For Dr Beth Woods, eliminating food waste is a key challenge to overcome in improving global food systems and reducing their carbon footprint. But while research is the starting point for finding solutions, partnerships—particularly helping partner countries develop better policy—is where ACIAR can have its biggest impact.
The word ‘policy’ is one of the least exciting words in the vocabulary of international research. But for ACIAR, helping partner countries to develop effective, evidence-based policy to improve agricultural and food systems is a critical aspect of its development work in poorer countries.
In fact, working with agencies in partner countries to translate research into policy around issues like water use or sustainable fishing is an effective way by which ACIAR—with its relatively modest funding base compared to large international NGOs—can ‘scale out’ its research to smallholder farmers and other target groups around the globe.
This point was made by Dr Woods—one of the seven members of Australia’s Commission for International Agricultural Research—during a recent interview.
The Commission’s role is to provide strategic advice to the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs on Australia’s international agricultural research and assistance program.
Dr Woods was appointed to the Commission in late 2020, bringing to it immense experience and deep insights gained in three decades working in international research for development, including chairing two major agricultural research centres headquartered in the Asia–Pacific region: the International Rice Research Institute and WorldFish.
In Australia, Dr Woods served as Director-General of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries until recently, as well as in high-level board and advisory roles in research and agriculture organisations nationally.
Dr Woods is no stranger to ACIAR, having chaired its board in the mid-1990s, and the Policy Advisory Council in the early 2000s. She says coming back to the organisation has brought an opportunity to reflect on the changes in food systems she has seen.
The food-waste challenge
‘There are some big issues the world needs to get better at,’ says Dr Woods. ‘For example, we waste an enormous amount of food—in the paddock, in transport and distribution systems, and in households, particularly in richer countries.
‘Each bit of food waste has a cost, not just in food foregone but in terms of greenhouse gases that have been produced for no food outcome. That drives up the average emissions per unit of food consumed.
‘If we’re to feed the world’s projected population of nine billion people a satisfactory diet by 2050, food waste becomes a target, along with understanding where the systems are leaking carbon.’
During visits to Indonesia earlier in her career, Dr Woods noted how small-scale food drying units enabled farmers and villages to reduce wastage from crops such as bananas, with unsaleable fruit or vegetables being made into a nutritious, marketable dried product.
'These technologies tend to involve the private sector—the company that makes the small-scale dryer, for example, or that builds rodent- and insect-proof storage units for holding the dried product.
‘There are many opportunities where ACIAR research can intersect with commercial expertise.
‘It gets back to that partnering question. To underwrite the development process that sits beside the agricultural research, ACIAR’s job is also to seek partnerships with larger development organisations and aid programs.’
Disruption and innovation
Dr Woods says disruptions to food systems during the COVID-19 pandemic offer insights into the challenges the world will face in producing and distributing more food to a future, larger population.
‘The pandemic has demonstrated that agricultural systems and food systems are remarkably resilient.
‘That’s not to underplay how bad it’s been for the millions who’ve slipped into food insufficiency, but the numbers could have been worse, and what we saw was how interconnected food systems are. When COVID closed an industry in one country, it created an opportunity somewhere else.
‘That experience will help sharpen some of the planning about how the global food supply could adapt to meet the pressures of 2050 or even 2030 [the target for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs].’
A major challenge in the future will be getting food from rural areas to the growing number of people migrating to towns and cities.
‘Now we have to think about all the logistics—the storage and transport questions—and how to deliver a desirable, quality product to a poor consumer in an urban environment at a price that they can afford,’ says Dr Woods.
‘A great example of a technology that will grow in coming years will be the urban farming set-ups we’re seeing in developed countries: fast-growing annual vegetables and fruits produced in vertical farming structures in cities, with great efficiencies in terms of energy, water and nutrient use, waste and transport.
Building partnerships with development organisations, aid programs and where research intersects with commercial expertise is part of ACIAR’s job.
‘The challenge for ACIAR is to identify how these technologies impact both the urban and rural poor as they’re taken up—as they inevitably will be—in developing countries.
‘What happens to the small-scale farmers who provide those sorts of products for cash income to pay their children’s school fees or the doctor or anything else they need to buy from selling the excess produce?’
The ground-zero perspective
Dr Woods says she hopes to be able to meet face to face with researchers and project leaders in those countries at some time in the future when the COVID-19 risks are under better control.
‘It will be critical to hear firsthand from people in other countries what their real needs are post-pandemic, because it’s easy for us to imagine what they might be.
‘Apart from anything else, food is an incredibly cultural part of our lives and economies. You can’t think about food systems transformation without thinking about the local cultural nuance that always sits under everything related to food, in whatever locality you’re in.’