The 5-year extension of the Alliance for Agricultural Research and Development for Food Security (the Alliance) at the end of 2020 is a testament to its success in amplifying the impacts of its research collaborations and knowledge sharing.
The Alliance is an Australia–international collaboration between ACIAR, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA), which is a non-profit organisation established by the international agricultural company Syngenta, and The Crawford Fund.
The Alliance has proven to be an effective way to align effort and purpose, and tackle the challenges posed by food insecurity.
Organisations in the Alliance bring together unique skills and capabilities, diverse approaches and geographic footprints to take advantage of the opportunities created by such a collaboration.
By joining forces, the 3 partners are able to achieve their own goals, while also broadening their impact and sharing their knowledge.
‘Together we can co-create innovation and research and development that addresses difficult food security challenges and ensures the emerging solutions reach farmers,’ said Dr Vivienne Anthony, SFSA senior science adviser.
ACIAR has expertise in the generation of knowledge and innovation. This is complemented by the SFSA expertise in technology distribution and application, and The Crawford Fund’s capabilities in training and capacity building.
‘The Alliance is proving to be a sound mechanism through which we can increase contacts with key staff on the ground and engage them in train-the-trainer type activities,’ said Dr Colin Chartres, CEO of The Crawford Fund.
‘It also provides a forum in which we can discuss emerging agricultural issues and innovations and thus strategically target future training programs.’
Demand-led plant breeding
Since its inception in 2013, the Alliance’s main activity has been its demand-led plant breeding program rolled out in locations across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr Eric Huttner, ACIAR research program manager for crops, manages the demand-led breeding program, which is now in its second phase. He explained that there is strong evidence that plant breeding for genetic gain is an effective way to improve food security and reduce poverty.
The program has proven to be an extremely worthwhile endeavour for the Alliance as it has helped to develop new breeds of crops, including tomatoes and beans.
Dr Huttner said another significant success had been getting plant breeders to more carefully consider the needs of the end user – the farmer and consumer
– when setting out to develop a new crop variety.
‘The key in the demand-led story is the transition in the minds of breeders from a research to a product development mindset,’ said Dr Huttner.
‘The project has trained and influenced hundreds of young plant breeders who will go on to operate for the next 20 years.’
Focus on consumers
The project trains plant breeders to develop a product profile, which is essentially a description of what a farmer wants. This includes considerations such as yield, disease resistance and resilience to extreme conditions, as well as the look and taste of the end product.
Local farmer hubs already established by the SFSA have provided a way for the demand-led breeding program to engage with farmers to collect the information used to develop product profiles. Further down the line, these farmer hubs can be used to share information and technology with farmers.
This completes what Dr Huttner identifies as 2 crucial steps: ‘The critical first step is to get a good product that someone wants. The second is a market-based system to deliver it,’ said Dr Huttner.
ACIAR recently supported research in Bangladesh to better understand how the farmer hubs deliver added value in this way.
‘This synergy of skills, knowledge and engagement with farmers through SFSA farmer hubs means we can achieve more than each of our organisations independently,’ said Dr Anthony.
Meanwhile, the demand-led breeding program demonstrates ongoing benefits. The program has published a reference book, The business of plant breeding: market-led approaches to plant variety design
in Africa, and online materials for universities.
The Crawford Fund has used key learnings from the work by the Alliance in recent master classes on the sustainable intensification of agriculture, held in South Asia and South-East Asia.
Future of the Alliance
Dr Julianne Biddle, ACIAR director of multilateral engagement, said the extension of the Alliance for a further 5 years recognised that the strong relationships forged will continue to reap benefits.
‘What is coming out of the work is a deeper connection and trust with other players in this space,’ said Dr Biddle.
The Alliance partners will continue to work to grow its portfolio of new activities beyond demand-led breeding, with the next planned collaboration to be on soil health.