The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) was established to help solve challenges faced by farmers in Australia’s neighbouring countries, and in the process, contribute to sustainable economic growth and enhanced regional stability. In fulfilling this role, ACIAR has also contributed to developing the knowledge base of Australian agricultural science.
The improved practices and technologies that are developed through ACIAR-funded projects overseas also address challenges for agriculture, fisheries and forestry here in Australia.
Through building Australia’s knowledge base and the capacity of researchers in Australia and partner countries, ACIAR is regarded as a trusted science partner across the region. It is hard to put a dollar value on the soft power benefit of the contribution that ACIAR makes as a broker of agricultural science collaborations. The benefits to Australia from co-investing in building scientific capacity in the region are evident in some issues at the forefront of social and political interest for the Australian public.
People are astounded by what a small organisation has been able to achieve over such a long period of time and in so many different countries and contexts as well as the benefits brought back to Australia.
Mrs Fiona Simson
Chair, Commission for International Agricultural Research (2020–current)
ACIAR builds scientific collaborations and diplomatic ties between Australian researchers and their counterparts in partner countries. ACIAR has helped to generate knowledge and technologies that seek to develop agriculture, fisheries and forestry to support regional security, prosperity and sustainability.
In the early 2000s, when Timor-Leste secured its independence, ACIAR stepped up to support the country to improve its food security. Through a series of ACIAR-supported projects, Timor-Leste farmers gained access to improved varieties of high-yielding certified seed for food crops. The benefits of the Seeds of Life program are long lasting, providing food security as well as financial and social benefits to local communities. The project strengthened Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste, as acknowledged by President José Ramos-Horta in 2012. He wrote, ‘Through Australian support we are moving beyond a focus on the most basic elements of food security … Australia’s role in this transition has been a small, strategic and consistent factor in the growth of our young nation.’
ACIAR supports biosecurity research projects to help understand and address threats to food security from animal and plant diseases and pests. ACIAR-funded research forms part of Australia’s pre-border defence to international biosecurity threats.
Until May 2022, Australia was free of the world’s most feared threat to the honey bee industry – the Varroa destructor mite. When the Varroa mite was detected, thousands of hives and feral bee colonies in New South Wales were destroyed in an effort to eradicate the pest and protect Australia’s A$147 million honey sector and A$14.2 billion worth of pollination services. The eradication campaign is ongoing, but Australia was well prepared in terms of its surveillance, emergency response and management strategies should eradication fail. This is in part thanks to ACIAR-supported research over three decades, which has helped the Pacific region develop their honey bee industries to provide new livelihood opportunities. The research also informed Australia’s National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, which has been credited with delaying the arrival of Varroa mite.
ACIAR invests in research in One Health – a multidisciplinary approach to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment. One Health research supported by ACIAR aims to strengthen the safety of agrifood systems.
In 2018, ACIAR partnered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to form the Research for One Health Systems Strengthening Program. Its nine projects researched zoonoses, antimicrobial resistance and veterinary systems strengthening with country partners across Asia. ACIAR was ideally placed to provide support and coordination, linking leading Australian researchers, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Menzies School of Health Research, with their counterparts overseas through the DFAT Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security. While the systems strengthening program has finished, research embracing One Health principles continues and improves knowledge and systems to develop biosecurity measures to prevent diseases spreading through the environment and between animals and humans.
ACIAR plays a role in Australia’s international engagement on climate change and agriculture and supports climate change-related projects to help countries confront the global challenge of adapting to a changing climate, while at the same time reducing emissions from agriculture.
Climate change is an increasingly important challenge for most ACIAR-funded research projects. While the impacts of climate change and the ability to adapt to climate change underlie much research funded by ACIAR, the ACIAR Climate Change Program established in 2020 focuses research on this strategic objective. The program sharpens focus on agricultural contributions to climate change and opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. ACIAR is also engaged in climate change multilaterally, including via CGIAR and the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP). In 2020 ACIAR chaired the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA).
ACIAR is a distinctive component of Australia’s innovation system for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, building knowledge and technical capacity, and generating billions of dollars in value to both partner countries and Australia.
Coral restoration research undertaken in the Philippines and supported by ACIAR has provided new ways of accelerating coral restoration, not only on reefs of the Philippines, but also on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Research led by Professor Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University developed restoration techniques to raise coral larvae either in aquaculture facilities or directly in the sea, with the successful restoration trials arousing interest among reef management agencies around the world, including in Australia. These techniques are now being applied and scaled out to help the Great Barrier Reef recover from devastating bleaching events. DFAT has funded an additional project to ensure scientific and institutional capacity are developed in partner countries to ensure ongoing protection of coral reefs and improvement to the health of reef ecosystems.
The project funding that ACIAR provides to Australia’s university and research sector, in regional and metropolitan Australia, creates high-quality science jobs. ACIAR invests in science that supports researchers in the fields of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as interrelated disciplines of natural resource management, adaptation to climate change, economics and agribusiness, and social sciences.
Investing in Australia’s scientists
The ACIAR model of development assistance, where Australian researchers collaborate with in-country partners to undertake research, helps to sustain capacity and develop expertise in Australian universities and research institutions. While Australian scientists benefit directly from gaining new knowledge and progressing their area of expertise, they also benefit from the interactions with scientists in partner countries and the opportunity to supervise and mentor emerging scientists through ACIAR fellowships and capacity-building programs.
ACIAR investments primarily support Australia’s commitment to development assistance. However, both reputation gained and new knowledge acquired through agriculture for development research strengthen Australia’s trade reputation and Australia’s policy efforts to support a transparent and predictable rules-based global trading system.
In 1995, fruit fly incursions into Australian horticulture industries threatened the mango export trade. The Queensland Government (Department of Primary Industries at the time) was able to quickly develop post-harvest treatment protocols for Australian mangoes because of a project the department had led for ACIAR in Malaysia and Thailand, where research was conducted on fruit fly taxonomy, hosts and levels of infestation, and on the abundance of fruit flies within the countries. The project involved researchers from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and the University of Queensland, working with scientists from the national ministries of agriculture. The knowledge and experience gained resulted in Australian mango producers obtaining approval to restart exports in December 1996, at least six months sooner than would have been possible otherwise.