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A diversified farming systems approach is central to what we do

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Interview with Prof. Andrew Campbell

Prof. Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), explains why long-term, multi-disciplinary projects with a strong gender component are key to his organisation’s new strategy

Australia has a similarly arid climate to many countries in the global South, and its agricultural sector faces many of the same challenges with regards to climate change. How does ACIAR facilitate the exchange of climate-smart agricultural solutions?

ACIAR brokers partnerships that get the best available science in Australia partnered with local science in other countries, to tackle development problems in a practical way. For example, over the last 30 years, conservation agriculture has become the norm in Australia, so it’s incredibly rare to see stubble burn in Australian agriculture anymore. We have learnt how to sow directly into the residue of the previous crop, incorporate more legumes into cereal rotations and retain organic matter in the soil, because our soils are poor in nutrients and organic matter, so we can’t afford to burn nutrients. We’ve adapted Australian conservation agriculture technology for developing countries, for example, with a little seed drill called the Happy Seeder that is able to be towed by 40 horsepower tractors instead of the 400 plus horsepower tractors we use in Australia. This is being used by farmers in South Asia to sow directly into rice or wheat stubble, and retain the organic matter on site. Based on our rice production in Australia, we’ve also developed dryland rice techniques and salt-tolerant rice varieties that are highly relevant in places with rising levels of salt water intrusion.

Our capacity building programme brings scientists from developing countries to Australia for postgraduate training, and we now have many hundreds if not thousands of alumni who have been trained through ACIAR projects and gained postgraduate qualifications in Australia. We try to build local capacity so that we leave behind a legacy of capable institutions, which are better able to tackle complex problems effectively over the long-term.

ACIAR’s new 10-year strategy has introduced a move towards fewer, larger and longer research projects in each country. What is the rationale behind this?

Our programme managers agree that the best projects with which they have been associated have several common characteristics: a clear understanding of the problem; the right people around the table (including end-users where appropriate) to make a difference; good leadership; and sufficient resources and time to have an impact on that problem. They also left behind sufficient capability to keep up the work and to deliver impact at scale.

With that in mind, we’re looking to move about 20% of our portfolio into larger, more multi-disciplinary and long-term projects. The sheer scope of the climate change problem means that you’re inevitably in the territory of multi- and trans-disciplinary work. Building social capital in those collaborations takes several years; moving from the formation stage to implementation takes several more years; and scaling up takes more still. Once you start thinking in decades, you can spend the first 2 years building relationships, clarifying partnerships, and really reaching a common view of what you’re trying to tackle and how.

How does ACIAR support the capacity building and empowerment of women, and why is this so important for agriculture?

Women in many countries make up 40% to 60% of smallholder farmers, but at present they don’t enjoy commensurate access to resources and decision-making. The same is true in Australia, where women in agriculture are grossly under-represented in leadership and on the boards of agricultural organisations.

The empirical data is very clear: when women have equal access to resources and decision-making, the community is better nourished and more children go to school. So it’s Australian Government policy that 80% of aid projects have an explicit, integral gender component.

We’re introducing a new fellowship specifically targeted at women in research leadership in the Indo-Pacific region. We are having a close look at and learning lessons from the very successful Gates-funded African Women in Agricultural Research for Development (AWARD) programme and we are sponsoring women from Bangladesh and the Pacific to participate. One of the attractive elements of the AWARD model is its emphasis on mentoring, and training mentors as well as mentees. It’s important not just to train an individual woman, but to think about the context she’s going back to. There’s no point having a brilliant woman researcher who’s been trained in Australia, and who then goes back to an institutional setting where she’s more qualified than people above her – often all men – and where there is no support for her to flourish. So we also need to be working with our partner countries to ensure that the institution buys into that as well.

We are also ensuring that at least half the participants in our existing fellowship programmes are women. Practicing what we preach, we have increased the proportion of senior women within ACIAR from 11% to 42% over the last 18 months and we will likely have an equal number of women and men among our research programme managers (RPMs) within the next month or so. When I commenced as CEO 2 years ago, only 1 of 14 RPMs was female.

ACIAR projects have a strong focus on developing diversified crop-livestock systems. How does this approach help to achieve broad developmental objectives?

A diversified farming systems approach is central to what we do – very rarely these days does an ACIAR project look at a single problem within a single crop. As a crude generalisation, 30 years ago we focused on increasing crop yields at field scale, 20 years ago we looked more deeply at cropping rotations and the interactions between crops and livestock, and occasionally trees and fish. Ten years ago, we incorporated climate change (primarily adaptation but occasionally mitigation too) into our farming systems research, and invested more in research along the value chain, looking at how farmers could improve access to higher-value markets. Now we need to lift our sights again, to think about the broader objectives of human health, nutrition, and more profound adaptation to climate change. The more you go up to those higher-level objectives, the more you go beyond doing narrowly-focused crop or livestock research.

Look at Timor-Leste – our close neighbour – where half of all children were stunted at the time of its independence in 1999. With funding from ACIAR, Australian scientists identified that all their major food crops – maize, cassava, sweet potato and so on – had very poor genetics, and that new varieties would perform better. So they identified the most suitable genotypes for the environment, doing demonstrations in different regions, getting yield increases of 40% to 140%, then replicating the seeds and creating a national seed system with a regionally distributed community seed network. The project – Seeds of Life – ran for 15 years and was one of our most successful projects, delivering a benefit:cost ratio of more than 60:1. But there was no livestock component, and people are still not getting sufficient protein in their diet.

Now, 18 years on, what’s the level of stunting in Timor-Leste? Still 48%. So we’re running a successful cropping programme but it didn’t include livestock, or maternal health, or school nutrition. A maize researcher doesn’t see that as their business and quite rightly, but for us as donors and development aid investors, we need to be thinking about that bigger picture. In my mind, stunting in Timor-Leste – a tiny country only an hour’s flight from Darwin – is the sort of thing we should be targeting. It’s no longer good enough to just increase yields. That’s an essential condition for food security, but not a sufficient one.

ACIAR’s new 10-year strategy is also about helping Indo-Pacific countries increase productivity and reduce poverty, while using less resources. What are some of the most promising research areas that could facilitate the achievement of this goal?

The Pacific has a distinctive set of challenges, and import substitution is the main game. There’s a prevailing worldview about agriculture giving smallholders access to world markets, which in my view is not always realistic given issues of scale and costs of production. With the exception of coffee and cocoa, export markets are limited in the Pacific. Therefore, I think we need to have an alternative and equally legitimate model, which is to access export markets where appropriate, but not to chase them. We’ve done work with cocoa producers in Vanuatu, where the chocolate has gone on to be recognised at the Salon du Chocolat awards in Paris, for example. So in terms of exports, the Pacific is predominantly about import substitution and niche production of higher-value products.

Coconuts in the Pacific are in crisis too, because many trees are over-mature, and suffering from disease and insect attack. We’ve funded research turning old coconut trees into high-quality veneers for furniture, which creates cash to replant the estates. You need that kind of business model, preferably within some form of agroforestry system, because otherwise, when you replant, how do farmers generate returns for the first 5 or 10 years? We need a rejuvenation of the coconut estate and conservation of the best germplasm across the Pacific, and it can’t be each country doing their own thing. We can only afford to have one good coconut gene bank and research effort across the region – and there’s a role for international donors to help support that.