Celebrating 40 years of ACIAR

Since 1982, ACIAR has brokered international research partnerships to help address agricultural challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Deploying Australia’s considerable skill and expertise in agricultural science, to work with our neighbours, ACIAR has made a significant contribution to improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters in our region.

To mark 40 years of operation on 3 June 2022, we present recollections, achievements and impacts of ACIAR work through stories, videos and podcasts. Read on for a multimedia journey across 40 years of ACIAR.

And come back from time to time, as we will continue to add content to this page over the coming months.

Celebrating 40 years of ACIAR

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Senate acknowledgement

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Penny Wong, congratulated ACIAR on 40 years of operation in the Senate. The Minister acknowledged the role of ACIAR in improving livelihoods across the Indo-Pacific through agricultural research for development and thanked all involved.

Senate acknowledgement

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History of ACIAR

The Green Revolution demonstrated how modern farming technology and practices could increase food production and reduce world hunger. Agriculture was recognised as fundamental to economic growth and agricultural innovation became an increasingly important component of aid programs.

Sir John Crawford had a vision for Australia to play a more prominent role in the agricultural development of neighbouring countries. This vision became an initiative of the Australian Government and was presented to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1981.

On 3 June 1982, ACIAR was established by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982.

For 40 years, ACIAR has contributed to international research for development through facilitating agricultural research for development across the Indo-Pacific region.

Timeline of ACIAR History
Timeline of ACIAR History - click on the graphic to zoom in

Listen to voices of ACIAR

To mark 40 years of ACIAR, we’ve recorded the stories of ACIAR luminaries in a podcast series, ACIAR Voices. The ‘voices’ are highly-regarded scientists who have stayed connected with ACIAR through the decades and made indelible contributions to ACIAR over time.

The history and anecdotes captured by these podcasts are priceless, and each story is an integral part of the rich story of ACIAR. Make your selection to be taken back to the very first days of ACIAR, through to hearing about the decades-long impact of ACIAR-supported research and development.

Episode 1: Professor Gabrielle Persley

Hear how ACIAR first came to be, Professor Persley’s continuing involvement and what she sees next for agricultural research.

Transcript - Episode 1: Professor Gabrielle Persley


Host: Welcome to ACIAR Voices, stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: From Queensland sugar to African livestock and beyond, Gabrielle Persley has been at the forefront of international agricultural research and development for more than 30 years. Dr Persley’s distinguished career has taken her across the globe and into some of the world's leading agricultural and development agencies. But she was also there at the very start of what would become the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. And she has a few stories to share about how the organisation came to be and how critical it's been in her journey. Hello, I'm Caroline Winter and Dr Gabrielle Persley, thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Gabrielle: Thank you, Caroline. It's a pleasure to be here.



Caroline: You've had a distinguished career in international agricultural research and food security as a researcher and a Senior Science Leader at some of the world's leading agricultural and development agencies. How did this journey begin for you?



Gabrielle: Well, I guess my journey began, when I was studying, probably in high school when I decided that I wanted to be a scientist, and also that I wanted to use science to contribute to improving food and agriculture and health in the developing world. And so, I did science at the University of Queensland, when I graduated with a science degree, I then went to work with the Australian sugar industry. And I was with the sugar bureau for about five years, I spent a year in the UK as a rotary graduate fellow. And then I obtained a position in Nigeria, working as a pathologist on tropical plant diseases with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. So, my time in Nigeria, was when I got my first experience working in the developing world. And at that time, I then decided to come back to Australia, and to join the Australian overseas aid program, if that was possible, which is what I did. And that's how I got to Canberra and joined the then Australian Development Assistance Bureau, which led me into contributing to the creation of ACIAR.



Caroline: Now we've got a lot to talk about when it comes to ACIAR. I would like to take you back to that moment when you joined the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau. On reflection, how pivotal was that decision for you in your journey?



Gabrielle: Oh, it was an absolutely critical decision. Because in my time in Africa, I spent three years and travelled quite extensively throughout Africa with my research. But I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to make a difference, and to make this my long-term career in international agricultural development, then the best way to do that was to join a development assistance bureau. And that was a critical decision. And it was a conscious decision. It didn't happen by accident. So, I came back to Australia, after I'd finished my time in Africa, on that occasion, with the express intent of seeing how I went about joining the Australian Development Assistance Bureau.



Caroline: And obviously, from what came from that, over the years has shown how important that decision was for you and your career. It's taking you around the world from Washington, DC to West and East Africa, to The Hague, and Glasgow among other places. And over that time, you've forged strong links between Australian and international biotechnology, science and development communities. Is there a particular moment among all of that that stands out to you as being I guess, a highlight?



Gabrielle: That's an interesting question to try and think of one highlight over that time. But in many ways, the highlight and what started me on this road, which I couldn't envisage, when I first joined ADAB that somehow I did end up working for the World Bank in Washington, and I'd go back to Africa for another decade, etc. So I think being involved in the formation of ACIAR, was a critical moment and having the opportunity to work with people like Sir John Crawford and Mr. Jim Ingram, who is director of ADAB at the time, and Dennis Blight, all of whom became my long time and friends and colleagues that really set me on the path for the next four decades or more.



Caroline: So, let's talk about that time you were there at the inception of ACIAR. And before we explore that further, can you set the scene as to the cultural context at the time that sowed the seed for the organisation?



Gabrielle: Well, I think what was interesting, as I've been reflecting on that time of the late 70s, early 80s, there was a lot of North-South dialogue going on in various forums about what was needed to encourage the economic and social development of the countries in the south. And the Prime Minister of the day, Malcolm Fraser, was very engaged in these dialogues. And he saw that Australia had a unique role in that it was, to some extent, part of the so-called North in the terminology of the day, as an economically advanced country, but yet its geographic position in the south and its role in the Commonwealth gave it a very unique position. And what Prime Minister Fraser was doing through those years in supporting the Australian overseas aid program, encouraging new initiatives seeking engagement with the Australian research community, and the agricultural community was trying to position Australia as in some ways, a bridge between North and South. And I think that influenced the culture of the time and particularly the political culture, which made an agricultural research initiative fall on receptive grounds.



Caroline: So, it could have been in case of a well-timed idea presented to the right people at the right time. mentioning some of the gentleman you spoke about earlier for this to actually come about would that be right?



Gabrielle: Well indeed but this was a well-formed idea which took several years to formulate. And the political opportunity arose because the Australian Government was hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which was to be held in Melbourne in October of 1981. And so that's why 1981 became a pivotal year because this idea of Australia doing more in the area of agricultural research had been discussed for a number of years, probably since, at least 1974, and Australia had been supporting bilateral projects before that through the aid program. But there was a view within the research community and the aid program that Australia could do more and could do more in a more systematic manner. And then the political opportunity arose, and the Prime Minister Fraser had been thinking very deeply in these areas. I was just reading the speech he gave to the Commonwealth Club in Adelaide in February 1981, which is a 10 page document and he goes through the economic, social, political environment, nothing and then Australia, but around the world and how we saw Australia's role moving forward, and was in that context that then he announced in Australia was contemplating a new agricultural research initiative.



Caroline: And there you were in Canberra with ADAB. So how did you become involved in the establishment of ACIAR?



Gabrielle: It was fairly easy, because I was the only an agricultural research scientist in the building, and I'd been there for a year. And I'd been recruited by ADAB to join the then research for development unit. So, I had been working on some of the existing programs. So, when the initiative was being developed, and a task force was being formed within ADAB to develop this initiative fairly briskly, because the Prime Minister decided he’d like this initiative in January of 1981. That CHOGM meeting was going to be in October. So that basically gave nine months to get all this initiative together. So the small task force was formed, chaired by John Baker, and Mr. Ingram might seem to recall, call me up to his office and said, Gabriel, I'd like you to be on this task force to assist Dr. Baker. And I said certainly, Mr. Ingram. Thank you very much.



Caroline: And what were you feeling at that time you were right at the start of something that was new and innovative and exciting?



Gabrielle: Well, a combination of being really excited and fairly terrified about wondering how we'll do this, but let's carry on. John Baker. If it was a great person to work for, and Sir John Crawford was involved. And there was a committee within ADAB at the time called the Consultative Committee on research for development, which Sir John Crawford chaired, and had representatives from CSIRO, universities, and the State Department's of Agriculture. And so, I'd been part of the Secretariat of that committee for about a year. So, we knew the actors, and it was a great time because people like Jim Ingram and Sir John, simply expected you to get on and do whatever they asked you to do. And so, the only response was, yes, Sir John, go home and work all night and get it done.



Caroline: That sounds like quite a time and as you say, in a very condensed timeline to be ready for the launch, were there stressful moments, were their challenges, were there moments where it was all-nighters trying to put the final touches on this plan?



Gabrielle: There were several pivotal steps, because I think the January February period of 1981, that was when the Prime Minister was looking for an aid initiative to announce at CHOGM. Naturally, there are a few different groups around Canberra who had their own ideas on what that initiative should be. So therefore, those of us involved in developing the Agricultural Research Initiative, had to make sure the case was put very strongly. And of course, with Sir John Crawford, leading, putting the case, together with Jim Ingram, the director of ADAB. Then they could put a very strong case. And, as I've mentioned, this initiative had been several years in the making. So, it had been quite well fleshed out and thought through. So, getting the decision in mid-February, that yes, of the choices available, the Prime Minister and also the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tony Street, at the time, they liked the idea of the Agricultural Research Initiative. And they felt this played to Australia's strength as a major agricultural exporting country, strong agricultural research community, and food being a central requirement in the developing world with agricultural growth, driving economic development. So, we have that very intense period through January/February of 81, in the next few months, from February through to July, was getting the cabinet submission prepared, because it's not the everybody in cabinet let alone everybody in the bureaucracy in Canberra, thought this was a great idea. This was the time also of the infamous razor gangs in Canberra, who were busy slashing departmental budgets and getting the cabinet submission together. And in fact, watching John Baker dealing with some of the other government departments who didn't like the idea of further aid initiative was very educational, I must say. But nevertheless, the Prime Minister was strongly behind this. And the cabinet agreed that this was a good initiative first and leadership role for Australia. And cabinet passed the submission in late July of 81 and committed $25 million over four years to establish ACIAR. That was a lot of money back then. Well, yes, it was a lot of money. And amongst a few documents, so I've been reading recently, there was an article that came out in the Sydney Morning Herald about the eighth of August of 81, and the headline says, PM’s project beats the razors.



Caroline: Testament to what you were saying just before about what was going on politically?



Gabrielle: Well, yes, exactly. And so now we've been engaged in conversations about the formation of ACIAR. And it can be simplified almost like, Well, this was a great idea. And everybody thought it was a great idea. And, and that's just how it started practically overnight. I'm thinking well, no, there was weeks, months of work, and lobbying and convincing financial Treasury that this was not about to break the bank, etc, etc. But I think it goes to show that when we have people like Sir John, Jim Ingram, all the others engage. And I think getting the engagement of the Australian agricultural research community, and the farming community was really important. The other thing that was important was making sure that there was bipartisan support. This concept of an agricultural research initiative was supported by both the major parties, so that was also helpful, particularly when it came to getting the legislation, through the parliament.



Caroline: Dr. Presley, you've talked a lot about Sir John Crawford. What was it like working alongside him? And do you have any memorable moments, I suppose, of doing this work with him in the lead up to ACIAR being established.



Gabrielle: Well Sir John was just a wonderful person to work with. And I think if many initiatives that sit on once engaged with everybody, who worked in these various different initiatives really valued, Sir John, and when you worked with Sir John, you had the feeling that you were the only group of people that he was really concerned with. You had his absolute full attention, and commitment. But then Denis Blight, I've often realised, that when the two of us were the first staff members of ACIAR, so there was Sir John, Denis as the the interim director, and there was me as the science advisor. And we knew that when he'd finished a meeting with us about ACIAR, then he'd go to another meeting, which might be about the Australia Japan Foundation, or who might be going to meet the Prime Minister to deal with trade and tariffs, etc. But everybody felt that Sir John was committed to your initiative, your work, and therefore, you tended to respond in kind to meet his expectations.



Caroline: There's some suggestion that it was you who drafted the first ACIAR act with Sir John, is that true? And what can you tell me about where and how that happened?



Gabrielle: Yes, to some degree, I would say that was true, at least in preparing a zero draft of the ACIAR act. How that came to be was that since I was a scientist, I had absolutely no idea how one might go about drafting legislation, obviously it had to do with seeking some appropriate help within Canberra. And I do recall very clearly calling in foreign affairs to ask well, how do I go about this? Who might I speak to who could draft an ACIAR act?  He suggested I've called the parliamentary draftsman who suggested I call the attorney general's whatever. So, after several run around phone calls, I ended up back with the parliamentary draftsman saying, I really need some help here. We have this new organisation, we need legislation, what do you suggest, and he said, If I were you, I would call Miss Persley, in ACIAR, and she will be able to help you. And I said, thank you very much, and looked in the mirror and thought, well, I guess I better do something different. And so, I went down to the ADAB library went to see for Canada, because the Canadian government had established an International Development Research Center, and to some degree, ourselves has been modelled on IDRC. And Sir John, was the chair of the IDLC board. So, he knew a lot about IDRC. And, as luck would have it, the ADAB library had a copy of the Act, which established IDRC. So, I made a photocopy. I went back to my office with a pen and pencil, and worked my way through the IDRC act, relevant to the cabinet submission as to what were the purposes of ACIAR duly drafted this, then I've called the parliamentary draftsman back to say, Well, I'm Doctor Persley, I do have a zero draft of this act. Could I come and see you? And then you might be able to take it from there. And he said, certainly do come over. Because the draftsman has said, Well, I can't draft an act until you tell me what you want to do. So that that is an entirely true story. And I could tell you the conclusion of the story, you asked me for a milestone moment, which I do remember very clearly, because the Act went through the House of Representatives in October 81. And then it had to go through the Senate, which for various reasons, didn't happen until May of 82. And so, I was tasked to sit beside the Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, who was representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Senate. So, I was to sit beside her on the Senate floor, and if there were any technical questions being asked to duly advise her i.e. write her a note. Anyway, that all went fairly smoothly. Although I must admit, I was quite terrified at the time thinking, I hope nobody asks anything too difficult here. But Margaret Guilfoyle was very pleasant. And then Senator John Button applied for the opposition also been very supportive, and the act was duly passed and I recall walking out of the Senate chamber, who did I run into, but Sir John Crawford, who had been up seeing the prime minister. And so, he sees me and says, Well Gabrielle, did it go through. I said, Yes, Sir John, he said, oh fine, we can get back to work now. See you tomorrow morning. Thank you, Sir John. And the Act was passed.



Caroline: So, you were field scientists turned researcher turned legislator in the end.



Gabrielle: Something like that. And I suppose I just, I just come back from spending three years in Nigeria and trekking around 22 countries in Africa. That was a pretty tough learning curve. So, somebody would like an act of fine. We'll go to the library and find one that suits and why don't we start from there.



Caroline: I know where to come when I need an act drawn up.



Gabrielle: Nobody will believe that story. But really, it is true.



Caroline: It's fabulous. I love it. Thank you for that. So, what was your role then within ACIAR once it was established.



Gabrielle: in June 82, when the act was proclaimed, so officially ACIAR started on the third of June 1982. And Denis Blight was appointed the interim director. So, John was appointed the Chairman of the Board of Management. And I was appointed as the Agricultural Research Advisor. And I was charged with developing the framework for the program. One of the first things that we did in that period was to organise, say, a series of consultations around Australia, about what should be the priorities framework. And in that, we were working with members of the Consultative Committee on research development, and particularly Dr. Ted Henzell, from CSIRO in Brisbane, he was chief of the CSIRO Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures. And so my role was to develop this priorities framework, which would then provide criteria against which the various projects been put forward from research scientists and research institutes in Australia and overseas, could then be considered and approved by the Board of Management. So, my role is through the rest of 82 was to help the first interim director, and then Jim McWilliam, came in as the first substantive director in August of 82. And so then, the three of us Denis, Jim and myself, worked very hard through that period to establish the program, of ACIAR. And then also additional research scientists who have been recruited to head up these different program areas in crops and animal sciences, soil sciences, forestry, post-harvest technology, and one or two others, but they were the initial programs, and then a short suite of projects came out of those areas.



Caroline: Fascinating. Dr Persley, without being presumptuous. This was the early 80s. And women in science and women in leadership roles were certainly not as commonplace as now. Your involvement in ACIAR was obviously more than right place and right time and clearly a reflection of your talent. Can you talk me through what that was like for you?



Gabrielle: Well, I never really paid much attention to tell you the truth. Because as I've mentioned in the introduction, I've tried graduated from the University of Queensland with my Bachelor of Science, I was employed by the Australian Sugar Industry. As a plant pathologist, I might say, I was the first woman graduate ever employed by the Sugar Bureau. And they'd been going for several decades. And so that was quite interesting, including when I first used to go out to the sugarcane farms to be looking at diseases, the farmers would look at me, because I was, in my early 20s, at the time, and the farmer would say, it really, it's too hot today. Why don't you just sit on the veranda with the missus and have a cup of tea? And the extension agent and I, will go and look at the sugarcane. And I’d just say, Oh, no, no, it's fine. I'll come with you. No problem. And then I went off to West Africa. And I was quite unusual in a way as a white woman running around the cassava farms of West Africa, but I never came to any difficulties whatsoever.



Caroline: That's lovely. So, there was that inclusion from the very start and not something that you obviously ever questioned or needed to question?

Gabrielle: No, no, not at all.

Caroline: Dr. Persley, your involvement in ACIAR has been long and fruitful. What has that involvement looked like over the four decades that the organisation has been going and more broadly in international agricultural research?



Gabrielle: Well, it's been quite an interesting evolution from my engagement with ACIAR in the early days and its formation. And then I spent several years as the research program manager for the crops program, but then towards the end of the 80s, new science was evolving very rapidly modern biosciences and genetic improvements with new technologies to speed up the rate been able to develop new crop varieties, for example, or modern vaccines or areas of animal health. And so, Jim McWilliam, suggested, well, I think it’d be a good idea if you went on sabbatical, and got up to speed on these, this new science and what it will mean for the developing world. And that was what led me to initially be working with the World Bank and one of the international agricultural research centres based in Europe, on looking at the role of new science, and how that would influence health and accelerate agricultural development. And so it was then leading me from ACIAR, to the World Bank, where I then joined the bank as the biotechnology advisor in the early 90s. And I stayed in Washington for about 10 years, working in various countries in supporting the development of research facilities and building capacity in areas of agricultural research. And through that period, I was, I was always in contact with ACIAR, not directly involved in the programs, but always looking for opportunities to partner, Australian scientists and scientist in the developing world. And then, after I finished with the World Bank, then I ended up back in Africa, particularly working in East Africa, on developing a shared biosciences platform, which was located at the International Livestock Research Institute. And that had support from several countries, including Canada, and the Syngenta Foundation, and also, Sweden, and Australia, and Western Australia, were developed a really good partnership with Australian scientists. In some ways, this was really mobilising what I'd learned in my time, and I see that money is one thing, but actually having really strong research collaborations with scientists from the partner country really is a big asset. And I think that partnership with Australian science and Becker that started in 2010 and went for several years from 2010 to 2016/17. That was a really strong and really great contribution from Australian science into Africa. And then after that, I completed a cycle and was invited to join the ACIAR commission in 2017.



Caroline: And that obviously brought you back to ACIAR. So, what has changed in how the organisation has approached its role in Australian international aid programs? How have you seen it change any milestone moments that were maybe pivotal in you recognising the change was happening?



Gabrielle: I think that's a really interesting consideration. Because, as I've been reflecting on this time, at the 40th anniversary, what I'm seeing is an interesting combination of the continuity, and the revitalisation, continuously reinventing ACIAR to fit the times. The thing that strikes me most in a way is that ACIAR has stayed true to the original objectives of basically supporting collaborative research projects between Australian and developing countries scientists on problems of mutual interest, and that has remained the driving force of the organisation. And secondly, actually, the continuous revitalisation has meant that ACIAR has expanded its scope of its programs. It's included more cross-cutting areas, in areas like gender and diversity, for example, in sustainable agriculture, in the role of agribusiness in agriculture. And in terms of pivotal moments. I think two pivotal moments have happened that over those 40 years, ACIAR has had six directors, and each of those have led the organisation extraordinarily well. And they've made the necessary changes in strategy or staffing or policy to fit the times. And so that has been really pivotal in having that strong leadership to steer the organisation through some uncharted territory and rocky periods, at certain times, particularly when there is a change of government? Because that's always a bit of a risk as well. And so there have been several changes of government and changes of Prime Minister, changes of ministers, and I think one thing that has stood ACIAR here in very good stead in periods of change is right from the beginning, very early on, and impact assessment unit was established under the leadership of Jim Ryan, a very well-known agricultural economist. So that meant that ACIAR was continuously evaluating itself, looking at what impact is this having, not only in the developing world, but also is it having positive impacts on Australian agriculture. So, there was an evidence base been built up to justify why this is a good investment of Australian aid money. So, there was this evidence. And then also the partnership model worked very well in the partner countries. And so ACIAR often didn't, usually didn't have as much money as a number of the larger countries, larger philanthropic organisations. But it bought the partnership with Australian scientists, which many other agencies did not. So that also meant that from a political perspective, for the Australian High Commissioners and the Australian Ambassadors and visiting ministers, they were always ACIAR projects doing good work, very well appreciated by the governments and countries as diverse as the Philippines and Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand. And this also meant there was evidence on the ground. Well, this is a small organisation relative to the overall size of the aid program, it's doing good work, it’s appreciated, carry on. So I think that it's not one pivotal moment, but it's it's an approach of continuity, focus, and continually reinventing the organisation to suit the times.



Caroline: Doctor Persley, you're back in your home state of Queensland. What are you doing now?



Gabrielle: Well, I was inadvertently detained here due to COVID. I was in working in Africa in February of 20. And working with some colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute, and particularly on some animal health projects. So, I was sitting with my friends who are veterinary scientists and epidemiologists. And in February 20, we started looking at the John Hopkins maps of what’s this new disease? And where's it going? So, I recall very clearly one night sitting there looking at the maps and saying, Well, I guess I’m not staying here for the next few weeks. I think I'll be going home, preferably tomorrow. And one of my colleagues, he was planning to travel to South Korea, and then come on to Australia to developing some new animal health work together with some CSIRO scientists. So, I was saying to Edward, well, I guess you're not going to South Korea, nor, Australia just now. And he said, No, I guess not. I'll send them a video lecture instead. And that's just a little over two years ago. But I am planning to go back to Africa at some point. But I've been quite busy while I've been here. The University of Queensland very kindly welcomed me back to the School of Agriculture. So, I have an appointment as an honorary professor at the school. And I've been co-leading a project, which was also has been an operation in Africa, on-demand lead plant breeding. And this is a very interesting example of public-private sector, collaboration, and strongly supported by ACIAR, and the Syngenta foundation of for sustainable agriculture. And it's actually looking at ways to ensure that new crop varieties are meeting both farmer needs and market demands so that there is a high uptake of new varieties. And so I'm the co-leader of that project that's been in operation now for seven years. And now the end of the second phase, and we're transitioning to full African Leadership for the third phase. So that's been going very well. We have a community practice of 400 plant breeders who work in 30 countries across Africa. And this project develops professional development tools and opportunities to access new technologies for use in breeding programs. So that's been a major interest and my second interest which interestingly in 2017, some of my animal health colleagues, and a group I work with, in the Doyle Foundation and Scotland, where she held a meeting to discuss disease sentinels, and the role of animals in predicting and preventing future pandemics, which was fairly interesting. And so now we've hopefully survived the pandemic moving into the next phase of the pandemic. But regretfully, this will not be the last time that a disease jumps from an animal host into people. And this happens quite frequently. But not all of those incidences develop into a pandemic. And so the study I'm getting really heavily involved in now is, what can we understand about this both over time pre-COVID, but also now and COVID times? And what can be done in terms of what are the sentinels where early intervention can identify what pathogens have the potential to become pandemic? And most early interventions are possible to stop that outbreak developing into a pandemic? So that's a very timely study, I feel.



Caroline: Isn't it just some fascinating and exceptionally relevant work there that obviously you'll be continuing on? What do you see as the future opportunities for strengthening the impact of agricultural research worldwide?



Gabrielle: I think there's two areas here. One is to strengthen the capacity of researchers working on their own country's problems and developing solutions. And I think, over the past few decades that we're seeing countries have evolved in this regard. And particularly if I look at Southeast Asia, and the early raft of ACIAR projects, very strong within the ASEAN countries, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, as examples, now a number of those countries have evolved to become major agricultural exporting countries, or economies have become Asian tigers. And if I use Thailand as an example, that now Thai scientists are participating in ACIAR projects in neighbouring countries, notably Cambodia, as an example. And students and scientists from those countries are studying at Thai universities. What I see as the future is increasing that in-country capacity and strengthening the institutions in country, particularly the universities, and the second area I see evolving is the role of the private sector, because delivery of new technology requires a functioning private sector in country. And particularly, maybe putting this as a third area, much more financing of agricultural research coming again, from the developing world, from individual countries, recognising that this is not a cost to their budget, that invest in agricultural research is an investment in their agricultural sector, which will give them a good return on that investment, and therefore less dependence on the international development community supporting relatively short term projects, and much more partnership models and much less investment from outside driving the research agenda in-country.



Caroline: There is much work to do you have absolutely played a big role in all of that. Doctor Persley, as we mark ACIAR 40th year, can you share with me a final thought on what the organisation means to you?



Gabrielle: I think I can look at ACIAR over those 40 years. And think well, that was for me personally, it was a wonderful opportunity, and set me off on my journey in international agricultural research. But it also led to a very large number of long-standing professional associations, people I've started working within the 80s I'm still working with today and different projects where we have mutual interests, and long-standing friendships as well, I think is so reflect on this and the years I've spent managing research programs and advocating investments in different programs. I've really come to the conclusion that basically people invest in people. Science is what I call a creative pursuit. It's undertaken by people, and therefore, it's really important when located anywhere particular area and including the projects in which ACIAR is invested. The whole critical exercise is to put the right partnerships together, put the right people together. I was discussing this with one of my friends recently, he sent me a nice little quote, which said, physics puts people together, and chemistry makes it work. I thought that's really nice. It's the chemistry that makes it work. And I think ACIAR has some pretty good chemistry. And that's really been a driving force.



Caroline: Dr Gabriel Persley, your insights and stories around ACIAR and agricultural research more broadly have been so enlightening. Thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Gabrielle: Thank you very much, Caroline.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2022.

Episode 2 : Stephen Midgley

Mr Midgely, a forester and development specialist, shares how sustainable forest management can contribute not only to economic growth, but also offer benefits for communities.

Transcript - Episode 2 : Stephen Midgley


Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: Having a curiosity about knowing what to plant when and where has been the driver behind Stephen Midgley’s career in agricultural research as a forester and development specialist, he spent almost five decades in Asia focused on the international domestication and use of Australian trees like eucalyptus and acacias. And he's particularly passionate about smallholder producers of commercial wood, which is an area he says ACIAR has played a vital role. Stephen Midgley says ACIAR commitment toward has been there from the very start, and it's one he knows will continue into the future. I'm Caroline Winter and Steven Midgley, thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Stephen: Thanks. Great to be here.



Caroline: Stephen, how did you first become interested in forestry research?



Stephen: After I graduated in forestry from ANU in 1972, I began work with the former Forest Research Institute as a budding forest hydrologist in the catchments behind Canberra and, and the lure of overseas work in new horizons beckoned, as it does with most young people, and I left for Laos in 1973 to join the Laos, Australian reforestation project. Travel was something that had always interested me, and I’d managed to spend four months in Papua New Guinea during my undergraduate course, working there in the forest in Papua New Guinea. And it certainly given me the taste for seeing other places and other cultures. And the LAO project was assessing a suite of, eucalyptus species which might be suitable as planted trees in Laos. And that I found common sense and very interesting. So that was how I got interested in forest research and, and then this experience in Laos gave me very early practical lessons about the needs for poor farmers, the challenges of swidden agriculture and the need to communicate effectively with communities. So that was how I started. And after the LAO revolution, that was in 75, and 76, it became very challenging to work in the rural areas of Laos, there was quite a lot of counter-revolutionary activity going on. I was married by then, and my wife Dale and I moved to the Nepal Australia forestry project based in Kathmandu, where again, there was this element of species assessment for reforestation in the Himalayan foothills. People wanted to plant trees, but they were uncertain of what they might be able to plant and eucalyptus were part of the mix. So, it was in Nepal, the importance of community engagement became pretty obvious. And there was this inspirational colleague and friend, Dr Taj Mahat, who was challenging some of the traditional approaches forestry in the Himalayan foothills, and he was really pleased to reach out and link with fellow mind like-minded people. And it was interesting, that project went on to become something of a model project for developing meaningful engagement with communities. So that was how I got into forest research. And when I did return to Australia in 1980, I had the very good fortune of joining the CSIRO, Australia Tree Seed Centre in Canberra, where my eight years of fieldwork in Laos and Nepal, it taught me a lot about the importance of community engagement and demonstrated the promise of Australian eucalypts and acacias in planting programs. I just think I was so fortunate the Australian Tree Seed Centre was very sympathetic to all these issues. And I felt that I'd found a professional home amongst a group of dedicated, very smart scientists. And, as I said, one of the best bits of good fortune in my career, but I learned a lot about the global use of Australian tree species. We did a lot of seed collecting in remote areas of Australia and Papua New Guinea. And it was about this time this was the 1980s when formal and informal discussions were being held about the concept of something that might become ACIAR. And this concept had a great deal of resonance for me both personally and professionally.



Caroline: So when and how did you then connect with ACIAR and forestry internationally in that sense?



Stephen: There's definitely an evolutionary process. My then boss, Alan Brown, came up to the labs one day and said, Look, I'm going to have dinner with Sir John Crawford, who's got this idea. And they were having a dinner at University House in Canberra. And he said, what sort of things might we be able to contribute in a forestry sense? So, I remember a very close colleague and I, Doug Boland, and I sat down and said, Boy, these are all the things we could do. And Alan took those ideas with him. And he did tell me that they were discussed over dinner with John Crawford and team of people that university house, so I sort of feel a little bit paternal towards ACIAR. And when it did get established, the first director of ACIAR, Dr Jim McWilliam, he was a trained forester. And so, he understood the importance of forest to society and the need for wood and wood products for development. And little snippets, like 50% of the world's wood harvest is for firewood, of course, wood and forests are important without wood, you are not going to be able to cook your food. So, you know, the realisation that wood is pretty fundamental for housing, packaging and communication that and forests are important for a whole suite of other very important contributions they make. It was really pleasing to see forestry as part of the ACR work, right from the very, very beginning.



Caroline: And I understand that you undertook ACIAR first forestry mission in 1983. Is that right?



Yes yes, we, it was a mission to East Africa, where we looked at the current use and potential for Australian species in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania. And this was a fascinating eye-opening experience for me to just see how eucalyptus and acacias were so widely used by communities in those three countries. And look to ACIAR’s great credit, they allowed things to evolve. The early leadership, I think, realised that forestry is a very broad church. And we had to look at where Australia might have a comparative advantage rather than the Canadians or the British or French or other organisations and to take advantage of all the skills that we have in Australia. And were lucky we had a suite of existing partnerships in partner contract countries and professional contacts with overseas scientists because of our work on eucalyptus and acacias. And we also had to add a decent dollop of realism and the likelihood of being able to make progress and succeed. So we were we were lucky the expanding global use of Australian trees. CSIRO’s established network of international partners and friendships. These combined to give ACIAR a wonderful foundation to work from, and an opportunity to hit the ground running with our forestry projects, where we tried to follow a sequence of activities of what could we grow to meet a range of products. If we're going to improve livelihoods, people have to grow trees that are useful and products might be anything from commercial timber to firewood to non-timber forest products, such as honey or tannins or dyes. We put together at that time, some literature reviews and field studies. And there was a book called Multipurpose Australian Trees and Shrubs, which became something of a bible for our work and helped guide the selection of species and the design of experiments in Thailand, China and Zimbabwe and Kenya, with our partners in those countries. Then, after working out what we can grow, we wanted to work out how we could make these species grow even better and make them even more useful. So, we got to issues of genetics and breeding, silviculture and roots so beyond the normal agronomic questions that you asked for any crop. The big one we had to face after some years was how do you grow these things sustainably, you can grow something very, very well for one rotation, but no one profits if the second and subsequent rotations fail. So that was sort of how the thinking went and this is going back 40 years. So yeah.



Caroline: Now you've had a long and fruitful association with ACIAR. You've just spoken there about some of the work that you've done with the organisation. What about some other projects that you've been involved in, and why do they stand out to you?



Stephen: But, again, I've been very fortunate. I've worked for 12 years long term overseas, and most of our research work in those projects was fostered by this curiosity of what to plant, there was a time in Southeast Asia when most commercial wood industry was based on native forests and restoration or reestablishment or management of native forest. The regulations for forest management and the structure of government forest services were all based upon native forest management, and really reflected the dominant commercial position of native forests and the role of plantations was just sort of emerging the role of plantations to meet immediate local demands for fuel wood and building poles were important. But even more obvious was the role of plantations in supplying the wood fibre for commercial industries, pulp and paper industries. So Australian species, the eucalypts, acacias, casuarinas, they were all already of significant importance in many parts of the world. And these sort of became a focus for a lot of the work in these projects in other countries and became obvious that you can't do this work by yourself. A lot of what we achieved was due to contributions from a network of likeminded professionals in many other countries, we had collaborative work with the French, a lot of very rewarding work, South African colleagues, Brazilians, who were all really generous in sharing their accumulated information and experience on acacias and eucalypts with our Thai and Chinese and Vietnamese colleagues. So, it was pretty good to see this global collaboration and the goodwill across cultures and countries was really heartening. You know, in these early projects, we found that there is a basic tension within the forestry sector with the long-term nature of forest research and the capacity to achieve results within a typical project five-year lifecycle. How do you manage success when your trees might only be two or three years old? It's, it's now easy to look back at 40 years of effort, and you see obvious examples of success. But it's often very hard to see that in incremental five years stages.



Caroline: Obviously, the focus of Forestry Research was there at ACIAR at the beginning. How has that evolved over time, though, and is it different now?



Stephen: Well, it is, we know which species grow. We've witnessed some tremendous successes. And the early trials identified helped us make basic genetic selection on which we could develop breeding programs and seed orchards have been established. And it's really good now to witness uptake of all this work by communities and industry. And of course, once communities and industry use them, I think there's a responsibility to make sure that we help people use them wisely and sustainably that hopefully, that your productivity can increase across rotations. And this has been the experience with agriculture with agricultural crops. And I see no reason why it can't be the case with tree crops that seems to be happening. So, the management of all these new selections that we made in the early days needed close attention. But I think in all of this, the things that stand out to me when you're when I'm looking back is really the friendships that you begin a process where you have research acquaintances, and those research acquaintances become research partners, and then evolved to become very close personal friends and these friendships between scientists, they extend to our families. And, you know, this has been a very satisfying journey.



Caroline: Obviously a very memorable takeaway from your time in this area. I'd like to take you back to those early days and your extended periods with your family overseas working on projects in Laos and Nepal, Sri Lanka and China. It must have been an incredible experience. Tell me about some of the early forestry research projects that you were involved in or expand on some that you've already noted and what was their purpose and I guess what was achieved? What did you walk away feeling like you've achieved from them?



Stephen: The Lao project, some of those early trials have, we went back to them in more recent years, and were there are now companies now in Laos, investing in plantations and engaging with communities and offering opportunities to smallholders, that if you go back far enough had their foundations in that very early work in the early 70s. So that's nice. It's nice to be valuable museum piece when people discuss these issues. But that was important in Nepal, the approach with community engagement and community forestry, which the Australian project offered there, as I said, it became something of a model. And certainly, my five and a bit years working with that project in Nepal was something of a highlight on my CV. And people look at that and say, Oh, well, you worked for the Nepal project. And that's very satisfying.



Caroline: There's obviously a number of ways I'm sure that you've seen the impact. You've just noted some there, whether it be industry development in an unexpected way, perhaps or, or someone's life who might have been changed as a result. Do any of those come to mind?



Stephen: Oh, look, there's a perhaps the best example is work with our colleagues in Vietnam who have just been the most fantastic people to work with. And we developed a suite of acacias, which have become very important in a commercial sense. And the plantings of Australian acacias in the landscapes behind Hue in Vietnam are just an example of the positive outcomes of our work with our Vietnamese partners. Following the end of the war, we had deforested landscapes which had been denuded and bombed and napalmed and mismanaged during the war. And after the enlightened new suite of Vietnamese policies after Doi Moi in 1987/88, the opportunities were there for smallholders, small growers to gain access to land and plant these acacias now, these acacias, they're deep-rooted nitrogen-fixing species that produce lots and lots of leafy carbon litter on the soil. So, they're ideal for site rehabilitation. And this was like a perfect storm the this capacity to grow these trees aligned with the regional markets for wood and wood fibre, led to a boom in tree planting. And look, it was a transformational change to many communities. When we first started travelling to Vietnam regularly in the 80s, there was so many bare hills you’d drive up between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and there's so many bare hills well, it's now difficult to find a bare hill in rural Vietnam there, they're all planted to acacias, which are being harvested and managed and replanted to produce commercial wood. And you can see the benefits kids are going to school mothers can go and get their expert medical care. People are having better meals, they're putting galvanised iron roofs on their houses, all because of the revenues that Acacia plantations bring. In a recent paper that we've estimated that smallholder Acacia plantings in Vietnam put about 600 million US dollars annually into the pockets of Vietnamese growers. That's a substantial amount of money and the regional markets for wood and wood fibre, are very robust that they're not going to disappear. So, this has been a success story that I've been immensely pleased to have been associated with. And in fact, we shared it with our postgraduate field course from the University of Melbourne. We took them to this area every year for 12 years. And the story just got better and better each year.



Caroline: It's certainly a wonderful project to be proud of. It's fascinating as well for someone like myself, not in your industry, but someone who has you know travelled been fortunate to travel to somewhere like Hue in Vietnam to know that there are Australian Acacia have been grown there. Do you think that Australians have an appreciation for the contribution that's been made to other countries in this way?



Stephen: Perhaps not the you know, you, you zip through these countries and you go past a wall of green and unless you're a tree person, you may not understand what the tree is. But it is a wonderful Australian contribution that Australia's made to global development. And the area of eucalypts and acacias that are grown in other countries has just continued to expand. If we look at eucalypts there’s probably about 30 million hectares planted globally, and that's about equivalent to the amount of cassava that's planted globally or the amount of cotton or certainly more than the area of sugarcane planted. So, there's a lot of Australian, eucalyptus and acacias planted out there and they're offering huge benefits. If you look at most of the plantations are established on lands, which were already cleared, and they're certainly producing lots of opportunities for local communities, particularly with the smallholders. And I think that the smallholder production of wood, which is a big next step forward, already smallholders in Asia grow about 10 million hectares of eucalyptus and acacias alone, produce about 86 million cubic meters. Compare that to Australia's total plantation estate of 2 million hectares, and our annual plantation harvest of 26 million hectares. It gives you some idea of the magnitude of the amount of Australian acacia and eucalypt wood which is being produced by smallholders in Southeast Asia.



Caroline: That's quite remarkable. And I'm aware that you're particularly passionate and have written widely about the smallholder producers of commercial wood in Asia and their contributions to supply chains. How much of a role would you say ACIAR has played in this particular area?



Caroline: They've played a terrific role. As I said before, a lot of these projects happened in five-year bits. And often the actual science wasn't conducted by one particular organisation or another. We had a lot of cooperation across state research agencies, our research colleagues from Queensland or Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia, we all work together with NGOs, World Vision was been a partner and the universities, University of Queensland, ANU, University of Melbourne, University of Tasmania, and the private sector and my colleagues and CSIRO, and it was ACIAR capacity to foster research collaboration across research organisations, which led to Australia incorporated approach and fostering this cooperation as Australia Inc. It's not an easy task. It's been a strength of the successive forestry program managers within ACIAR that they've managed to get all these organisations and all these willing scientists to work together, it's not always easy. And then if you combine that with the challenges of identifying overseas partners, and, and coming to terms of the culture and the context in which we're working overseas, it's not a simple task and as I’ve said, I've been very fortunate sharing some terrific corners of the world with my family and maintaining these friendships and contacts in Laos and Nepal, Sri Lanka and China. And I just sometimes reflect that if any young person has ambitions of entering this sphere of research endeavour, if you better make sure that you have a supportive life partner and a supportive family. The commitment goes well beyond the working environment and across all sorts of cultural and economic boundaries and challenges. And you got to have to learn new languages and, and it's not nine to five, and it doesn't stop on weekends. So, it's a little bit more than just knowing about the science.



Caroline: So, Steven, as we well know, ACIAR has a long invested history in the forestry sector of developing countries, as you can attest to, with a particular focus on capacity building. So, did your projects have a capacity-building element? And if so, why?



Stephen: Look capacity is really important. It's not just the capacity of the people we're working with. It's the capacity to support the next generation of Australian researchers. Because I think one of the things that come out of this conversation is it's not just about being a good tree breeder, or you have to develop all sorts of other skills, social-cultural management skills, which will help you work effectively with overseas partners. I found I was lucky, I did an undergraduate forestry degree at ANU and that degree no longer exists, but it's taught now as a postgraduate course and I have a master's degree in forestry from ANU as well. But the big challenge for new graduates is how to find an opportunity where they can develop professional skills, and then find someone willing to offer employment and the skills in our partner countries are becoming increasingly sophisticated. So how can an Australian Professional offer value and that's a challenge on the Australian side that the training needs are changing technical and professional training. In the language of the countries, we’re working in, has expanded. So, you get very good undergraduate programs, graduate programs, taught in Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and things. So, there's not necessary for people to necessarily come to Australian universities. But the ACIARs, John Allwright Fellowships and other training opportunities, training exchanges via the Crawford Fund, and things are really vital in cementing relationships between scientists and institutions. And it's not just about training people, Carol on the train, people have got to have equipment and facilities to work with capacity buildings, not a trivial activity. We could talk about this for a very, very long time. It is important, and there's so many different facets to it.



Caroline: I'd like to touch on what you were just talking about there and the changes in tertiary forestry education in Australia. You've noted what it was like when you were studying? What are the opportunities now for foresters coming through the ranks?



Stephen: Look, there are opportunities there. And you know, some early experience through ACIAR-supported R&D is a good way to get your foot in the door. Some of the changes that I've noted, which I'm uncomfortable with is a focus upon policy-related issues, and often reduction in the hardcore forestry skills that are needed to effectively manage forests and to understand industry and manage plantations and produce wood. So, I hope my friends in academia will begin to address this, but I don't know how they can because people are much more keen to address issues now, rather than develop skills, which are considered technical in nature.



Caroline: So, I guess that leads to my next question, how then do you think that we can ensure ongoing education and mentoring and professional development for foresters?



Stephen: That's the subject which is engaging some of the best minds in forestry in Australia, we have in Australia, we have an organisation called Forestry Australia, which combined the former Institute of Foresters of Australia and Australian Forest Growers. These are two long-standing organisations they amalgamated to be renamed this new organisation called Forestry Australia, and it's a serious issue. When we had a big spike in our plantation program in Australia, some years ago, we had an influx of very skilled New Zealand and South African plantation foresters because we didn't have enough to do this ourselves.



Caroline: Not an easy one to answer at all.



Stephen: No, no, it's not an easy one to answer.



Caroline: You've talked about how Australian, eucalyptus and acacia are grown in plantations around the world. How is the exchange of our Australian species benefited other countries broadly? And I know you've touched on some and then, how have there been benefits returned to Australia?



Stephen: Look, there's no doubt that Australian species have benefited people in other countries. And as I said, they're a gift offered to the world from Australia. And I think perhaps a rich exchange for the benefits that we've had, from the genetic resources of other countries, we've been able to get potato from South America or maize from the Americas or wheat from the Middle East, and just about everything a modern Australian will eat and where is derived from a plant or an animal, it's come from somewhere else, and by and large, has been freely shared. So, this sharing of our germplasm, I think goes some way in repaying that. So, the exchange itself has been very beneficial and planting our trees in other countries, and then observing what pests and diseases attack them or what they're susceptible to. Certainly, makes it a lot easier if those pests and diseases come to Australia where we're much better prepared. We know what the disease they're going to be. And we've hopefully we've established response mechanisms. So, we've learned a great deal about our own species through this overseas work, the breeding systems of different species, commercial use of the different species and basically how you plant and manage the trees. So, there's been a wonderful flow back of information on our own species coming back to Australia so I'm content I can sleep well at night knowing that we've done a good thing and we've been rewarded through this flowback of information.



Caroline: As we well know, there's more than just economic growth tied up with the likes of sustainable forest management in a non-economic values and benefits kind of way to communities, how was the pressure though on natural forests in the countries you've worked in changed over time. And what role do plantations play?



Stephen: There's no doubt that the pressure on native forests remains undiminished. They're incredibly important for food and fuel, fibre and medicines, water supplies, biodiversity, and commercial wood clearing for agriculture continues. Swidden Agriculture remains an important part of the land use in Southeast Asia. This is sometimes referred to as slash and burn agriculture, and plantations and plantings on land already cleared on that can produce wood and offer opportunities for local communities through employment, creating an asset of planted wood which they can sell. And it's this smallholder production of commercial wood, which I think is going to be the next big step forward. And I shared with you earlier just how big that production already is. And you are correct that sustainable forest management in all countries offers a huge range of social benefits, biodiversity, wildlife management, catchment protection. But in the priorities of these benefits change over time, there may be a forest, which once upon a time was considered very important for wood. But now other communities might value water catchment management or biodiversity more. So, society's expectations are not constant, they're always changing. But one thing that is constant is that society needs wood. So, we need to manage plantations and native forests for these multiple purposes. And that's where the science of forestry comes in. I guess. That's why it's a university degree.



Caroline: And so, what do you see is the brightest hope for improved forest management and a continuation in providing those multiple benefits?



Stephen: I think that we have to make sure that we engage with industry more and make sure that industry is more a part of the discussion, the dialogue we're having. And I think that we really should work towards strengthening links across the value chain. Often the discussion, if you look at a value chain, you've got on the left-hand side, you've got the resource, which is then processed and then ends up being sold to a consumer that's over on the right-hand side. And often that the people on the left-hand end resource people don't understand the needs of the consumers on the right-hand end. And not many people understand the bits in between. So, I think that we're going to see, if we want to make our forest management more responsive to social needs, we've got to understand these supply chains a little bit better. So that's one thing that I hope I will see. And as I mentioned earlier, smallholders are already big in Southeast Asia, they're really important parts of the global supply for commercial wood, but no one profits if production collapses in the second and subsequent rotations. So, site management, ongoing breeding silviculture they're all important. And my vision I guess, as is a world where farmers will contribute to commercial wood supply and produce wood sustainably and profitably in partnership with scientists funded by ACIAR funded by CSIRO funded by supported by Thai, Lao, Chinese government, and industry just helping them to grow this wood a little bit better. Now, as I said, we, over the last 40 years have seen a fascinating evolution in the way people view forests and trees and the way in which wood is used. And that's going to continue contemporary societies need wood as much as ever. Wood production needs to have the same scientific backup as food production. So, there's going to be a very, very strong rationale for ongoing ACIAR-supported inputs.



Caroline: You mentioned earlier that you can sleep well, knowing the part that you've played in all of this. What do you see as the future opportunities for strengthening the impact of forestry research worldwide?



Stephen: Keeping doors open, keeping doors open, and I draw comfort in the fact that 4000 years after people began cultivating rice, they're still looking for new genes and still breeding rice and I think there'll be still breeding trees and still working out innovative ways to manage trees and another 4000 years. If you take too long, if you take the long perspective, there's an awful lot we can be doing for an awful long time.



Caroline: Finally, Steven as we mark ACIAR’s 40th year, I'd like for you to share with me what the organisation means to you.



Stephen: I'm just very happy. I think that Australia and the region has been in the forestry sector has been better off for ACIAR being there. It's been a very positive vehicle for change for creating new knowledge for developing partnerships and friendships. And I'm just very, very pleased to have been a part of it.



Caroline: Stephen Midgley, you've played a vital role in forestry research and continue to do so thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Stephen: Thanks, Caroline. Good to talk with.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2022.

Episode 3 : Dr Meryl Williams

Hear Dr Williams’ experiences in championing gender equality in international development.

Transcript - Episode 3 : Dr Meryl Williams


Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: She champions women in fisheries and aquaculture globally, and her work over the past 25 years has been endlessly passionate and tireless. Dr Meryl Williams is an Australian agricultural research leader who's held roles including WorldFish, Director General and she's dedicated her career to gender issues and gender equality in international research for development. She says while there's still a long way to go to make a real lasting impact, the support she's received through her long association with ACIAR remains invaluable. Hi, I'm Caroline Winter, and I'm delighted to welcome Dr Meryl Williams to the ACIAR studio from her home in Malaysia.



Meryl: Nice to be with you, Caroline.



Caroline: Now Meryl your name is synonymous with aquaculture, fisheries, gender equality, conservation, development and food security. And that's just to name a few. We're going to explore those themes shortly. But firstly, where and how did the research journey begin for you?



Meryl: In 1996, my late Indian colleague, Dr M.C. Nandeesha, invited me to give welcome remarks at women in fisheries workshop in Indo China in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. With him at that workshop, I also summed up the outcomes of the workshop and became very interested in the topic soon after that. In 1998, he and I and other colleagues ran the first Asian Fisheries Society, Women in Asian Fisheries Symposium, and we published the proceedings. This led to an ongoing, still ongoing string of related conferences and publications, which became much broader and deeper in their coverage. But that's really how I started into the research side of gender.



Caroline: Now, you've spent more than 40 years working in fisheries research and development and more specifically, aquaculture. What challenges did you face as a female researcher over that time?



Meryl: Well, the challenges varied with the times, going back to the very early days from being one of the first women in the professional field in the organisations I worked for. And they were everything from the very fundamental like, how to get the girly calendars out of the workplace, to how to get sufficient number of women's toilets in the buildings. But coming into the field later of doing research on women in fisheries and aquaculture is a much different and deeper kind of challenge. And a couple of things have sort of triggered the journey in the research field. For example, our 1998 symposium, I just mentioned, was rather shocking in some ways, it was held as part of a major mainstream Asian fisheries forum. And although most of those of us who were presenting at the symposium were accomplished researchers in our own rights, and well known to most of the mainstream in the conference, the initial reaction from many men was that this symposium was just for women. And we were subjected to a lot of jocular comments like can men attend the symposium too, then quite a few men did come and probably made up about 1/3 of that first audience. But as the topic became seen as a serious research topic, producing research papers and serious discussion, we didn't really face that initial response again, at least not in the Asian Fishery Society events, we still find it from time to time when new professional bodies start to look at women and gender issues, they still don't quite know whether this is a serious topic or just something that the women want to do. A less triggering event was when the CGIAR are started doing gender research in the heartland of CGIAR research in plant breeding. Their research asked the question, what characteristics do women want in the crops and what ones do men prefer? When the studies started to reveal that there was some significant differences between what breeding outcomes women wanted in the crops but a lot of overlap, but it became clear that gender did play a role in all manner of situations where mainstream scientists just assumed that solid biophysical science held all the answers. So sure, everyone wanted faster growth and better disease resistance, didn't they, but it took a long time. And it's only really starting to get through that there are other things that people want, and the gender does make a difference in what it is that people want. It's often sort of thought that women are going to make the big changes and be the miracle creators of the virtuous future in agriculture and other sectors. But I don't see women that way, as being this mystical vehicle of positive change. I think it puts too much burden on them in agriculture, and fisheries, women have always been critical to economic production. But their needs have often never been recognised. They've been overlooked when it comes to decision-making. And it's time to really look at the political economy of women in the agricultural sectors.



Caroline: It's fascinating when you talk about gender in any industry, and this one included that a lot of people think of gender equality as being the main issue here. But it's so much more than that, isn't it? As you've just pointed out?



Meryl: Yes, yes. And one of the things that I'm focusing on at the moment in fisheries and aquaculture is whatever the big changes in these sectors and they've been enormous. What have they done to women, nobody's been taking notice of this, and in many cases, there's been huge impacts? Without going into any of the details, I'm coming to the overall conclusions that women by the changes have been rather economically ostracised, technologically excluded, and made pretty politically powerless. And so, something needs to be done about what's happened to women, as these agriculture, forestry and fisheries and so on systems are undergoing major, major global changes.



Caroline: And as the landscape for women, as you say, which has changed and obviously opportunities have presented themselves, but has that been a very slow or very gradual shift?



Meryl: Extremely, there have been changes emerging, but probably not enough, recognised until the changes are quite obvious. And as the importance of women in the sector is being gradually recognised, there is more attention to them. But I think there could be a major shift globally in how much attention is given. ACIAR has had a very interesting development of its attention to gender. It has a process of very careful project selection and development. And using the Pacific as an example, through that careful attention to selecting good projects that are going to really make a difference and developing them carefully with the partners. The roles of women are really starting to come out. More than a decade ago now ACIAR did a project called PARDI, the Pacific Agribusiness Research Development Initiative. And it spawned a number of daughter projects, including several in my own field in fisheries and aquaculture. And these have involved women vary substantially. For example, the pearls projects in Fiji and Tonga, which were recognised in the original PARDI Project as being opportunities. They've been borne out by careful work by ACIAR. And this and work on women and in the projects over the last decade or so led ACIAR to its 2017 Gender Strategy, which will be being renewed I believe, in the next year or so. So, this is pushing the frontiers further and based on very solid sort of evidence coming from careful analysis, and then careful development of the opportunities.



Caroline: We'll come back and talk more about ACIAR in a moment. I did want to find out though, were there any trigger points for you or situations that made you realise the importance of gender equality in international agricultural research for development?



Meryl: I guess there were several low one I've already mentioned being drawn in by a male colleague, to highlight the importance of women in fisheries and agriculture. The second trigger was realising just how hard it was having made that first foray into trying to understand what was going on. I found how difficult it was to generate the same level of interest more generally. And that really, today is still the case. The fisheries sector has been rather isolated in many ways in its policies, and its international laws, and it's, therefore, it's national laws, from a lot of the advances made by the women's movement, for example. So, one critical international law, in fact, the only global international law on women is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW, which was agreed by the countries in 1979. And it's one of the most heavily adopted of the international laws of any field. But its use in the fisheries sector has been very little. And now we're pleased to say that several countries are, such as Indonesia, are starting to bring CEDAW into the fisheries policy-making in some of their fisheries programs. So, it's realisation that fisheries has operated in its own world rather than seeing itself more as part of society and the people that work in it is more embedded in the general society and economy. So, trying to bring fisheries into greater connection with what's happening on gender equality in the rest of the economy, and politics and society is quite a challenge. Yes, indeed.



Caroline: And Meryl, where else are you seeing examples in your field of how gender is still being overlooked?



Meryl: I think one of the biggest examples is happening right now, which has been the disruption caused by the pandemic where supply chains have been very badly disrupted in many cases, not all, where women's work has been changed by those disruptions by things like the movement control orders in many countries, happen from time to time with different peaks in the pandemic, these have kept women close to home, have put back on them a lot of the care work that then takes them out of the employed economy. And we've been doing some projects recently that by accident, of course, coincided with a pandemic. And this has come out very strongly that women rather than men don't have access to the latest phones in many countries, so that they are hard to contact a not able to even get to some of their seaweed farming areas, for example, they are required to stay near the home and look after the children who may not be full time at school anymore. So, doing something about empowering women, before we get more disasters, and making sure that they are part of the system that receives help. Many of the women, of course, aren't registered as working in the sector, they’re just informal workers. So when governments come around to give some assistance to people in a particular sector, they don't see the women there because the women aren't registered, so the women don't get some of the support and other assistance that's going around. So, the pandemic, as in previous disasters has highlighted the way women are overlooked and the damage this does when a disaster occurs. But this damage, of course, is happening in smaller ways in ongoing normal periods. So getting women made formally more recognised, with more of a voice, able to be part of the decision-making, rather than not even thought about is some of the critical lessons that are emphasised yet again, by the disruptions being caused by the pandemic.



Caroline: On the flip side, can you share some examples that emphasise the value of focusing on women as a vehicle for positive change and sustainable development?



Caroline: Yes, and even a couple from the pandemic itself, the online marketing of some seafood products, in some areas where there's good connectivity has given advantage to particularly some of the younger women. And it's also brought in younger members of the family who may be more IT capable than, than their parents in some cases. So, this has spurred opportunities that were dependent before on old ways of getting the product to market and finding buyers. So that's one opportunity. However, again, that needs to be calibrated in a way with the fact that women often aren't the most connected in an IT sense. And so, the more connectivity is the better. Women are also being supported and encouraged to collectivise to work together. Now that's not always as easy as it seems to be. because often they will have even competitive interests in, for example, fish marketing. But it has been some of the work by existing groups who are already used to working together such as the African AW fish net group of women fish processes, that's been quite active in many countries in Africa in promoting the women's online and other marketing opportunities. So collective action definitely can work. But it's not always easy. And when you come to an emergency situation, collective action can be really, really important to getting attention to the right places.



Caroline: Meryl, you have decades of experience under your belt, are there specific parts of your research over that time that I guess stand out to you as having a lasting impact or a lasting effect?



Meryl: I think keeping the research action of Research and Outreach action going on gender is one of them. And it's still a very small action. Globally, I still believe we have huge distances to go in making a real impact. But in the 25-plus years that I've been involved, I've also seen how fragile progress can be. We now have around the world. In addition to the section which I currently lead, another dozen or so ongoing groups working in various parts of this business, nearly every one of them in that last 25 years, not all of them been going for 25 years. But nearly every one of them in that time has at one stage or other thought of just closing up. It's very hard to keep the momentum going when support is often very low when the founders retire, and there aren't enough others to take over, etc. But I've also seen that the right amount of encouragement not to close up at those critical moments has helped groups keep going and strengthen in the next stages. So working together with all of the groups as we've established ourselves and worked with each other around the world has to me been one of the most rewarding and revealing pieces of work and revealing in the sense that it just shows how hard it is to establish action and to get progress. But the knowledge base is growing considerably. We've got a lot of the mainstream research journals now actually wanting articles on women and gender in fisheries before it was very hard to get them into anything but the social science journals. So, there's a growing interest. So, we hope it's snowballing.



Caroline: It's certainly a collective approach and it needs leaders like yourself to help that momentum continue. Let's talk about ACIAR again. And you did touch on this before but how have you seen ACIAR research and engagement in the gender space evolve over time.



Meryl: I've seen it evolve with the whole of ACIAR as approach and program. And I'm very hopeful that it's going to be a major contributor to the efforts as I said, I've seen the work in the Pacific bear fruits with actual projects. But more than projects, of course, farms and community group enterprises in places like Fiji and Tonga, for the pearls as an example, to people actually prospering because of the work that ACIAR did. I've seen it grow into the gender policy, which now informs the whole of ACIAR work. I saw ACIAR lead the Seeds of Change Global Conference in Canberra, in 2019, which was one of the first global agricultural conferences on gender in agriculture, was happy to be part of a 2017 workshop. That was one of the factors that led to that conference. The first groups of Meryl Williams Fellows that are stressing the importance of women leaders, I think is really important. And when I met with the really inspiring first group, in 202) one of the things I tried to encourage them with was to say, don't just think of your own careers. But think of what women in the agricultural systems that you work in are facing and how they can be helped by the research that you and your institutions lead. So I think that ACIAR is very well placed and I'm really looking forward to how that gender space is going to evolve in the years ahead on thinking it's going to be very exciting.



Caroline: Now you've had a long association with ACIAR, including the Meryl Williams Fellowship, which is a wonderful honour. Tell me about that and the other roles that you've held.



Meryl: I first had my formal contact with ACIAR in the early 90s. For a year or two, before changing jobs, a member of the Policy Advisory Council of ACIAR, this happened to also be the time that ACIAR was going through its sunset clause review. ACIAR was set up in 1982. It had a sunset clause in its establishment act, and the sunset clause said that ACIAR would run for 10 years, and then we'll see. And to get the sunset clause removed. If ACIAR had shown itself as a valuable contributor, a very substantial set of impact assessments and evaluations of ACIAR’s, first 10 years of work were being undertaken. The results that those evaluations and impact assessments came out with were really impressive. And of course, ACIAR’s type of work is not something you do once, and you've solved problems forever. The world is very dynamic place, things change, or you can't solve all the problems in 10 years. And the value of ACIAR’s work was shown very clearly by the reviews. So, it was not hard at all to get strong political support for removing the sunset courts. So that was my first exposure to ACIAR, which I suppose in a way gave it also a very good overview of what ACIAR was achieving. Of course, when I became director-general WorldFish Center for 14 years, our centre has one of the CGIAR centres was a recipient of ACIAR support. And I found ACIAR as a donor to be thorough, respectful, tough, but very long-term support of when they did their homework on whether something was a good area to support. They kept that support going through various stages of development provided the work was going well or the idea was proving up. So, I found ACIAR, a very honourable funding partner to work with. Later, I became the Chair of the ACIAR Board of Management and Policy Advisory Council for three years. And that period coincided with another change in the overall federal government's governance approaches. And those sorts of boards of management were generally done away with in a lot of government agencies and were replaced with things such as commissions. So, in the case of ACIAR, the government split the Policy Advisory Council and created a new commission. With similar but different responsibilities to the Board of Management. I chaired the commission then for another three years and was very close to the ACIAR programs in that period. Since then, I've had only very infrequent interactions with ACIAR, and lately, mainly on the gender front. But I always keep a very good lookout for the exciting things come out of ACIAR and I love reading Partners magazine, and some of their technical reports and papers and so on and a huge fan of things that ACIAR does and how they do it.



Caroline: Meryl, you've mentioned how ACIAR and in some ways how the international research community has changed its approach to gender over the years, but more personally, have there been any milestone moments that were pivotal in you recognising that change was happening?



Meryl: Well, I guess they've been many of these things are often very small, but they are symbolic and can make a big difference. I mentioned earlier that we started out gender in aquaculture and fisheries symposia, and publications and reviews and so on, is through the Asian Fisheries Society, which is still very active in this area. We now have the society in its upcoming triennial forum, which is its main conference, highlighting with keynote speakers and plenary speakers, gender topics, and not putting the gender topic as the last one on its list of topics that will be covered by the conference. And also including imagery in its publications and its outreach that emphasise that this is a gender-inclusive approach and event and the themes are gender-inclusive. That sounds almost trivial, but it's highly symbolic and we would like other mainstream actors in the field to be doing the same thing. ACIAR is doing the symbolic in many of its images of its agricultural work, as are many others. So, I think those kinds of moments are small but the important steps in showing that things are changing. But I think we're still a long way from taking the change for granted, I think there is still a resistance in a lot of quarters, resistance to the extent that well, this is not really important that some of the bigger economic approaches may be more important and social aspects, not so vital. But we'd like to keep changing for the positive, those views that the social and inclusive aspects are in fact equally, and what's sometimes more important.



Caroline: There is obviously as always more work to be done. But pictures, as they say, are worth 1000 words. So, I have no doubt those moments were more than symbolic. To you work and live in Penang in Malaysia and have done for a couple of decades now. How are women addressing inequalities in aquaculture in your region, and more broadly, and have there been opportunities for improvement in recent years.



Meryl: There have the professional field is probably the area that seen the most improvement. There are more women scientists and more women in the technical professional areas in the government's and in the companies and in the aquaculture enterprises. But I keep cautioning people not to take that at face value, it doesn't mean that there's necessarily improvements in the whole value change in the people working in factories, processing the fish or the shrimps. etc, we need change rights throughout, we need more women entrepreneurs, we need more women in management, we need more women in decision making and political roles in the sector. Some colleagues and I have recently published a paper on women in the Western and Central Pacific tuna fisheries, looking right across the industrial-scale value chains, which deliver you your canned tuna in the supermarket, to the small-scale tuna, fisheries and fish processing products, value chains in the countries which don't get much attention. And the data that we had to draw on were very poor, as gender-disaggregated data are throughout the world. But from what we could pull together, we estimate that probably in that fishery, which is the biggest tuna fishery in the world, and one of the biggest fisheries in the world, that women make up about half the workforce. But women do not get any attention at all, in all the policy work. So, we feel that that has to change. So, you know, my vision is that there is a quantum leap in knowledge sometime in the next decade, about the current status of women in all the agricultural value chains in the agriculture communities and households. I think ACR can have a role here also that gender is a dimension that's going to be included in all the program planning and delivery. And when I say gender, I mean women, men, minority genders, people's life stages are important. Among the many diversity factors, whether people are young or old, what are the different needs and opportunities? How do we factor in a more equal share of the care and reproductive work in our societies? And then how are we going to deal with the future of putting into practice the lessons we're learning from the pandemic and climate and other disasters? So, I think we need a lot more building on what we've the progress we've already made.



Caroline: I'd like to look into the crystal ball now. What do you see as the future opportunities for strengthening the impact of women in agriculture and research? worldwide?



So, I guess, what's your vision?



Meryl: We need all of the key policymakers to be gender educated. And by this, I mean women as well as men, many of the women in senior positions and as I said, there are more and more of them. Don't think gender is an issue because they have attained their senior positions, their leadership positions. In fact, some of the greatest resistance to doing gender work can come from successful women. I often point out that this is a result of the huge advances we've made in educating women. This has been one of the real wins of the last century. women's education and that's paid off in senior women in professional positions. But it doesn't translate into the same gains for women in other areas, but we have to educate the decision-makers, women and men, that there are still huge needs to improve the status and opportunities for women in all the sectors, that there's very systemic discrimination all through life and careers. And that's very hard for most people to overcome. There's a lot of stereotyping of women and men's skills and abilities, that's quite unequal and not correct, that needs to be overcome, we need to give women and minorities greater voices. So I would tend to start with trying to find ways to as we are to open the eyes of the people who are making decisions at the top, I would also want a lot done about collecting data so that we really know what's happening, the changes I see from the research often don't have time series have good data to support them, we have to go from the individual research projects that might have come up with individual data points, but we don't have comprehensive data that really has to change so that we know where to put the effort for the future.



Caroline: There's obviously a big job ahead, but you have had the passion and commitment all of this time to achieve what you have. How do you feel about handing the baton on in the next, you know, 10/20 years and I guess where that baton ends up?



Meryl: I'm hoping to hand over a lot sooner than that. But I feel positive about where the baton lands up because I see a couple of generations coming up that are much more aware. But we the older generation always think that the younger generation doesn't appreciate the challenges enough. But they do come equipped with much better knowledge of the issues that we had, when we started working in this field, is my belief from my own career trajectory. So, I think they have a much better platform on which to build their efforts and a much wider set of tools to build on as well. One of the positives of the pandemic has been in some ways to make the inclusion of voices a bit easier. I mean, I think it's still going to be difficult, but people can now attend webinars and even be admitted to high-level global meetings that they once couldn't afford to go to. Now more people can be part of what's happening. Now, I don't think that translates into power. But I do think it allows access to knowledge and potential sources of influence. So, I think the next generation coming up is better equipped, knowledge-wise, but it needs to take that knowledge to a new level again. And it does have more tools than we had in our day for becoming active and influential in making change.



Caroline: And Meryl. What advice would you give to a woman or women keen to start a career in aquaculture or an international research for development? And forge this path, much like you have?



Meryl: Oh, definitely go for it. And it'll be very rewarding. Don't think it's always going to be plain sailing? It never is. I read a lot of interviews with particularly young women who are working in the field. And when asked if they've had any challenges from being a woman will say no, you know, not at all. And I'm always a little bit amused by that because I think they probably haven't yet had the challenges they go to have. I think everybody has challenges in their careers, whether they because of your gender, or other factors. But just be ready to realise that this is not the end of the world. And that you can bounce back, overcome whatever the challenge is, and get on with whatever it is that you're planning to do to make a difference for good. So, go for it, but be ready.



Meryl: Some great advice there. And before you go, Meryl, I'd like for you to share with me what ACIAR means to you as we mark the organisation's 40th year.



Meryl: ACIAR to me has been a teacher about international agricultural research. It's been a donor to organisations and projects I've worked on. It's been a source of tremendous benefit to our partners in developing countries and to all Australians, including particularly the agricultural, forestry and fisheries communities.



Caroline: And what a perfect way to end Dr Meryl Williams, you've achieved so much. Thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Meryl: Thank you, Caroline.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2020.

Episode 4 : Professor David Kemp

Professor Kemp shares his experiences progressing farming practices in livestock and grasslands for ACIAR in China and Mongolia.

Transcript - Episode 4 : Dr David Kemp


Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: Professor David Kemp spent much of his career working to lift Chinese livestock herders out of poverty and rehabilitate the grasslands they rely on. And for his tireless efforts became only one of a handful of Australians to ever receive the Friendship Award given by the Chinese government in recognition of contributions made to the country's development, while Professor Kemp’s leadership of ACIARs grassland management projects, improved livelihoods and reduced environmental degradation in China and Mongolia. It also made him lifelong friends too. Hi, I'm Caroline Winter and Professor David Kemp. Thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



David: Very pleased to be here.



Caroline: Perhaps let's start at the very beginning for you and your personal journey into agricultural research and into ACIAR projects. How did that all begin?



David: Oh, well, it probably goes back to primary school, when we used to always go on holidays in the country or public holidays out of Sydney. And we had relatives who are on farms up the north coast of New South Wales. And I remember one up at Stroud Road was one of the best holidays I've ever had. So, I think that started me thinking about agriculture as opposed to work.  had another uncle who had a dairy farmer while I’m, so I spent a lot of time there in holidays. And even when I was a student, I ran that farm for him for a bit so that he could have a holiday. And the thought of working in an office in Sydney was anathema to me, although I ended up working in an office in the country, I suppose for most of my career, but so all that happened, and I ended up doing Agricultural Science at Sydney Uni. And then my first job was up the north coast of New South Wales, at Taree, where I worked with a group of farmers. And this was before we had all the R&D corporations, that exists today. But the farmers, the dairy farmers, in particular, got together and they collected money from various firms and other places around town and used that to fund local research. And that was an ideal way to word about doing agricultural research. Because every three months, I had to meet with those farmers and tell them what I was doing, like milestone reports that that frequency really happened. So, we had six or seven years of doing that. And then I went off to do a PhD in Plant Physiology that was in WA, and then moved from there to Orange in central New South Wales, where the Department of Agriculture at the time was in increasing the staff they were locating at the Agricultural Research Station as it then was. So I joined the group there. And we weren't specific about grasslands or forages. But we worked on that, as well as working on wheat crops and other things. But from that, we then grow a group in Orange to became pretty well known, I think, around the countryside for our pasture work. I think there were about four of us, you would say with a core group, plus our assistants and technicians. And we were able to make some useful progress in how you manage the grasslands of the area, and particularly focusing on the permanent grasslands.



Caroline: What was it that fascinated you most about grasslands and forage research in particular?



David: Well, I remember a physicist talking about the fact of, it's nice to tackle the harder problems, like working with crops, you've got a single species in a very controlled system. And whilst there's a lot of important work to do there, you get to the position where things can be slightly more predictable. We're in grasslands, you end up with a big mix of often native and exotic species, bunch of weeds coming in, then the animals impose their effects over the top of that. And so we got very interested in how we could use animals, then to manage the pastures better, rather than just accepting whatever happened and then when things all went wrong, you dug it all up and started again.



Caroline: Now much of this work you've spoken about was here in Australia, what then was it that sparked your interest in China and grazing lands there?



David: I'd always been interested, I suppose in Asia, I mean, that's where we live in Asian Pacific. And in China, particularly who'd been this giant unknown when I was growing up because that was when Mao was in charge. But then as China started to open up, yeah, there are lots of opportunities to meet people from China, and then to get an idea of what we could learn from them. Or we might be able to help them or they might learn from us, or those interactions that make work interesting. I also had relatives who married Chinese. And that strengthened some of that though, we're in Southeast Asia. And one of the guys in our group at Orange David Michalk, he worked on projects for about six years in China. He lived there and did things. So, we got to understand a lot of what had happened there. That was almost 40 years ago, he was doing that. And then when I think it was at the Grassland Congress in Brazil in about 2001. There were some Chinese guys there, they presented some very interesting papers on the problems of grasslands. And we just talk generally about it and then after that meeting, a guy professor named Nan Zhibiao, is a Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Science, he invited me to go to China to talk about all our work on how we manage grasslands and how he could do it better. And I went over to northern China, up in the nor-east, almost in Mongolia, to have a look at their grasslands. I actually did some interviews there with people about it. And we travelled around looking at some of the issues. And then said, well, let's see what problems there are, and how we might be able to help manage them better. At the same time, ACIAR had talked to us about, well, if there's some interesting work there let’s see what can be done. And so, we followed up with a few trips with that stage, Bill Winter and ACIAR. And I then went to visit people in the north of China and the west of China and tried to tie down what would be an important project to do.



Caroline: And what was it that you decided on after that?



David: Well, initially, we were, we felt we don't really understand the problem all that well. And we thought we should just do some survey work to try to understand it better. And we spent the next 18 months to two years really, with another trip to China, and a lot more discussion and thinking about it and developed the project where we surveyed herders to try and understand how they lived and how they manage their animals. And what were the issues that were confronting them? We then use that information to develop some simple models of how the system works, so that we could explore different ideas about what could be done. And also then we work with the Chinese groups we were dealing with, to develop some experiments to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and the knowledge we got from the experiments we would then put into the models.



Caroline: Just for some perspective, could you explain the differences and similarities between Australia and China when it comes to the land both in size and conditions?



David: One way to think about the grasslands of China as compared to Australia is Australia's land area is about 700 million hectares, and we have 400 million hectares of grazing land. China also has about 400 million hectares of grasslands that are used for grazing, mainly across the north, the West, and little bits in the South. That 400 million hectares in China is within a total land area of about 900 million hectares. In China. It extends from the Gobi Desert, where you get 50 millimetres of rain a year, to about 500 millimetres of rain up in the northeast, on the Tibetan Plateau. It's up to 150 – 200 – 300 - 400 millimetres is all you get of rainfall. The temperatures, average in a lot of places close to zero through the hot. That's the average for the whole year. But the summers are when it rains and you have then three, four or five months of temperatures above zero and rain to stimulate the grass growth. For the rest of the year, it's gets rather cold. Tibet, by the way, is not the coldest place in China on the Mongolian plateau, large part of that's in China. And it'll be minus 40 minus 50. In winter, it's a very harsh environment for nine months of the year. So, the plants grow over summer, the animals get fat on that. But then at the end of summer, in September, from there, and to all the next June, there's nothing for them to eat really at all. It's very dry. The cold temperatures mean that the animals was a lot of body mass by walking about, they'll often lose 20 or 30% of their body weights through winter, in a normal year, which is worse than our animals in a drought. And in the middle of winter, the lambs will be born, or calves were born. And you can imagine that, with the mothers losing weight, not able to eat much, not having much milk, the lambs and calves are often about half the size, we would expect, that they managed to survive. They struggled through at about the time they weaned off their mothers is when grass grows again in summer. So, all of that means it's pretty difficult. But then on top of that, China opened up under Deng Xiaoping, 40 years or so ago now. And part of that process was gradually allocating individual areas of land to herders, as we now understand that it seems that when herders were then allocated, some land, they thought, oh well, this is all mine, I can now have more animals. So, the number of animals on the grasslands of China, if you work it out, in terms of sheep equivalents, has gone from about 250 million animals in 1950 to 1 billion animals today. And this is, as I said, on an area of grazing land about the same as what Australia grazes where we'd only have about 20% of that, really, or maybe a bit more now, in some areas, on the same vast areas, and often with similar levels of productivity.



Caroline: That's a really interesting perspective and can give us an idea of what you were dealing with over there. If I take you back to the early 2000s, which is when ACIAR research projects in China launched there. Can you describe what it was like in the region at the time and what life was like for farmers there.



David: Well the herders were among the poorest people in China, there's about 16 million across the grasslands there. You could say almost the population of Australia in some ways, the average daily income was less than 2 US dollars per head per day. So, they fit it into the international poverty line. And in the early 2000s, China was still regarded as a developing country. And that's why ACIAR got involved. So that many of these herders had very limited resources, they were unable to move very far from their farms, a trader might show up to buy animals off them in Autumn each year. And, you know, often we would find examples of the price the trader would give herder for their animals was a quarter or a fifth of what the trader then got, by taking the animals half an hour away, and selling it in a big town, that the herders didn't know what was happening in the big towns, they were all relatively isolated. So, there's a very basic income hand-to-mouth existence, not too many options, and the herders’ skills. were primarily about hey, you help the animals survive, but not necessarily how you might make it a more productive enterprise, which could then enable them to acquire the funds to do the other things they want, like educate their children, get better health services or whatever.



Caroline: Any stories that you remember from that time from some of the people that you met, I guess about how they were surviving their lives, their livelihoods.



David: The herders, basically where you know, once a year or something like that, twice a year, they might get into town, public transport, of course, doesn't exist and the way it does in all the cities of China, and they had to always make special arrangements and they do it on horseback, back then. They engraved primarily on the meat though grant. He wouldn't find a lot of vegetables or things like that for them to eat out there in the grasslands. Their children we're only getting a basic education. Health Services were very basic. And they were among the poorest in China, they did often have reasonable housing, because there’d been Chinese government programs to build houses for them, when people were resettled in areas where they were allocated individual areas of land to run their livestock on. So that meant they could get shelter during the winter and didn't have to survive in at minus 40. In a tent.



Caroline: Well, it's hard to even fathom, isn't it? Professor Kemp, you mentioned the weather earlier. But what were some of the other key challenges and opportunities in China at that time in relation to livestock and pasture management?



David: Well, the big issue was really that so many areas ended up overstocked. The irony. But it was back in the collective farm period of China, there was a lot more control over the numbers of animals who were around. And the overgrazing problems that now exist, did not apply. But by the time we got there, in 2000, the Chinese were estimating that probably 90% of their grasslands were overgrazed and degraded to some extent. So that was the big underlying issue because it meant their animals did very poorly. As I was saying earlier, the winters are so very harsh, there's a short grazing season. And that then meant that when there was a poor summer, and maybe not a lot of rain, they got very little growth that often got followed by harsh winters. They called them Snow Emergencies in China, or Dzuds in Mongolia, where they get extra snow so that the animals can't even scrape away to try and find some dead grass to eat on the ground. And millions of animals died in those winters, when it happened, many in Mongolia, where we've also worked, at times, when that's hit half the animals in the country have died. So as you can imagine, this imposes even more stress on the households who are trying to get through survive and create a tiny surplus so that they can help educate their children better and, and get access to better medical services when they need it.



Caroline: Of course, and the opportunities they obviously existed, why did you think that Australia could help? And what research expertise did the Australian team bring?



David: Well, the Chinese thought we can help primarily upfront, we didn't understand enough to necessarily all immediately see where we could fit in. But Australia tends to work for low-cost options. In a lot of its agriculture. We’re not like the Americans or Europeans who just throw money at agriculture, and in a big way, and put in lots of inputs and manage to grow the crops and the livestock in the way they want to then, because we look at the existing circumstances that apply in a lot of these grasslands, and then try and see what we can do to work within that to improve productivity. Chinese like that approach. And I thought it was going to be fairly feasible for a lot of their landscape, exactly what that would be, we took a bit of time to work through. And we were not in a hurry to come up with a result, say with any one or two years, as some Americans were prone to do, we were prepared to spend our time understanding the system, as I said earlier, modelling it, getting some experiments going, where we could fill in the gaps in knowledge. And then gradually piecing all that together. We also because of our experience, often working with farmers in Australia, one of the tools we make good use of was setting up demonstration farms, where we worked with a local herder, we would often just get rid of half their animals because we saw that as a pathway to success. And then look at how those animals performed and what it could then mean for the income they would get from those animals relative to where they'd been before. And that and the demonstrations worked very well. We very quickly showed that yes, you can get rid of half your animals. It's still a lot more animals than what were around in 1950. But our modelling suggested that that was going to be about the level where the net income would increase, and it did. And then they had better quality animals and animals that grew faster. One of the related issues I hadn't mentioned earlier, was for sheep or a cow. They're often about 2/3/4 years of age before they produce some progeny. And This effectively means they're twice as old, as what would apply in Australia, in a reasonably efficient farm. So, there's a lot of animals wandering around eating grass, that are not producing lambs, or calves ultimately could be sold. And so, they eat a lot of grass but don't give you much income. So, getting rid of a lot of the animals means that a higher proportion of the remaining ones, then have reproductive success, and they're better fed, and the animals grow faster. They’re bigger animals, they get a better price for them. And it all works quite well for improving the livelihoods of herders.



Caroline: You've spoken a bit about what your research entailed, and why you took that focus and took the time to figure out which direction what was discovered and what outcomes were there as a result of the research that you undertook?



David: Well, the simple answer was, we really just found get rid of half your animals, and you'll make more money. And that thing, with less pressure on the grasslands, that then gives the degraded grasslands a chance to recover. Because we were chasing a win-win model, where grasslands could improve and be on the path back to what they used to be like versus the present state. And also, so the herders then were able to achieve a lot more of the things they wanted to do. Herders were really telling all their children to leave the land go and get a job somewhere else. That was always a bit problematic because their children weren't always able to get the best education. And they often were doing menial construction jobs around China or other things. But that takes a few generations often to move through and get more out of the opportunities that are there. So we were really conscious of having a look at the whole strategy to then work out where you could go, Now to give you an example of where all that ended up. The one village we worked in, in Inner Mongolia, we've worked in quite a few across China, but it was probably the more successful, because there were village leaders there who understood what we were trying to do, understood the suggestions we were making, in part because they'd actually been thinking along similar lines, but were not quite sure to the best way to do things. But after about 10 years work, it meant something like 20,000 households in that village, had got rid of half their animals. And everyone was saying you can clearly see the benefits in the grassland. And the incomes had improved for some of them, that probably remained about the same. But a lot of the others their incomes had gone up. In that case, too. It was because the herders could see things were able to be improved. And then they started to think a lot more about how they might market their products. So they got rid of a lot of middlemen, and they was organising to sell their animals straight to an abattoir. And then from that abattoir, while they went to the hotpot restaurants in Beijing so that they were getting four times the price for their animals, of people in the neighbouring districts. So, you need this whole system approach to do a lot of this work successfully.



Caroline: You've outlined how your work on grasslands had those two main aims one was to alleviate poverty for want of a broad term and also reduce environmental degradation. So how did you marry the two and work with researchers and communities to help the research have meaning and impact locally and also ongoing?



David: That was where we set out right from the start to look for solutions that were a win-win? What can we do to rehabilitate the grasslands, and that invariably meant reducing the number of animals but because animal production and efficiencies of production were very low, we knew that if we got rid of a lot of the animals, and because it's a feed limited system, that would mean the remaining animals should have more grass to eat, which proves to be the case. And then those animals will grow faster. They'll have more reproductive success, and they will be able to sell off the young animals at an earlier age than what they’ve done before. So, it means they're not carrying small animals through another harsh winter. They can get rid of them all in autumn each year. So even though we started from a perspective of what can we do about grasslands, reorganising the animal production system, was really the key. And along with that, as I mentioned a bit earlier about the locals and realised that they could start to play in the markets more efficiently. And all those things added up to improve their incomes. And it worked, because as I said, we had a lot of households that have done that, and it's worked. But also, well, I can remember 10 years ago asking some of the herders did they ever think they'll get a motor car or some vehicle like that, or a little truck so they can get in and out of the neighbouring big towns and sell their animals more efficiently, and do the other things they want to do? And they came on, that would never be possible. But now they have vehicles, they have a means of getting to the towns regularly. They don't have to walk the animals into the town and sit there for a week waiting for a trader to show up to see if they can sell their animals. And of course, when a trade is used to show up, under those circumstances, the farmers had taken whatever they could get.



Caroline: Wow, what an incredible outcome to have witnessed, really, I guess, overall, how integral was ACIARs program in China to improving lands and livelihoods in the country.



David: I think it's probably been one of the more successful ones in achieving good outcomes and showing important directions that you could go. Like, we worked in Inner Mongolia and Gansu, what some of the outcomes overflowed into Tibet, and Ching Hai as well as other neighbouring provinces. And we made a particular point of each year talking to each of the six layers of government that you have in China. So, I met the guys in the Ministry of Agriculture, who were responsible for managing the grasslands. Got to understand the results that we were producing and could see that they then provided the opportunities to achieve all the other goals that the Chinese government wanted to achieve, particularly improving the incomes of herders. And they were very conscious that a lot of that had come about through ACIAR. And particularly they, because he had been involved in other things in China that we've crops and things that had worked quite well. So, they really liked, I think, to talk to ACIAR about where can we cooperate? How can we work together to achieve some good outcomes here and see ACIAR as a good partner to deal with?



Caroline: As a testament to all of that you received the 2015 Friendship Award at the Chinese government for the outstanding contributions you made through the ACIAR Grassland Management Projects. Now, you're only one of a handful of Australians who have received this award. What does it mean to you?



David: It means a lot, because it's nice to know that, well, like all these things they are team efforts. But everybody who was involved contributed very well. And the net effect was of great benefit. It was very nice. And I mean, the scale of it, I should mention too, is that China each year gets about 650,000 foreign visitors who are working on various projects throughout China. And they hand out 50 awards a year friendship awards, it was nice to show up at the gathering and the Great Hall of the People and along with a few Nobel Prize winners and others who were given to talk about what we had been able to achieve.



Caroline: I don't want to make you blush here. But I do understand you're something of a legend. Thanks to your work in China. Tell me about the friendships and the relationships you've developed from your research and your time there.



David: Once you're in China, and you've got people develop friendships with you, then you've gotten them for life, no matter what they appreciate very much. I think the fact that we've been there, we've been working with them. And you know, almost weekly, I get an email or other from people in China about things and would I have a look at this paper for them or whatever they think about some issue. And we're talking about people who are all highly educated and the main but some of the herders I think also appreciate it because we brought officials and herders out to Australia at times, so they could understand where we were coming from, and how we developed our ideas. And we treated them equally as you would a high official. And they found that a bit interesting and a bit different and strange. And after 10 years or so one comment about how he still couldn't quite get over the fact that here we were these big foreign heavies coming to talk to the poor herders. And we've we did it regularly. And we asked them questions to learn what they were doing, rather than just coming to tell them what to do. So, the friendships are very strong. The opportunities to collaborate are always there. Although I'm fairly in need of a rest, in some ways, from a lot of that. And of course, yeah, when you are working with people that become good friends, there is no great stress about it. You might be with them day and night almost and travelling around and you're seeing different bits of country and you can understand what's happening, or a question and answer sessions, the food is good. And they have over the years have blossomed greatly. When we were first there, a lot of them were having trouble writing papers. These are high-level university staff. But now, their ability to write a good scientific paper is probably better than ours.



Caroline: I guess that leads me to my next question, do you have any other reflections on the immense transformation and research capacity China has had in the past few decades?



David: Oh, it's been immense, the Chinese have poured a lot of money into research, like just with our project, or effectively over the nearly 20 years now, China grasslands work, ACIAR has put into a few million dollars. But then we estimated the Chinese government had put in $50 million. By the time we were winding up the last projects, the Australian Government doesn't do anything like that. We just don't get that same support. And initially, as I said, the Chinese researchers were struggling to know how to tackle a problem, how to design experiments and analyse them, and how to use different methodologies. Whether you do an experiment, or whether you go out and survey people, and then build a model, all those things were a bit new to them. And also trying to think at a systems level, where you're looking at the whole context for what where a problem might lie before you decide which bit of research is going to be the most useful. And they now are quite capable of doing a lot of that work themselves. And I can match anyone from Australia or the US or Europe in doing that sort of work and contribute on an equal footing to general knowledge about how these systems work.



Caroline: And how did the research affect your professional development and your career beyond the project?



David: Oh, well, it kept us very busy. The, in terms of my professional development, I was already, if you like at the top of the tree as a professor of the University of Sydney when we started. So, you don't have any room to go after that. In terms of research position. But it did mean we were often invited to talk at international meetings, we also then were considered as often the key people to go to I got a letter from a colleague in New Zealand today asking me to see if I could contact relevant people around Australia on an issue. Every four years or so we have these International Grassland Congresses. And in 2013, there was we held a conference in Australia. And I was president of that conference. And a lot of the guys who were working with me in China, were key people on the organising committee. Yeah, we got chosen to, do that, I think because we've achieved quite a high profile in important areas of work.



Caroline: So that collaboration is vital, isn't it?



David: Lots of opportunities, I think because in so many cases, it's not necessarily a simple matter of people in a developing country need the money. More importantly, they need lots of mentoring. And they don't always have the opportunities to develop those skills in their own country for all sorts of sociological and financial reasons. So when groups like ACIAR initiate a program in a developing country, it means that the staff from Australia who get involved probably spend most of the project, just working with the locals explaining how you might think about a problem. Look for what is the better types of solutions, designed experiments or other pieces of work to understand that, and then do the measurements, get them all done correctly and properly written up and then delivered to the groups who really need those solutions. That's not going to happen for many countries in isolation from the rest of the world. So International Agricultural Research, I think it's vital to keep things going. But it's also vital in a broader sense to offered even in what you think as a developed country, you got to keep in touch with them because they might have a good idea. Or you might have a problem. And you can talk to these other groups about it. And they help you then find solutions, and then join together. Like in our work that got extended into Mongolia. The Swiss Development Corporation was also working there. And they were able to provide us with a lot of good background information that we then used in the ACIAR projects in Mongolia. Whenever we've been working in those countries, we try and each year, get in touch with at all the layers of government, we try and find out who's doing what even if they might not be involved in the project, and go and talk to those people and see what we can learn. You're trying to bring a lot of information together. And then we give those groups in the country further information on how they might tackle their problems differently, or how they might deal with some analyses or issues, or how they might really stand back and think about it in a way that lets him quit more quickly get to the solutions that are going to work. So all those things add up. Thinking of it all gets back to try to be as flexible as possible when you go to the countries that really could benefit from some of the Australian expertise.



Caroline: And they have indeed benefited from yours, Professor Kemp as we mark ACIARs 40th year, can you share with me a final thought on what the organisation means to you?



David: I think ACIAR is a great organisation to work with. We enjoyed it very much. The staff we've worked with there have been great to work with. And it's often because the staff are people who've got lots of experience. They haven't just grown up through the bureaucracies. There have been people who have done research or related programs across many countries and understand the problems, understand how you might work with them. And they've always been willing to help us sort things out. And that even extends to when you're preparing a project proposal. ACIAR has its own ways of working, which takes take a while to learn. But their staff have been very helpful in doing that. So, I think I think it's fair to say that ACIAR is probably one of the jewels in foreign affairs in Australia. And I hope that it continues in that role, and maybe expands well into the future.



Caroline: Indeed. But Professor David Kemp, thank you for sharing your experiences and stories from your time in China and Mongolia and thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



David: It's been a pleasure. All the best Caroline.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2020.

Episode 5 : Dr Harry Nesbitt

Hear about Dr Nesbitt’s experiences re-establishing rice production in Cambodia after the civil war in 1975, and how he applied this ground-breaking work to other contexts including Timor-Leste.

Transcript - Episode 5 : Dr Harry Nesbitt


Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: He's known fondly as Dr Rice and that's because Harry Nesbitt was instrumental in helping Cambodia rebuild its shattered agricultural system following the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. And what he learned from that career-defining time, Dr Nesbitt took to the newly independent Timor-Leste day and in conjunction with ACIAR, he again established a legacy that continues today. His passion for supporting agricultural development and revitalising communities to bolster lives and livelihoods has underpinned his entire career. I'm Caroline Winter, and we're about to hear more about Dr Harry Nesbitt, who joins me now in the ACIAR studio. Welcome.



Harry: Ah, it’s a pleasure to be here with you, Caroline.



Caroline: Now you've come full circle and are back in Perth in Western Australia, which is your hometown and where you first studied Agricultural Science many years ago, Could you have imagined for a moment just where those studies would take you and the research journey that you've had?



Harry: No, I didn't imagine my life to be as exciting as and fulfilling as it has been. But I've always enjoyed travelling. And when I first started working on an agricultural research station in Zimbabwe in 1968, it goes to show how old I am. I just gained a lot of enthusiasm for agricultural research. And then, many years later, after I finished my PhD and managed to get a job in the Philippines, working on an agricultural research station, I was very happy. And for me a couple of years, three years in the Philippines, and then a couple of years in Thailand 13 years and living in Cambodia, with my wife and family at the time. And then I did a lot of short-term work. And for the next five or 10 years, and then work with ACIAR reviewed an ACIAR project in Cambodia in 2005, I think it was, and also reviewed the Seeds of Life project in East Timor. And then a couple of years later, I started working part-time with the Seeds of Life program.



Caroline: So, there is a lot to unpack there. Let's take you back to Cambodia. Now you've been described as The Rice God, that's quite a title born out of quite a time. Can you tell me how you got it and how it's tied into helping Cambodia to effectively feed itself again?



Harry: Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing really, I mean, the Rice God was from a title of an article that was published in the weekend, Australia newspaper in the magazine that was titled, is the Rice God Named Harry. Now as the article was written by Brad Collis. And Brad was visiting Cambodia because he had heard of what a fantastic job that the project that I was working on, was doing and had done to that state that time. So, I've, you know, put up with a lot of ribbing from my colleagues over the title. But in fact, it really that article was written about the impact of agricultural research. But Brad Collis said to me, later, science doesn't sell, people do. So that was the reason for the title. And I put up with the ribbing from different people. But it also, you know, really did sort of publicise the terrific social and economic benefits that agricultural research does, particularly in developing countries.



Caroline: It's not really an underestimation is it though, to say that the project that you were working on, not alone, obviously, it was funded by Aus Aid as well, that it really was about rebuilding a country that had gone through such a terrible time.



Harry: That's what the article is about. Yes. And we're very, very successful in doing that. Made a huge economic impact and a huge social impact.



Caroline: Also, can you talk me through what it was you were doing there on the ground and how you managed to have those outcomes?



Harry: The project was designed around helping the agricultural sector in Cambodia, and it's mainly right, the agriculture in Cambodia is mainly rice-based. So we helped do exactly the same things that I've helped to do in East Timor or with ACIAR, and that was to help establish infrastructure within the country helped to train in personnel helped to develop systems and help to actually conduct agricultural research and involve farmers and the research community so that there was a long-lasting benefit from our efforts.



Caroline: Surely you look back, though, I mean, maybe even at the time, did you understand the real gravity, the impact that you're having on the lives and livelihoods of those people?



Harry: I guess we didn't write it initially, because as with most projects, the first project was only for about 20 months. So, it was the objective of just getting something up and going, trying to establish a research program of some sort. And then over a period of time, more and more resources went into helping the National Research Program. And then, of course, we had time to train people. So, we had 13, masters and PhDs, most of whom come to Australia and trained in Australian universities. And at the end of the project, these trained personnel were able to take over the program. So now when I return to Cambodia, because we're such a long time, and we had such an impact, now I go to Cambodia and I can run into people in the street and say, oh maybe you don't remember me. But if it wasn't for you, that's not me. It was I was the team lead of the project. If it wasn't for the project, then I wouldn't have been able to do this and now I'm doing this and also to see the farmers, you know, that have increased their production by so much and they have extra cash and all those social aspects which are terrific.



Caroline: Oh, absolutely. Your time in Cambodia, though, wasn't without its hairy moments, I had been reading that one point a grenade was thrown into the project office, there were shots fired at your residence, and even a bounty was placed on your life by the Khmer Rouge. Are those things true? And how did you navigate the danger, particularly having your family by your side?



Harry: Um, carefully. You know, maybe there's a bit of a misunderstanding about the hand grenade and the effort that we were trying to help to establish. The Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, which was a big Institute was based just outside of Phnom Penh. Now, the government had allocated an area of land for that outside of Phnom Penh that they were going to compensate the farmers for. And before they could actually compensate them properly, the value of land started to escalate somewhat. And some troublemakers went around and saw the farmers and said, Oh, we can make a bit of money out of this. So, they put pressure on the project through myself, unfortunately, to try and encourage the government not to actually establish the research station there, or to compensate them more. So that that was the reason that it was all just a hold-up and the government sort of compensation of farmers, and then nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge was all about money. So in the end, the government just cut the area in, we had 140 hectares, they cut the area in two, and sold off 70 hectares and then compensated the farmers trebled the amount of money that they were originally asking for. So that was the reason for that. And, you know, they're the sort of things that you put up with when you're working in post-conflict countries. There doesn't seem to be a rule of law. You know, I guess, you expect to run across those sorts of problems wherever your work.



Caroline: Certainly, some challenges on top of the job that you were there to obviously do. On the flip side, though, and you've alluded to it, I imagine that you made many friends within the work you were doing, and probably more generally in a country like Cambodia.



Harry: Yes, definitely. And I stay in contact with particularly my Cambodian colleagues and East Timorese colleagues because that's where I've spent most of my time working.



Caroline: So, let's talk about East Timor or Timor-Leste, how did your time in Cambodia help you to recognise the opportunity to assist agriculture and farming families over there?



Harry: Well, my involvement with Timor-Leste was the initial involvement was the review of the seeds of life one project which had been going for three years at the time. That ACIAR project was established with the involvement of A lot of CG centres Consultive Group for International Agricultural Research Centres like the International Rice Research Institute, and Institutes for Maize and Sweet Potatoes. And I was invited, go up there and just review the progress made to date and look at potential for changes to the program in the future. And after I left, DFAT, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, could see the benefits of the project that we'd established and offered to become involved in the program and expand the number of activities that we can undertake. And then I was invited back a couple of years later to see whether I would like to direct that project. By this stage, the project had more or less been designed. And it was designed around many of the aspects that the programs that I've been involved within in Cambodia, so we sort of developed from there. So the idea was to help develop the infrastructure of agricultural research that is to help to develop systems, and particularly for seed production, help to train personnel, and help to design a research program within the Ministry of Agriculture, that could have long-term benefits for the development of the cropping program in East Timor.



Caroline: And so how long were you there for establishing that program?



Harry: I was I worked in East Timor off and on for 14 years.



Caroline: Well home from home really.



Harry: Actually, longer if you include the period that I was reviewing it’d be 18/19 years



Caroline: And so what was Timor-Leste like when you first had got there, and then if you can draw any comparisons, whether there were things that you had learned in Cambodia and what you could bring to what you are now doing in Timor-Leste?



Harry: The difference between East Timor and Cambodia, there were huge differences in agriculture. The farming systems in Cambodia are mainly rice-based, and the land is fairly flat. And the areas the farming areas are quite large. Whereas in East Timor, most of the agriculture is grown on slopes, and some of them very, very steep slopes, the area that the farmer could cultivate using machinery was extremely limited, it was only limited to the flat areas around the rivers along the coast. So, you need a different type of technology for developing in East Timor as compared with Cambodia, for example. And obviously, different crops are grown too. So, although East Timorese prefer to eat rice, their main production is with maize or corn so that they would have cornmeal rather than rice. And then that was all that supplemented with sweet potatoes with cassava, and peanuts were the main crops grown there, and then they grow vegetables for greenery. So, it's very, very different. Because most of the land in East Timor, as as I've mentioned, is very hilly, they can't be cultivated using machinery, all of it was labour base, and a farmer could only grow about one hectare of crop. And one hectare of crop to feed a whole family means that he had very, very little if any crop to sell. So as heavily subsistence farming in East Timor, in Cambodia is also subsistence farming, but they had larger pieces of land, and they had more potential for increasing productivity from that land. They could use machinery, or they could contract in machinery, they can grow possibly two crops a year of rice in the rainfed areas are using just rainfall, whereas in East Timor, it's very difficult to irrigate. And it's very difficult to grow two crops per year.



Caroline: So, did the challenges then outweigh the opportunities at that point?



Harry: Oh, definitely. East Timor has also has a very small population has a population of a million people. So, finding trained personnel was quite difficult in East Timor to because the education system has had been neglected for some time. Whereas in Cambodia, the Russian community actually had sent a lot of people away for training, and they had returned to Cambodia. With a master's degree in one discipline, and another. Whereas in East Timor, that hadn't occurred, and the education system wasn't quite as strong. And of course, there was very little international support at the time.



Caroline: When you reflect on your time there, are there any highlights, in particular, that stand out for you.



Harry: Normally, when you're working in a developing country, you look forward to seeing your local colleagues sort of develop well, and particularly in their in the research field, you want to see the researchers becoming qualified, and conducting their own research programs. But also, if you can get some feedback from the farmers about the benefits that the program has had, they knew, very, very encouraging. In East Timor, we started to see an increasing number of farmers that were actually had money in their pockets all of their lives, they've never had enough money to buy anything. Once one farmer, I remember seeing, we went around to talk to her, and she had these new plastic chairs. But one of my colleagues say, Oh, you got new chairs? Yes, yes. She said I got these chairs from selling a soul sweet potato down at the market. So, they go down to the edge of the road and sell. And over time, you'd see farmers that were able to buy motorbikes or put on a tin roof under their house rather than grass, roof or nipa roof. But also, back to the personnel we're seeing now, you see some of the people that are being trained through the Seeds of Life program, being promoted within the Ministry of Agriculture or going to private industry and performing well. And that's all of them working in agricultural research.



Caroline: So that's a highlight. Absolutely, Harry what was achieved and how does the work live on today does it live on today?



Harry: In East Timor, we achieved all of the outcomes that we wanted, and that was to have sufficient infrastructure in within the research system to conduct the research for a start, have the train personnel to continue conducting research, which we do have, they do have to have a system through which the system can work, the research can be conducted, the results of the research can be extended to farmers, and also have a seed production system, which is operating for which high-quality seed can be first of all developed and then multiplied and then distributed to farmers. Once it's on the farmer's fields, then the seed is able to be multiplied by the farmers themselves. And in most cases, the farmers are able to store good seed so that farmers are trained on how to multiply good seed and to conserve it for the following year. So, I think most of our objectives were achieved.



Caroline: It's a wonderful legacy to have and to know that you have provided that for people. Why do you think it was important for ACIAR to have supported the Seeds of Life Project? Why was ACIARs involvement critical specifically?



Harry: First of all, I need to say that working with ACIAR is like working with a colleague, all of the ACIAR personnel in their past have been researchers, they understand the problems, the potential and the method of research. So, they when ACIAR first went to East Timor and identified the problem of East Timor, this is after the war, they realised the fact that the farmers didn't have enough seed. And they certainly didn't have enough good seed. And it was only because of ACIAR, having a close contact with all of the consultative group centres that are able to import almost immediately high quality, appropriate seed from the different centres. So, they're able to import planting material for sweet potato, seeds for the corn, seed for rice, seed for maize, and cassava and planting material for cassava. And then because ACIAR was able to work directly with these centres, the centres then took over responsibility of coming in and helping to establish a program in their particular crop. So, the International Rice Research Institute, for example, sent over a seed that was appropriate for that geographical area of the world, a number of different varieties and then come in and help work with ACIAR personnel to establish research program. And so ACIAR was very important to have them involved in agricultural research in general, but particularly in East Timor.



Caroline: You mentioned the people or the researchers in ACIAR is being so important. Who did you work with from the organisation? And do you remember how they influenced the research and the outcomes?



Harry: Colin Piggin was the first person to go into East Timor after the election and after the conflict that East Timor was undergoing for a number of years. And he recognised the requirement that something that ACIAR could directly contribute to East Timor. And that was by coordinating the consultative groups from the national cultural research centres to come in and help with crops like rice, maize, sweet potato, cassava and peanuts. And it was through his efforts that those centres to bring over their best varieties for evaluation in that appropriate geographical location. So ACIAR helped by supporting some local scientists to evaluate these different species under different environments. And based on that, the program developed further to help East Timorese develop some of the infrastructures, their research system and help train their personnel. And at the same time conducting research to provide learning for the researchers and for the farmers. So established a big on-farm testing system, on-farm evaluation system, which proved to be very, very successful. Then Colin departed after a couple of years. And by this stage, I was actually in working on the Seeds of Life program part-time as a sort of director. I was called the Australian Program Coordinator. And, and so Colin departed, and Paul Fox took over and Paul Fox was a good agronomist plant breeder. He understood, obviously, the difficulties of all of these different environments that were working in, in East Timor. And then after a couple of years, when Paul left ACIAR, Eric Huttner took over and Eric Huttner is also a very intelligent scientist who understood all the difficulties of the farming systems. So, working with like-minded scientists was a privilege. And they understood all the difficulties of working in such an environment and the amount of time that's required to get results in an agricultural environment.



Caroline: So, what is some of the most lasting memories I suppose of your time working in Timor-Leste? I mean, do you have any stories about the people you met or things you experienced while you were there?



Harry: The lasting memories I have on research and personnel, the effect that we've had on the researchers themselves, the researchers and the effect that we've had on the farmers. So, the impact is both economic and social impacts. And seeing farmers that have virtually benefited from the research program has is just one of my highlights, I guess. And also seeing how the researchers have progressed over that time, you know, the local researchers and now run the program. So, it's been a long-lasting effect.



Caroline: You've touched on this a little around establishing sustainable crop productions, which has economic benefits to the communities that you're working with and, can you talk about the flow-on effects of your work? What are the benefits came from that? And that might even be when you reflect on having been back there in more recent years looking back.



Harry: The flow-on effects, let's see, for agricultural development, in order for it to be successful, it needs to have a long-term economic and social effects and they must have long-term effects. There's otherwise there's no point in going into research. It must have long-term effects. So if you can improve the systems, improve the access to knowledge, include farmers in the process, improve the government capacity to continue research, which I think is very, very important in particular in developing countries, if you've seen some infrastructure, which has been developed during that period, and that continues to be used over a period of time. And, if they continue to use the connections that have been established, during the project, that the connections, I'm referring to the type of connections that are referred to where ACIAR had a good connection with the CGIAR centres, where they could access seed and germ plasm, from the different centres, those connections need to be continued. And also, they need to have a good system within the country where the research and the extension personnel and the farmers are all working together so that the farmers get what they want in the NPN product. And it's certainly in East Timor, the system that we followed was having 1000s of on-farm trials of different crops. And the farmers were intimately involved with that, with that trial, and at the end of many of the trials, the farmer would go in, and he would have a look at the produce from each of the different varieties. And then, the project would arrange for a field day to be held there. And all the farmers in the district that had not been holding on-farm trials would come in and you know, for the sweet potato trial, they would harvest it, the farmers themselves would weigh it. And then at the end of the field day, the produce would be cooked and eaten. And each of the varieties would then be evaluated on taste, and other benefits and other aroma and all the other things that people like about food. And then the farmers themselves would get their opinion of which ones should go into the next trial. So that's sort of a flow-on effect. I think that as well, it's definitely remained in Cambodia. And I would say it's definitely remained in East Timor.



Caroline: What do you see as the future opportunities for strengthening the impact of agriculture research worldwide?



Harry: You know, I've spent most of my life working in developing countries. So, I'll limit my comment about agricultural research and developing countries if that's, okay. And a vast majority of underdeveloped countries rely on the agriculture sector, to get there, well, first of all, many countries are still have a country of subsistence farmers. That is, they grow enough just enough to eat. And in order to develop their economy, they really need to develop their agricultural sector first. And that provides a basis for the economic development of the country. So, if you look at almost any country in the world, including Cambodia, for example, you know, their GDP per capita is rapidly rising. All of that is a result of, first of all, establishing a strong agricultural sector. So, the world does need a strong supportive agricultural research system to help developing countries and the current organisations, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Centres are a good start. Perhaps they could be more efficient, you know, because they're expensive to run, but they provide the basic germ plasm for most countries in the world, including Australia. And then the research programs in those countries, including Australia, do their research based on germ plasm that originated us, most of which originates from the CG centres, but to adapt this germ plasm to different environments in need to have an effective research system in individual countries. And this is where ACIAR fits in really well, provides support developing countries in the Asia Pacific region, and parts of Africa. So that's, that's my vision.



Caroline: Dr. Nesbitt as we mark ACIARs, 40th year, I'd like for you to share with me what the organisation means to you?



Harry: ACIAR, certainly a very, very important organisation. To me personally, working with ACIAR over 14/15 or more years, they have provided terrific guidance for agricultural research in developing countries. And that's my passion is working in agricultural development.



Caroline: Dr. Harry Nesbitt, yours has been a fascinating career with lasting impacts for researchers and farmers. And thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Harry: Oh, thank you, Caroline. Pleasure to be with you.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2020.

Episode 6 : Dr Joanne Meers

Listen to explore Dr Meers’ crucial role in developing and supplying a vaccine for Newcastle disease – a highly contagious threat to domestic, cage and wild birds across Australia and the world.

Transcript - Episode 6 : Dr Joanne Meers


Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.



Caroline: Research wasn't the pathway Professor Joanne Meers intended to take, but early in her career research found her and as a result, she spent years focusing on a variety of viruses of veterinary importance, including in both domestic and native animal species. She was part of a team working on ACIAR-supported projects that developed and rolled out a vaccine to protect against Newcastle Disease, a deadly virus that affects poultry. And it was this work in the likes of Myanmar that helped boost the productivity of scavenging village chickens, resulting in the improved food security, nutrition and income of the people there. I'm Caroline Winter and I'm delighted to welcome Professor Joanne Meers to the ACIAR studio. Thanks so much for being here.



Joanne: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.



Caroline: Now, virology is extremely topical, currently, of course with the global Coronavirus pandemic, but the nature and study of viruses, particularly in the veterinary space is one that you've been involved in for years now. How did your research career begin and what was it that drew you to veterinary virology?



Joanne: Okay, well, I have a veterinary background. And I first engaged in international projects as a fairly new vet graduate when I signed up for Australian Volunteers Abroad Program.



That was back in the late 1980s. And my posting was to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to work as a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture there. It was a wonderful experience, even though I had very limited equipment and drugs on hand, but I tried to make some sort of useful contribution to the health of the islands, livestock and companion animals. But the only problem was that after that stint as a vet in the Cook Islands, clinical veterinary practice back in Australia had very little appeal to me.



Dealing with difficult pet owners and demanding horse owners, etc. The long hours that clinical vets have to work. So, it was at that time that I looked around for what else I could do with my veterinary degree and decided to go into research and completed a PhD at Murdoch University in virology. So rather than actually having a burning ambition to conduct research on viruses that was rather a case of not wanting to be a clinician, that drove me down a pathway into research and the topic of viruses had been something that had always fascinated me. So that was the area I did my PhD on.



Caroline: Fascinating. And so, once you'd finished your PhD, where was your next stop? Well, my first academic position after my PhD was this a lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand. And I was there for about six or seven years and then I came to the University of Queensland in 2000.



And I was replacing Professor Peter Spradbrow who was retiring in teaching virology to veterinary students. And this is how I initially came to be involved in ACIAR projects. Through my interaction with Peter Spradbrow, although he'd retired, he was still very active in the research he'd been conducting at that time.



Caroline: And so, as I understand it, that research was around Newcastle Disease, is that correct?



Joanne: Yes, Peter, with others on his research team had developed a thermotolerant vaccine against Newcastle Disease. So, Newcastle Disease is a deadly viral disease of chickens, and other poultry and the disease commonly sweeps through villages annually or even twice yearly, killing many of the scavenging chickens that are so important in these village settings.



And although vaccines are available against the disease and are used routinely in commercial poultry flocks, the commercial vaccines generally come in very large dose viles and are expensive and they require a cold chain to keep the vaccine viable. So, Peter Spradbrow’s work been aiming at to address those deficiencies of the commercial work vaccine and then to develop a vaccine that would be more suitable for a village setting for smallholder farmers.



Caroline: And so as part of that project that you worked on was that then your next foray overseas to trial what you had created?



Joanne: Yes. Well, at the time I started at UQ. Peter was leading a very large ACIAR project that was based in Mozambique, it had a couple of projects staff, based in Mozambique, Robyn Alders, and Mary Young, other staff were based in Brisbane. So, Peter’s thermotolerant vaccine, which is called the I2 strain was designed to be able to be produced locally in small-scale laboratories in low-income countries, it could be produced in just small dose format. So rather than the 1000s of doses that are usually included in commercial vaccines, the labs could produce vials with just 100, or a few 100 doses in the vial. It could withstand periods out of the cold chain, and those sorts of periods are often unavoidable in low-income countries. So, it had a lot of advantages over the commercial vaccines that were available for commercial poultry. So, when I arrived at UQ, Peter was leading this ACIAR project in Mozambique. And so, I helped Peter administer the project from the university side. So, the project was still had a year or two, I think, to run. And then I was involved in various research trials that were being conducted at UQ as part of that project, and also training courses that were being held for staff at UQ. So, my inputs were from a virologist perspective, studying the survivability of the vaccine under different temperature conditions and trialling different protective components to print with the vaccine under different conditions. And there were others involved in the larger project that were responsible for more of the social science aspects of the project and research to determine the most effective way to market and distribute the vaccine in the village settings. But I was looking at the virus side of things.



Caroline: And how did all of that set you up for then undertaking an ACIAR research project in Myanmar, some years later?



Joanne: Well, at the completion of the project in Mozambique, I was approached by ACIAR to lead another project with a similar focus, so controlling Newcastle Disease, about also identifying other constraints in village chicken production in Myanmar. And that commenced in about 2003. So, this was quite a turbulent time in Myanmar. And initially, after all the project documents have been signed, the situation actually deteriorated, the political situation deteriorated. And initially, we thought the project might have to be abandoned because of the unrest and the uncertainty of things at the time. But fortunately, it was able to continue. And under the sort of difficult circumstances, we were able to achieve quite a bit in that in that project over the next two or three years.



Caroline: If I take you back to that time and on the ground there, what kind of impact was the disease having on farmers in Myanmar, then, you know, how did it affect chicken health? How did it affect production, and therefore their lives and livelihoods?



Joanne: Well, that was one of the main aims of the project was to assess firstly, the importance of village chicken production to village households in Myanmar, and then to identify the constraints to that production, so including Newcastle Disease, and then to perform an intervention study to address those constraints. So that was basically the plan for the project. So initially, we did a study a longitudinal study, looking at what constraints were affecting the production of village chickens in Myanmar in a couple of different districts and, and we determined that yes, Newcastle Disease was a major cause of mortality in the birds and that also, we found that the predation on little chicks and the mortality in young chicks in that first few weeks of life was another major constraint on this production system. So then we set up a trial which had two components, Newcastle Disease vaccination using the I2 strain of vaccine, and chick management intervention whereby which we protected the chicks in the first couple of weeks of life under coops and then also gave us some creep feed, some supplementary feed, in those first few weeks of their lives.



Caroline: So, it was a two-pronged approach, what were the results? What did you see come about from that and over what time period?



Joanne: The intervention trial went over a year. And we found that yes, we were able to confirm the benefit of Newcastle Disease vaccination, we found that the I2 vaccination reduce the proportions and mortality that were attributed to disease in these village flocks. And we found that combined with the other intervention, which was the confinement and supplementary feeding of young chicks led to higher income in the farmers, the households that had those interventions. And they also were more likely to consume home-produced chicken meat. So, we were able to demonstrate that these simple and quite sustainable intervention strategies could make a difference to the smallholder’s income and protein consumption. So, with a successful outcome, we felt the person responsible for managing these field trials was my colleague, epidemiologist, Dr Joerg Henning, and of course, colleagues from the livestock breeding and veterinary department in Myanmar, who conducted most of the work in the field. And in particular, the project leader in Myanmar was Dr Thun La, who was an amazing scientist.



Caroline: And inter-country collaboration as these things should be.



Joanne: Yes, yeah.



Caroline: How did you as a team feel when you saw the change that was happening?



Joanne: I guess it wasn't sort of an overnight feeling because it was a long period of gathering data and, and then analyzing the data. But yes, I guess when the final data analysis started coming out of the computer, it certainly was a very good feeling that, that this simple intervention can make a big difference in people's lives. But the challenge then is, of course, is getting adoption of this, you know, this, this research show that it's possible, it showed that it's cost-effective, that the cost of these interventions is minimal, and the outcome more than outweighs the inputs, but it's having the resources or the infrastructure to roll this out on a bigger scale is the challenge.



Caroline: And so, what happened in terms of trying to make that a reality and roll that out more broadly?



Joanne: Well, that's where, I guess the political situation in Myanmar has inhibited that rollout. We did have smaller projects in Myanmar after the completion of this larger project. So, my colleague, Dr Joerg Henning epidemiologist, has had a couple of smaller projects in Myanmar. But those have come to a stop with the current situation well, firstly with COVID about but now with the military coup that's occurring in Myanmar, it's we would just be not be possible to continue this work there. So, it's, yeah, it's very unfortunate.



But as part of this project, we also worked with laboratory staff. It wasn't just the field staff, we worked with laboratory staff in the livestock breeding and veterinary department, where we introduced PCR diagnostics. So, everyone knows now what PCR is from the COVID pandemic. But before that, people didn't know what PCR was. This was the first molecular diagnostics PCR that had been used in Myanmar, our project provided PCR machines, and we trained staff on how to do this. So initially, we were focused on Newcastle Disease. So, using PCR to diagnose Newcastle Disease, but then, towards the end of our project, there was the start of the Avian Influenza outbreaks that occurred all through Southeast Asia, the H1N1 Avian Influenza. So, our, our groundwork and introducing and training people itself in using PCR was of great benefit for the Avian Influenza outbreak because we already had staff trained, and PCR was being used across the region for diagnosis of H1N1. So, there was benefits on the laboratory side too of our project in training staff and providing equipment for diagnostics. And then we also had a vaccine production laboratory in the same area where the local software producing the I2 vaccine.



Caroline: So really ended up being quite a bit more sophisticated probably than you'd intended with the ability to I guess, utilise those skills in other ways that weren't probably fought foreseen.



Joanne: That's right. Yes. So broader impacts them in a scientific sense than had been planned initially.



Caroline: And how important was poultry? Or is poultry production to their livelihoods in Myanmar? And how do you think the work that you had been involved with over there might have changed that over time?



Joanne: Well, certainly most of the farmers that we worked with the smallholder farmers, their main source of income was rice growing rice. But chickens, scavenging chickens, made a important addition to the income to the household income, and in particular, tended to be and this is the case in many countries, it tended to be the responsibility of women to look after the chickens, or they had the decision making control. So, deciding when a chicken might be sold to gain a little bit of extra income. And this is what we find in, in many countries in Africa and throughout Asia, that the chickens are a sort of like a household bank, that if there's a need for a small amount of income, it might be to pay school fees, it might be to buy school books or something like that. A chicken can be sold at without needing a lot of warning to sell it. We found in Myanmar, that there were tradesmen, middlemen going through these villages a couple of times a week, and they would purchase chickens off household, and then sell it in the markets in the local markets. So, this was just a ready way to make an income. And so that form of making income that was one of the main uses of these chickens, that also be the supply of food. So, if there was some sort of special meal being planned, then again, would usually be the woman's decision that one of these chickens would be killed to provide the food for the special meal. And then, of course, the eggs. So, the eggs laid by these chickens could be used for household food.



So, whether our project made a big impact on the importance of these chickens, I think that would be a little bit of a stretch. But certainly, I think our project, in the villages where we worked, gave people a greater understanding or made them more aware of their chickens like the there's sort of just something in the background, that they hadn't really considered to any great extent. And I think our project, the project staff, when we were doing questionnaires and working out the costs and income and looking at the cost-benefit ratio of all this really made a lot of these households start looking afresh at their chickens, I think it would be fair to say, and realising what they actually were getting out of these chickens that they hadn't consciously thought about before. And we've found that in other countries where we've worked as well.



Caroline: So, you certainly had an impact on that side of it. I'd like to flip it over and find out what sort of impact your time in Myanmar had on you and living amongst the farmers and working amongst the farmers there. What did you take away from that time?



Joanne: Certainly, an appreciation of the struggle that so many people having in this world, things that we take for granted in Australia that you know; the other countries just don't have an I'm thinking of the lab side of things. Now back in the main city in Yangon. We had to develop protocols for our PCR reaction, say that counter for the fact that the electricity supply would be so intermittent and so there'd be long periods with no electricity, even in the capital city. So, we had to have storage batteries that would allow a PCR cycle to run the whole cycle to get the result at the end. Initially, in when our project started in Myanmar, there was it was as I said, a politically unstable time. And there were soldiers in the streets there were soldiers going moving down in the backs of trucks down the streets, and you'd go into a restaurant and they'd be the soldiers would come into the restaurant and you could feel the whole sense of the restaurant, the quietness in the restaurant, so it was something I'd never experienced before just that feeling of, well, almost fear, I would say in amongst the local colleagues that I'd be sitting with. Living in that state is just something we can't really envisage in Australia. And then yes, so out in the villages, just seeing how little resources people had, but they made the most of what they had and how they worked hard to support their families and put food on the table. So yes, like getting on the flight to come home and just thinking what you're leaving behind and how they, they can't get on a flight to go anywhere.



Caroline: So, when it came to this research and the project that you were working on the ground there, on reflection, how important or significant do you think ACIARs support was, at that time?



Joanne: While in this area, I think ACIAR's work on village chickens in general, and specifically on Newcastle Disease vaccination was really groundbreaking at its time. So, this work started. Well, before I came to University of Queensland with Peter Spradbrow’s work back in the 1990s. And even earlier, I think, an ACIAR supporting that research led to broader recognition of the importance of these scavenging chickens, this production system to the livelihoods of rural and Peri-urban households. And in low-income countries, I think it hadn't really been recognised. They've just always been seen in the background and all the activity, the aid money and the research dollars, were going into the ruminants, large ruminants and that sort of livestock, and I'm not saying it was all on ACIAR shoulders, but they certainly played a big role in opening eyes to the recognition of this production system and how important it is and particularly to the income of women and children who are generally responsible for raising the chicken in these chickens in these households. And so, from that initial work that decade of work, others have gone on to further research on this in this production system, and others have even developed other low-cost thermotolerant vaccines in other countries. And there's a lot more recognition of the importance of these chickens.



Caroline: Jo, how did working on that project, in particular, affect your career and professional development?



Joanne: Well, after that project in Myanmar, I was then asked again to lead a project for ACIAR. It was a large project in Indonesia and Vietnam, on Avian Influenza. So, it was just around the time of the outbreaks of H1N1 Avian Influenza started in Southeast Asia. And so, we commenced a project that had a broad aim of researching looking at investigating the role of ducks in maintaining Avian Influenza virus in smallholder farms in those two countries. So, we were specifically looking at duck farmers and looking at the behaviour of the virus in those two countries in duck farming systems.



Caroline: And can you recall the findings there and what came from that?



Joanne: So, it was interesting to have those two different countries because the findings were a little bit different in each country. So, in Indonesia, we found a lot of virus circulating in those farms. We were sampling ducks longitudinally over time. And we were often getting virus-positive ducks in those systems, that ducks generally we're not showing any symptoms, any clinical signs of the infection. But in contact chickens that were in contact with the ducks were often severely ill and dying. So, in contrast, in Vietnam, where there have been quite an efficient and well-organised vaccination program, there was very little virus circulating in those duck farms. So we demonstrated that the vaccination programs, although we found that some of the birds that were supposedly vaccinated, didn't appear to have antibodies, and so they'd seem to be some a few hiccups going on with the actual conduct of the vaccination program, but the outcome of the vaccination program was successful in that there was very little virus circulating on the farms that we were sampling over time. So, but we did find that particularly in Indonesia, ducks could asymptomatically be carrying the virus which did address the major aim that ducks definitely were playing a role in maintaining the virus in those farming systems.



Caroline: I imagine that was a really important project certainly at the time and for many of us, here in Australia and around the world would remember the bird flu outbreak, so to be able to play a role in detecting that in Indonesia and Vietnam, was that a rewarding experience?



Joanne: Yes, certainly. And was a fantastic experience to work with the scientists in both of those countries. So, we had PhD students that came from Indonesia and were based here in Australia doing their PhDs during the project. And they've gone back to Indonesia, after completion of their projects. And I'm, you know, they're now leading scientists in their fields in the leading the veterinary laboratories that they came from. So that's certainly satisfying as a, as an academic, it's always great to see your PhD students go on to successful careers, and that was certainly the case from that ACIAR project. So they were, John Allwright Scholarship holders, which is part of the ACIARs scheme.



Caroline: Oh, fabulous flow on there indeed. And that wasn't the end of your connection with ACIAR, was it? You've also spent some time in the Philippines? Can you tell me about the project there?



Joanne: Yes. So most recently, I've been involved in a project that was two projects, actually one that led on to a second project, working on pig diseases. So, the first one was specifically looking at respiratory disease in pigs. And the second one was more broader aims looking at pig production in general and the constraints on pig production. So yes, I've worked in all those different countries through my ACIAR connections.



Caroline: And how has your work with ACIAR in Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines played a role in your work back here in Australia? Has there been that reciprocal, I guess, learning relationship?



Joanne: Certainly, the collaborations and the different connections I've made over those years have just been outstanding and have made a big difference on my work here in Australia. The research I do that's not in those countries that my research in Australia is might have a slightly different focus, it's all working on viruses, but the work in those other countries, perhaps has more meaning and more impact, it's more applied. You feel like your research is really making a difference. Whereas some of the work I do here in Australia, although it's intellectually really stimulating, It's, it can be sort of quite focused and narrow, and you don't see the broader impacts that you're making., Which I think is the way a lot of university researchers feel that their work is important in the longer term. But in the short term, it's hard to see the sort of applied impacts that your works making.



Caroline: Certainly, sounds like you have a fondness for your time overseas and working on these particular projects.



Joanne: Yes, definitely. Yes.



Caroline: The importance of Animal Health Management in achieving economic and environmental and biosecurity outcomes is obviously well known, and many different types of researchers are needed to make sure that that's a success, everything from ag scientists, to veterinary scientists like yourself, what are the benefits and the challenges of this type of interdisciplinary research? Would you say?



Joanne: Well, I'd say the benefits as I've just said, is this feeling like your research is making a difference to people's lives. And that's the broad benefit of it. The challenges, I think, dealing with the bureaucracy, and many countries, which is the case, both here in Australia, and in overseas, countries, the facilities that are many countries where you're working and trying to get things done, and it can be very frustrating at times, things like you know, the electricity cuts in Myanmar, we're just trying to get something sorted and the power goes out, and you realise that's what the people there live with every day. But when you're trying to get something done, it's very frustrating. So, they're the challenges. But yes, definitely the benefits outweigh those challenges, I think and the benefits, of working with diverse people and the different ideas that diversity brings and the different solutions to problems that diversity brings, I think, that can't be matched here in Australia with futures working in a vacuum.



Caroline: Well, we've spoken a lot about your work overseas with ACIAR. Let's bring it back to now and the work that you're undertaking through the University of Queensland, as a researcher, can you tell me about that?



Joanne: Well, actually, the work I'm the research we're kind of doing in the current time is quite different. The research we've been discussing the ACIAR-funded work, but at the moment I'm actually studying mostly viruses in bats which is quite topical, as you know.



So, I've had projects looking at the behaviour of Hendra Virus in fruit bats or flying foxes. And we're currently working on another virus of bats a retrovirus that we detected a few years ago. And looking at the interaction of that virus with other viruses that bats carry. I've also worked quite a lot on a retrovirus in koalas that, as it turns out, is quite closely related genetically to the virus that we've detected in bats. So, there's a retrovirus in koalas that's similar to a retrovirus that were found in bats. So, it's a fascinating area, but some very different to the topic that we've been discussing the Newcastle Disease in chickens.



Caroline: It sounds fascinating. I know there's many more years of your work to come, Jo, as we mark ACIARs 40th year, can you share with me a final thought on what the organisation means to you?



Joanne: I think they've done an amazing job and they're doing an amazing job. The research that they fund in these overseas countries, is making a huge difference to the development of various products in both the livestock and the agricultural fields is at the ACIAR has contributed to and has funded. And just the connections that have been made between scientists in Australia and scientists in these other countries, I think is just invaluable and the status that that's given to Australia or the connections that have been made between Australia and these other countries has just been worth all the funding that's gone into it, I guess you would say.



Caroline: Absolutely true. Professor Joanne Meers your insights and stories around ACIAR have been so enlightening. Thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.



Joanne: Thank you very much.



Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2020.

Over the last 40 years, the total benefit of ACIAR investment is independently estimated to be more than A$64 billion. And this is a conservative estimate, only counting things that are easily measured. Studies show that many projects generate a 50 to 1 return.

Andrew Campbell

Reflections on 40 years

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Impact Assessment 100

The contribution of ACIAR to helping our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region meet the complex challenges of growing more food, reducing poverty, and improving biosecurity has been significant. Our 100th impact assessment presents both quantitative and qualitative impacts of ACIAR work over 4 decades.

The quantitative analysis of 10% of ACIAR projects over 40 years (Volume 1) showed a total benefit of $64 billion in economic, environmental and social outcomes. The qualitative analysis (Volume 2) identifies the factors of project design, management and practice that support the translation of research knowledge to development outcomes.

Read more about what we have learned from 40 years of brokering and funding agricultural research partnerships in our region.

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Aerial view of a tropical forest

Since 1982, ACIAR has implemented more than 1,500 agricultural research-for-development projects, with more than 400 project partners, in almost 40 different countries. In doing so, ACIAR supports Australia’s commitment to contributing to poverty reduction and livelihood improvement in the Indo-Pacific region.

To mark 40 years of operation, a small selection of partnerships, projects and people have been profiled to convey the impact of ACIAR across regions, countries and different fields of research.

View online or download here

Discover more in Partners magazine

To mark 40 years of ACIAR invited a range of ACIAR associates, friends and staff to share their reflections to contribute to a special edition of Partners. Their writing shows how the organisation has evolved and made a difference over those 4 decades.

Among our contributors is Professor Gabrielle Persley AM. She was one of the first employees of ACIAR in 1982 and has remained closely connected ever since. Professor Persley shares an extensive and insightful exploration of how ACIAR began. 

Read more

Partners Cover 2022 Issue 1
Partners 2022 Issue 1

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If you have an ACIAR story or photo please share via social media using the hashtags #ACIAR40 and #MyACIARStory and tag ACIAR on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.