Date released
14 December 2023

Everyone knows there is a gap between how much fruit and vegetables most people should eat and what they do eat. Changing consumer behaviour is never easy so the ACIAR Horticulture Program addresses barriers to availability, affordability and desirability.

But producing more to supply a demand for a healthy diet should not come at any cost. Our food systems need to reward the farmers who deliver the safe, healthy and sustainable food we need to keep the industry growing along with demand.

ACIAR works with smallholder farmers and their traditional farming systems that are often diverse, low-input and productive.

To increase production and meet demand from more urbanised populations, farmers are using more chemical inputs. This has reduced the risk that their crops will fail and that they will lose their income, but has come with costs to health and the environment.

To tackle this complex challenge, the Horticulture Program collaborates with partner countries and supports projects that look at different perspectives all along the food chain, from growing the produce, getting it to market and helping consumers choose healthy options.

Managing inputs

Protected cropping systems are a focus for projects in the Philippines, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cambodia and Laos. These projects show how managing the growing environment can improve yield and quality, leading to improved returns.

However, protected systems require infrastructure to achieve that yield – plastic, shade cloth and irrigation are new inputs. A new protected cropping project in Cambodia and Laos will include a life cycle assessment of the equipment used in the production system, which commonly includes plastic coverings and mulches.

It will look at the types of materials, how long they last and how they can be re-used and recycled at the end of their life, including the supply chain for packaging, and eliminating plastics as much as possible. We need to consider the legacy of the equipment and infrastructure.

Protected cropping systems also require new knowledge for farmers. Extension support and access to pest and disease diagnostics is necessary.

Good knowledge on what to grow and how to grow it to meet market demand will be addressed in the Pacific region where abandoned structures from past projects present an opportunity to redesign a different approach, more responsive to markets.

This is part of the bigger picture of horticultural production practices that consider the planet’s finite resources and the need for a holistic approach to sustainability.

By following the supply chain, we can target better returns to growers, identifying and working to remove barriers that might compromise their ability to meet that market demand. Increasingly, it is going to be about circular economies as part of broader sustainability goals.

a woman wearing a head covering, crouched down next to a small girl, picks short, green plants
ACIAR-supported horticultural research takes a food systems approach and engages with diverse stakeholders, including women as farmers and decision-makers. Photo: ACIAR

Harnessing nature

We need to be working with nature wherever we can, harnessing the power of beneficial insects and organisms in pest and disease control, including soil microbes to build the health and productivity of our farming soils.

Our projects underway in this space are looking at integrated pest and disease management, including crop hygiene and biological pest controls and the role of soil health in the control of disease in bananas.

Biological management practices can help reduce chemical use, reduce inputs for growers and reduce the flow-on effects of chemicals in the environment, which can potentially compromise human health and safety.

We know that technical solutions to some of the production challenges are not enough. We have often worked on the assumption that if we can come up with solutions to an issue, farmers or markets will naturally adopt them. But that is often not the case. We need to recognise the social systems in which production and consumption occur.

People power

We need to reach the right people, those who are making decisions, with the best information.

Recent projects taking this kind of approach are highlighting the important role of women in farm financial decision-making as well as in production and supply chains.

There is a growing awareness among researchers and project managers on the importance of actively catering for the diversity of stakeholders. Working with social scientists is also helping to identify the motivation of growers and of markets, which can influence the uptake of new practices, or demand for produce.

a group of women and men happily tend to growing vegetables. They are outdoors, and are crouched down in two long rows.
The role of people and social systems is critical in improving sustainable farming and improving the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem

Tweaking the systems

In systems, sometimes it is not so much the big challenges but the need to find solutions for the next question, the one that is holding back change on a larger scale. The one that can involve pulling the system to pieces and working on it bit by bit, while also working towards the main aim of wellbeing in smallholder farming communities.

This is where projects that consider food loss in the chain can play an important role. Reducing loss along the chain can be achieved by simple changes. Harvesting when it is cool and covering produce can reduce the temperature and increase shelf life for perishable fruits and vegetables so more is sold and less is thrown away.

As we continue to support the emerging fruit and vegetable sectors in our lower and middle-income partner countries, we are focused on how these less-resourced systems can develop their economies while also proving their sustainability.