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Anthony Leddin

inducted 2021 Service

As a professional plant breeder, Anthony Leddin loves digging into the secret life of plants and harvesting ways to overcome world hunger.

For the past 20 years, he has been on a quest to help feed the world by developing sustainable, nutritious crops for both humans and livestock. At the root of his work lies a simple philosophy:

“Give a person vegetable seeds - feed them for a year. Give them fruit trees - feed them for many years. (But) give them knowledge to breed plants - and feed them for a lifetime.”

It’s a quest that must outrun the ticking clock of climate change and a rapidly growing world population.

As Anthony says: “By 2050 (less than 30 years away) the world’s population is going to reach around about 10 billion people. We have to increase our food production from current levels by another 70% on top of what we already produce - that’s massive amounts of food,” he says.

Adding to the urgency is a shortage of expert plant breeders, with more people retiring from the field than joining it. In fact, after finishing year 12 at Emmanuel, Anthony was one of only five students studying plant breeding at Melbourne University. He had originally planned to study veterinary science until, he jokes, he found he wasn’t smart enough.

Anthony, who was raised on a farm in Yambuk, switched to an agricultural science degree and found that plants were his real passion. He now moves between life as an agronomist - or crop scientist – in Australia, and volunteer work as a plant breeding expert in developing countries.

His volunteer work began with a UN project in India, where, supported by the Canberra-based Crawford Fund, he helped develop sorghum and millet crops. This experience planted the seed in Anthony’s mind for a project called Plant Breeders Without Borders - based on Doctors Without Borders - where plant experts volunteer alongside local groups and farmers. The teams work to boost crop yield, sometimes by working with familiar plants, or by exploring different ones, such as the Bambara Groundnut - a drought-tolerant nut that Anthony believes has untapped potential as a food source.

Through patience and persistence, this global tree of life has been growing steadily for the past 20 years and slowly changing communities, one plant at a time. In that time, Anthony has worked on crop projects around the world, including Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia and East Timor, and on seed collection in Israel, Turkey and Spain, securing what funds he could to help cover the costs.

A major breakthrough came during a conference in Beijing in 2016, where pharmaceutical giant Bayer was so impressed by Anthony’s vision, it agreed to fund several projects. These included Indonesia and Nepal and, next year, Ecuador, Ghana, Tanzania and Fiji.

Given the global reach of Anthony’s work, it’s not surprising he has been described as the “Indiana Jones of the plant world”, scouring the planet with tweezers in hand, searching for endangered, edible plants and collecting their seeds.

Back home, however, Anthony is an equally rare breed. He is the only professional pasture breeder in Australia working in the private sector for the pasture seed industry. In his job with Valley Seeds, Anthony researches drought-tolerant feed for cattle, dairy and sheep. Whether he is working in Australia or Africa, however, the goal is the same: food security.

Food security, as Anthony explains, not only prevents famine, but civil unrest, war and people being forced to become refugees.

As Anthony says, “when I started plant breeding, I only thought about the food aspect, but then you start thinking about the ethical side of things.

“You start thinking about how, if people can’t feed themselves – what’s going to happen?”

Anthony’s work is part of making sure this question never needs to be answered.

Sowing seeds of knowledge

Anthony Leddin

Inducted 2021