Weed expert sprouted from poverty
When Stephen Powles looks at resistant weeds, he sees evolution in action. When he looks in the mirror, the tall Australian sees his own evolution through hard work, potential and being at the right place at the right time.
Today, Powles heads a large research team at the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative at the University of Western Australia, travels the world giving lectures, writes papers on the inner workings of resistance, talks to farmers about how to manage weed resistance with diversity, and hosts other international researchers in his lab.
• Powles is a world-renowned expert on weed resistance.
• He was one of five children raised by a single mother.
• He tells farmers to “change it up” to keep glyphosate working.
However, this noted expert, the first to write about glyphosate resistance when it was just a whisper in the DNA of seeds, sprang from humble beginnings.
He was raised in the back country of Australia by an “amazingly self-sacrificing mother who, through no fault of her own, found herself with no husband, no money and five children, ages 1 to 8, to raise,” Powles says. “My mother was an amazing woman.”
With no money for anything other than survival, each of his five siblings dropped out of school at 15 to help the family make ends meet. Powles took his place as a laborer and a grain mill clerk for five years. In school, he’d always been a good student, so at 20 he took a one-year course at a small agricultural college. The work ethic that he took to the mill served him in his rise to the top of the class. Based on that feat, Powles gained a place in the agricultural science department at the University of Western Sydney.
When he graduated at the top of the class, he attracted the attention of the local Rotary Club.
“My big break was in winning a Rotary Fellowship to undertake a master’s degree in crop science at Michigan State University,” Powles says. “When I traveled to MSU in 1974, I had never been outside of my home state.”
Discovering a wider world
Even to this day, he calls the experience in the U.S. “the single-most important thing that’s happened in my life. It opened my mind to the wider world.” He still maintains friendships he made playing rugby in the U.S.
With master’s in hand, he returned to Australia, pursuing a Ph.D. in fundamental biochemical research at the Australian National University. While there, he won a two-year postdoctoral appointment at Stanford University and a second postdoc at the University of Paris in France. It was there in the early 1980s that Powles first became aware of emerging weed resistance to atrazine.
“I never would have gotten the chance to go to university and everything that followed if a lot of people hadn’t helped me along the way,” he says.
Among the people who influenced him, Powles calls Stanford professor Olle Bjorkman “the greatest plant physiologist in his day. I saw the honesty, clarity and brilliance, and wholehearted concentration and focus of a great scientist in action.”
Returning to Australia on a grant in 1983, Powles arrived just as the first cases of herbicide resistance were becoming apparent. “I thought, ‘Wow, plants can evolve resistance to herbicides, and as we are starting to rely exclusively on herbicides, maybe resistance will become a big future problem, so I will start working on it now.’”
In hindsight, Powles calls it a risky decision, one that others in industry have labeled as “foresight” on his part. “In honesty, I know that this decision was a combination of intuition and good luck,” he says.
His international reputation exploded alongside weed resistance in Australia, and the country took on the dubious distinction of the worldwide leader in weed resistance.
These days, he’s fond of saying that the U.S. will soon take that mantle from Australia as “No. 1 in weed resistance” on the strength of resistance to glyphosate. In mid-July, he visited the Mid-South, urging farmers and industry to “change it up” with multiple chemistries.
Back on his farm in Western Australia, he checks out the Roundup Ready canola growing despite a droughty season. “We got fabulous weed control with glyphosate,” Powles says. “That’s because we’re only using it where it’s most effective in that crop.
“When on a good thing, change it,” he echoes. “The longer we can keep glyphosate working, the better off we’ll be.”
This article published in the November, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.