In recent years, developing countries worldwide have been grappling with several major drivers of hunger and malnutrition. Population growth, conflict, poor socio-economic conditions, natural disasters, climate change and pests and diseases have all been ongoing threats to food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and further exacerbated these threats, placing further pressure on agrifood systems.
Health-related emergency responses from the onset of COVID-19 have also resulted in significant disruptions to rural livelihoods. Measures that directly impacted food access and food availability included the closure of food markets, domestic and international movement restrictions and reduced incomes from business closure.
In the Indo-Pacific, an ACIAR commissioned report warned of a food crisis with long-term implications for the region.
To quickly respond to some of these challenges, ACIAR announced the Alumni Research Support Facility (ARSF), an initiative to build resilience and respond to some of the pandemic induced challenges faced by agricultural systems in the region.
‘ACIAR alumni were invited to apply for up to A$20,000 to support research activities that could deliver short-term outcomes that directly relate to the pandemic,’ says Eleanor Dean, General Manager for Outreach and Capacity Building at ACIAR.
The ARSF is a transformational program – it is supporting researchers to develop and deploy research that they feel will contribute to resilience and recovery in the face of the impacts of COVID-19 is having on food systems.
General Manager for Outreach and Capacity Building at ACIAR
In Papua New Guinea, ARSF recipient James Butubu from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, is moving quickly to help shore up food system resilience. His urgency is clear.
‘Extreme weather conditions, climate change and now COVID-19, are putting a major strain on food access and food availability.
‘Ensuring we have resilient food systems is a priority. Everything hangs off the food systems. We also must be mindful of the increasing population and feeding this growing number of people.
‘We have to be prepared to meet those challenges,’ says Mr Butubu.
Mr Butubu has been part of the ACIAR-supported Bougainville cocoa value chain project to improve quality, quantity, and health of cocoa farming families in Bougainville. His research is titled ‘Building and achieving resilience to food security in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea’.
An integrated farming system key to building resilience
Funding and technical assistance provided through the ARSF program has helped Mr Butubu establish a cocoa and food crop integrated farming system model.
The aim of his research was to develop pathways that help build resilient food systems to alleviate malnutrition and food insecurity and establish demonstration plots that would enable him to collect data that can help inform strategies to improve food security and sustainable supply chains.
As part of the research, Mr Butubu first assessed food security issues and problems affecting farming systems in Bougainville, including health and nutrition.
‘The research found there was a need to develop and distribute the best planting materials, with nutritional qualities beneficial to farming communities. It also calls for conservation and use of indigenous crops.
‘Based on this, I started a germplasm collection for common food crops in Bougainville like taro and sweetpotato to demonstrate the concept. This involved collecting a number of taro and sweetpotato varieties and setting up demonstration plots that would allow me to collect growth and characterisation data,’ says Mr Butubu.
The taro trials involved integration into cocoa plots while the sweetpotato germplasm collection is being kept for future studies and farmer supply.
‘There is a common belief that we are using land to grow cash crops and there is not enough land available for food crops. So, I am looking at integrating food crops with cocoa. That is why we are planting taro in between rows of cocoa,’ Mr Butubu says.
He says the trials involved observation and documentation of the characteristics of taro and the difference between those grown among cocoa trees and those grown in the usual open sunlight garden.
In addition to the taro and sweetpotato intercropping, the ARSF is helping Mr Butubu work with livestock. He has collected different chicken breeds for interbreeding trials. The aim of the trials was to identify breeds with improved growth, weight and egg production.
Pathways to building resilience
His trials have uncovered major differences between food crops grown among cocoa trees and those using the traditional methods.
‘The growth difference has been so obvious. Decay and organic matter build up under the cocoa trees ensures good soil fertility. Water retention is also better. All of this supports better growth for food crops.
‘Of the 20 varieties of taro evaluated for their cooking qualities and taste, 15 scored between fair, good and very good. While there is a need for further research on this, Taro grown among cocoa trees are preferred,’ says Mr Butubu.
A key finding of his research is the need for continued improvements to crops and livestock to adapt to climate change and other issues like COVID-19 and increasing populations.
‘We need new food production systems, supply chain regulations and sound policies to ensure our food systems are resilient. There is also a need for regional urban storage and market systems to ensure food availability, access and use by the majority of people in towns and cities.
Other findings from the research include pathways for improved income from value adding, like downstream processing and opportunities for women and youth to participate in small businesses in the value chain.
We have proved that an integrated cocoa-based farming system and semi-intensive poultry and egg production system is useful for building a resilient food system. In addition to this, the germplasm collection and poultry breeds will be available for farmers to access and use.
Alumni Research Support Facility Recipient
‘The findings have been combined into a flow chart, that clearly sets out pathways that can be taken to improve food security in Bougainville. This will be presented to the Bougainville Department of Primary Industries and will help inform Bougainville’s Food Security Policy,’ says Mr Butubu.
Since its inception in 2020, the ARSF has supported 66 alumni to undertake research to help with pandemic recovery. ARSF projects cover a range of topics designed to address issues of importance to communities in ACIAR partner countries.