Date released
19 October 2022

In the 1980s, only about 7% of Cambodian farmers used pesticides. Twenty years later, that had jumped to 67%. Although more recent data is not available, pesticides and chemical fertilisers are now used widely across
the country.

Despite this, only a few studies have researched what effects these chemicals have on humans, animals and the environment in Cambodia. Research to better understand these impacts will be funded as part of a longstanding research collaboration between ACIAR
and IDRC.

The Cambodian research is part of a new One Health program that ACIAR and IDRC have initiated in South-East Asia. Collaborations between the two international partners have taken a broader systems approach.

The One Health program will form a portfolio of interconnected projects across South-East Asia to promote approaches that provide combined benefits for people, animals and the environment. The first phase will have a combined initial investment of A$4.3 million.

Whole-of-system health

Explaining the focus of One Health, Dr Anna Okello, ACIAR research program manager, Livestock Systems, said it recognises that the health of humans, animals and the broader environment in which we all coexist are inherently linked.

‘From a public health perspective, the approach acknowledges that you are never going to see optimal health in the global human population if, for example, agrifoods systems are broken. Or if our environment is polluted. Or if our veterinary systems and services are not adequately resourced to ensure the health and safety of products that come from animals,’ said Dr Okello.

The research proposal on ‘The role of agricultural and forest landscapes on human and environmental health in Cambodia’ is expected to be one of the first to proceed under the One Health program. It will be run by Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) and will consider how forest foods and forest conservation affect the nutritional status and health of local people, particularly children.

Dr Kimchhin Sok, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at RUA, will lead investigations into the links between forests and agriculture. He said that understanding the way forests are used may also help establish agrichemical use standards.

‘Forests and wild foods have been part and parcel of smallholder production systems in Cambodia for millennia. The research strives to see whether communities with easy access to forests enjoy healthier diets, which, in turn, might be reflected in the growth and development of young Cambodians, and improve forest conservation,’ said Dr Sok.

‘Establishing a correlation between forests, clean foods and child development may help establish more stringent standards on agrichemical usage and clean agriculture.’

The One Health program will also benefit researchers and research students at RUA, helping them to get involved and more deeply understand this topic, noted Dr Sok.

Dr Victor Mbao, IDRC senior program specialist engaged in One Health programming with ACIAR, said the program goes beyond stimulating basic research. ‘It asks research partners to go a step further and demonstrate how the concepts apply to real-world problems,’ said Dr Mbao.

Other collaborations underway with the IDRC include another recently launched initiative, the Food Loss Research Program, and the long-running Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF).

Woman carrying vegetables in field
Getting more of the crop harvested, such as these green vegetables grown in Zambia, into the hands of consumers will be the focus of new food loss research, part of the ongoing partnership between IDRC and ACIAR. Photo: ACIAR

Shared purpose

Dr Okello said the relationship with IDRC was very important to ACIAR. Working together has allowed the research commissioned to focus on broad-scale issues, with targeted projects that take account of local conditions and cultural factors.

In addition, the local projects also demonstrate approaches and solutions that could be adapted to help overcome what are often common issues.

In a similar way that ACIAR sits within the Australian Government’s Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio, IDRC is part of Canada’s foreign affairs and development efforts. Both champion and fund research and innovation within and alongside developing regions to drive global change.

They engage with partner countries to broker scientific expertise they need and build in-country capacity that supports ongoing development.

‘We both have a mandate for research for development. So, in that way, we think quite similarly and that sets a great foundation for co-funding research,’ said Dr Okello.

Mr Santiago Alba-Corral, IDRC director of the Climate-Resilient Food Systems program, said collaborating with a network of partners in focus countries and areas is crucial to achieving long-lasting impact.

‘Engaging with in-country partners is also important for success and ACIAR and IDRC focus on doing just that, giving responsibility to the field,’ said Mr Alba-Corral.

Dr Kevin Tiessen, IDRC program leader, Animal Health, said IDRC values ACIAR greatly and that its exclusive focus on agriculture allowed ACIAR to enhance the partnership with the IDRC.

‘ACIAR is also embedded in South-East Asia with incredibly strong networks. This enables the research projects we support together to have greater impact than if we were working independently,’ said Dr Tiessen.

The One Health program is being driven by strong leadership from partner countries across the global south. It will help to empower local leaders and develop opportunities for cross-country collaboration. Through the IDRC partnership, it is also creating new ways for ACIAR to work.

African partnership

CultiAF was the first formal co-funded collaboration that ACIAR had with IDRC, with an investment of A$37 million between 2013 and 2023.

The overarching objectives of CultiAF are to improve food and nutrition security across Eastern and Southern Africa, with an emphasis on helping more women to use new technologies, and get involved in product development and business.

CultiAF has successfully led to 19 innovations in African food systems. These include soil moisture monitoring for irrigation, solar tents for fish drying and increased production of bean varieties suited to higher-value pre-cooked consumer products.

Food loss means income loss for farmers, and nutrition loss for consumers

Targeting food loss

ACIAR and IDRC have recently launched the Food Loss Research Program with projects in the Pacific region, South-East Asia and Africa.

While global estimates suggest that 30% of food is lost in the supply chain, this can be as high as 80% in developing countries.

One of the first projects as part of this program will investigate ways to prevent losses in horticultural produce value chains in the Pacific region. The Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa will lead this research.

Project leader Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, manager for the Plants and Postharvest Technologies Division in the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, said that getting the fresh food system operating efficiently is critically important to address non-communicable diseases in the region.

Previous research has estimated that smallholder farmers in the Pacific region can experience food losses of 5% to 20% of their total production.

‘Lost productivity also disincentivises farmers from participating in commercial value chains, has adverse gender impacts in terms of women market vendor economic loss, and increases the region’s reliance on imported produce,’ said Dr Molimau-Samasoni.

‘Food loss means income loss for farmers, and nutrition loss for consumers.’

As such, addressing food loss in the region could improve monetary returns for farmers, as well as food availability and affordability for consumers.

Ms Irene Kernot, ACIAR research program manager, Horticulture, said food loss can occur at any point in the value chain.

‘Losses can be caused by pests and disease, drought, or poor post-harvest management. But in some local markets in the Pacific, losses are minimal,’ said Ms Kernot. ‘In short chains, growers may harvest for that day’s market, just taking what they know they will sell. And once they’ve sold out, they’ll pack up and head home.

‘Perversely, this might impact food availability and price, reducing the availability of healthy fresh vegetables with follow-on impacts for nutrition. Most of us do not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and that is a real problem in terms of human health.’

Ms Kernot said being aware of possible interventions to address food loss fits in well with the project’s foresight component, included as a part of the joint program. This will explore what in-country partners believe their future food system could look like.

Other projects in the Food Loss Research Program will look at mango and tomato value chains in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and catfish production in Vietnam and Laos. Food loss affecting vulnerable urban communities in Zambia and Malawi will also be investigated.