A conversation with YAS Delegate Cara Jeffrey

Cara Jeffrey, YAS delegate 2021

Growing up in suburban Sydney, Cara Jeffrey never thought agriculture was in her future. Fast forward a number of years and the third-year University of Sydney PhD student has discovered a serious passion for the industry.


With a background in marine biology and aquaculture, Cara now works with chickpeas, using genetic mapping technologies, with the aim to help breeding companies and farmers produce a chickpea crop that is more tolerant to high temperature extremes. She is also one of 100 delegates joining Bayer’s 2021 Youth Ag Summit (YAS), to be held virtually in November.


Cara took some time out to share her love for agriculture and thoughts around the YAS by answering some questions from Joerg Ellmanns, Chairman and Managing Director, Bayer Group ANZ. 


Cara – congratulations on being selected for the 2021 YAS! It’s an event that brings together 100 of the brightest young agricultural leaders from more than 44 different countries. Tell us how you first got interested in agriculture?


It’s a great story, because my background is actually quite far from agriculture. I have been interested in marine biology since I was about 10. I went to university to do a degree in marine biology, thinking I would go towards environmental science. I ended up doing a class in aquaculture, just to fill some credits, and fell in love with it – mainly due to its use of really structured problem-solving approaches to improve sustainability and food security – and wanted to try and improve the environment and the world from that angle. 


I went into aquaculture, decided that I was much more passionate about food sustainability as a whole – particularly using genetic means – and went from a postgraduate working in pearl oysters to, now, the University of Sydney working with chickpeas. I really like the problem-solving approach of genetics, especially the idea of improving sustainability and food security, as well as security for our farmers. 


Was your early interest in agriculture based on any kind of family connection or history to agriculture, or if not, what was it that made you want to study agriculture?


Originally it wasn't even agriculture. It was just marine biology and environmental science, but I was always a really curious kid. I’ve been SCUBA diving since I was 10, and that really started my passion for science. My dad actually has a bit of a farming background as his family spent a bit of time in Emerald (Queensland). But as a family, we grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney, so it was very suburban. I just found though that I'm the kind of person who likes to get involved. I like to get into types of research where I'm doing physical work and seeing clear visual progress happen. I also love a challenge. I'm someone who thrives best when I am thrown completely into the deep end and given guidance and trust to figure out how to swim.


Bayer’s Youth Ag Summit challenges delegates to think deeply about food and agriculture and unlock solutions to the challenging question of how we feed a hungry planet. What do you think of when that question is posed?


It is a complicated question. A really big thing for me, especially in the current climate, is education and being able to inform people of what we're doing. I think there's a big disconnect between the general public and the agriculture sector, so it's really important to talk to people about where our food is coming from, and how it's grown. A lot of people don't know what a chickpea plant even looks like, and I didn't until I started this project, which is a good example of my own lack of knowledge. And it’s simple things, like how much water does an almond or avocado tree use? How much energy goes into producing the food that you eat? Where is it coming from? How far is it being shipped? Who is growing it? I think that knowledge helps people to make informed choices, and we can really help with that.


It's also about looking at food production on a global scale. In Australia we produce so much food and, to me, it comes down to making that available in an equitable way. I think making high quality food and education easily accessible to all needs to be put first and foremost. 


How do we compete successfully in the crowded media space to talk about agriculture?


I know that science communication as a field is absolutely skyrocketing and opportunities to learn how to communicate your own research are vastly improving. I think that it would be really beneficial, as scientists, if we can learn how to take away the barrier between “scientists” and “non scientists” and just have open and informed conversations about how the sector works.


An added benefit of those conversations could end up being that we end up encouraging more young people into agriculture?


Absolutely. If you had told me in my undergraduate I'd be working in agriculture, I would not have believed it! There are so many different opportunities to improve things. Even in my own office, I work in genetic mapping. We have someone who works in digital ag, who's a YAS alumni as well, doing AI-targeted weed spraying. We have other people working in GMO crops, we have soil scientists, we have dairy and cattle scientists, and everyone is doing something completely different. But we all have the same goal, which is making things easier for farmers to produce better crops and to feed people.


It's the first time Bayer has held a virtual Youth Ag Summit event. It's also the first with a virtual idea incubator called YAS University. How excited are you by the opportunity this presents to engage with the program and the participants so deeply beyond the actual summit itself?

It's an incredible professional development opportunity. I appreciate the ability to look at things both from a production and implementation perspective as well as a scientific one. I also appreciate the ability to speak with such phenomenal scientists, including the other delegates. They're working on just phenomenal things. To be able to connect with people who are working in really different areas of agriculture, who probably have really varied journeys, is just awesome. I'm really excited to challenge myself in a new way and learn about a whole aspect of this industry that I've never been exposed to.


Where do you hope to be in five years?

I’m still currently deep in my PhD work, so it’s hard to step back and look at the broader future like that. But the ability to connect with and learn from all these different people has just opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for me, that I had never considered before. 
Ultimately, I would like to be a good mentor. I would like to be a good educator. I would like to help improve and grow sustainability and security in this industry. 


Cara, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions and enjoy the YAS experience!

Thank you for the opportunity!