the greatest advancement or discovery in agricultural science in the last few years?

I actually think one of our greatest advancements in recent years has been to pause and look back. To assess how indigenous people managed landscapes and what their food systems looked like. The incorporation of traditional knowledge — much of it retained by indigenous people — into modern farming is critical. These communities often held a reverence and respect for nature that I think we have, by and large, lost in our fast-paced societies. To overcome the grand challenges we are faced with now, we need to learn from the past and use these as teachings for the future.

How does strict adherence to the scientific method influence other elements of your life? Political or religious philosophies, for example.

I love science because I am an incessant questioner and love problem solving. Having evidence in my hand also gives me confidence to speak up about issues that matter. It empowers me to voice my concerns about our changing climate. I think modern scientists have to do a better job of communicating science — that is something I’m passionate about. We need to use the evidence to engage and empower people to make positive change in our world. That solid evidence base needs to be woven into all aspects of life — business, politics, education systems — this would help ensure we are working in the best way possible with each other and our planet.

What mystery in your field keeps you up at night?

The question that I tussle with is, “How do we feed a rapidly growing global population well, in a climate-challenged world?” I love this question. I don’t know if there is a more important question – because it encompasses all sectors of society, all people, and asks us to look backwards, look forward, and improve the now. It concerns the environment, communities, politics, and the economy. When we are able to answer that question and implement the solutions, then I think we have solved the big challenges that face us.

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