Rising food, fertiliser and fuel prices, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, remind us that Australia is susceptible to global shocks. Perhaps less widely acknowledged is the significant role that Australian science, innovation and partnerships are playing, not only in buttressing national food security but also in supporting global responses to ongoing crises.
The Australian government has been investing in CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural innovation network, since its founding in 1971 when it set out to avert widespread famine and spared hundreds of millions of people from starvation in the 1970s and 80s.
This investment has also benefitted Australia’s primary industries and rural communities through access to CGIAR’s research centres and resources, including its global, open-access collection of crop samples and genetic materials. In the face of current food and climate crises, this mutually beneficial relationship has potential to deliver yet more innovation, particularly across the Indo-Pacific region.
The big challenges facing global food systems – climate change, food and nutrition insecurity, water scarcity and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 – are all interconnected, and all are cross-sectoral, not confined to specific crops, farming systems or regions.
To tackle these challenges more effectively, CGIAR is undertaking an historic reform process to unite its diverse independent research centres within a more efficient integrated structure.
This will streamline access to resources such as CGIAR’s genebanks, which conserve hundreds of thousands of samples of 20 staple crops from which scientists can identify and breed improved varieties. These collections have provided the foundation for most new Australian wheat varieties, including the record-breaking Borlaug 100 grown in Queensland.
A more integrated approach will also increase opportunities to share best practice in many areas including biosecurity, ensuring Australian scientists have the chance to study new pest and disease threats before they ever have the chance to reach our shores. We have seen how this has helped contain Panama Disease in bananas, protecting the harvests and livelihoods of Australian farmers.
Meanwhile, the Australian agricultural innovation system has much to offer to international efforts to avert a new hunger crisis. Australian science and ingenuity have ensured domestic food security while also delivering continued growth in productivity and export income from some of the Earth’s oldest and most nutrient-depleted soils, in the most variable climate of any continent. Australian farms are recognised as some of the most productive in the world and this expertise is immensely transferable to agricultural systems in similar climatic zones worldwide. In recognition of this, since 1982, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has been brokering Australian agricultural science expertise to improve food security and reduce poverty in low and lower-middle income countries.
ACIAR manages Australia’s investment into CGIAR, which currently amounts to $20-25 million per year. Many Australian scientists and research leaders have worked in CGIAR centres, and in leadership roles across the system, which employs 9,700 people in more than 80 countries, mostly in the Global South. Through ACIAR, many scientists from developing countries have also been trained in Australia and have retained career-long professional links with Australian science.
Science partnerships are a strategic and effective form of soft diplomacy across Asia and the Pacific. For example, the number of professional staff dedicated to coastal fisheries management and community development in Solomon Islands doubled between 2016 and 2020, thanks to partnerships and investment from CGIAR and ACIAR. Pioneering work to integrate fish and rice farming in countries such as Myanmar has also improved food and economic security for small-scale producers.
Australia’s contribution to transforming global food systems will be reinforced at a meeting of the CGIAR System Council in Australia for the first time in 50 years. This meeting will bring around 70 international leaders in food security research and policy to Brisbane, Queensland. In conjunction with that meeting, the Australian Commission for International Agricultural Research will convene a series of food security dialogue events involving Australian agricultural leaders and visiting international experts.
Coinciding with the TropAg International Agriculture Conference in Brisbane, this moment is an opportunity for Australia to demonstrate its global leadership on issues of food security and innovation for transforming food systems. Broadly, our challenge is to produce and distribute more and healthier food in more sustainable ways, in much more difficult climates, while reducing greenhouse emissions and other pollution, and using land, water and nutrients much more efficiently. Incremental improvement is not sufficient. There are compelling arguments for countries to work collaboratively in multilateral organisations like the CGIAR to pool resources and expertise to tackle these shared challenges, together.
We need more and better science than ever to tackle these challenges effectively. Australia has much to offer, and CGIAR offers a proven global framework for collaborative innovation that benefits all countries. By strengthening and evolving this crucial partnership, we can rise to the challenge of simultaneously recovering and transforming global food systems for all.
This article was originally published by Farmonline.