Australia has been a longstanding partner and supporter of global networks and international organisations that foster research collaborations to support the strategic development of the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors.
Historically, Australia’s interest and commitment to international development organisations was managed by the Australian development assistance or aid program agency of the day. Recognising the reciprocal benefits to developing countries and Australia from participation in global networks for agricultural development, the responsibility of Australia’s representation and financial contribution to international agricultural research centres was assigned to ACIAR with the amendment of the ACIAR Act in 1992.
Since 1992, ACIAR has worked with international agricultural research centres in two ways. First, to manage Australia’s contribution to core funding of international centres, which supports operational activity and long-term programs, such as genebanks, big data management and mapping activities. Second, and as it has done since 1982, to provide funding support for projects.
The most significant global partnership for ACIAR is with CGIAR. However, ACIAR also supports and participates in other international networks in the Indo-Pacific region.
While ACIAR is primarily a broker and investor in research partnerships, the amendment to the ACIAR Act also enables ACIAR to invest in development activities, such as programs that enable smallholder farmers to learn about, have access to or be trained in new technologies and practices.
As development is generally significantly more costly than research, investment must be highly strategic and catalytic. To this end, ACIAR also works with other development organisations and donors, through co-investing, co-designing and co-managing projects. Co-investment partnerships enable funding organisations to leverage resources and complement expertise to implement more ambitious programs than could be achieved by a single organisation.
The global partnerships that are formed between ACIAR and international organisations, to tackle shared challenges through agricultural research collaboration, are an important element of Australia’s science diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region.
In 2014, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Julie Bishop, described ACIAR as ‘a jewel in the crown’ in the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio, and explained that Australia had an outstanding research arm in ACIAR ‘with a focus on important agricultural research for developing countries’.
Australia’s contribution to global agriculture
CGIAR – a network of 15 international agricultural research centres – is the world’s largest agricultural innovation network dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food and nutrition security for human health and improving natural resource systems and ecosystem services. The centres conduct world-class, interdisciplinary research that combines biophysical and social sciences to deliver development impact at scale. CGIAR operates on an annual budget of about US$900 million.
The origins of the international agricultural research system can be traced back to the 1940s, when the Rockefeller and Ford foundations funded two research centres, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. With a rapidly increasing global population and increasing concern about global food shortages, the centres were established to focus on increasing the productivity of staple food crops, wheat and rice. Over the following decades, more centres were developed to focus on other staple crops and production systems. In 1971, the international agricultural research centres formed an international network called the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. The network is now known simply, and officially, as CGIAR.
Australia recognised the immense value of the research network and provided funding to CGIAR from the outset. CGIAR and ACIAR share a champion in Sir John Crawford.
Sir John was a strong advocate for the development of CGIAR, to create a global partnership of organisations engaged in research for a food-secure future. He chaired the first Technical Advisory Committee of CGIAR in the 1970s. Sir John’s experience in the CGIAR research network fuelled his vision and energy for the creation of an Australian organisation to contribute to global efforts in agricultural science to address food insecurity and poverty.
With the amendment of the ACIAR Act in 1992, the management of funding and Australia’s partnership with the CGIAR was handed to ACIAR. Under such an arrangement, and reflecting Australia’s significant financial and technical contribution to CGIAR, the ACIAR Chief Executive Officer represents Australia on the CGIAR System Council.
Benefits the world over
Through 15 agricultural research centres, CGIAR:
- has a presence in 89 countries
- employs more than 9,000 scientists, researchers, technicians and support staff
- contributes to global targets such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
- hosts 11 gene banks that conserve seed for more than 700,000 types (accessions) of the world’s major food and forage crops
- enabled 5,000 new innovations in technology in the five years to 2021
- provided short and long-term training for 4 million scientists in the five years to 2021
- provided a tenfold return for each research dollar invested.
Notable impacts of CGIAR include:
- fortifying major food crops with vitamin A, iron and zinc to improve the nutrition of
20 million people in low-income countries
- testing and scaling resilient food systems to improve climate resilience in farming
communities in 21 countries.
Reciprocal benefits for partners
ACIAR has supported many research programs and projects within the 15 centres of CGIAR, which has provided rich career opportunities for Australian scientists, and an active exchange of knowledge between the Australian innovation system and CGIAR.
Dr Martin Kropff was Global Director, Resilient Agri-Food Systems, for CGIAR and Director-General of CIMMYT, one of the 15 centres of CGIAR. He recounted his experiences working with ACIAR.
‘ACIAR was one of our biggest funders of research when I came to CIMMYT in 2015, as Director-General. ACIAR doesn’t just invest money in the research – they really think about and contribute to the design of the project, and it was inspiring to work with their teams.’
While Dr Kropff was at CIMMYT, he was involved with several major collaborative projects brokered and supported by ACIAR, which brought together teams of Australian scientists working with partner-country scientists.
These projects included:
- ‘Sustainable intensification of maize-legume cropping systems for food security in eastern and southern Africa’ (SIMLESA) (2010–2019)
- ‘Farm mechanization and conservation agriculture for sustainable intensification’ (FACASI), eastern and southern Africa (2013–2017)
- ‘Sustainable and resilient farming systems intensification in the Eastern Gangetic Plains’ (SRFSI), South Asia (2014–2021).
‘SIMLESA was a program where everybody worked together and there was an enormous boost to crop yields and soil health, as well as conservation agriculture and small-scale mechanisation, which was an example of systems thinking supported by Australia,’ explained Dr Kropff.
‘Australian farmers also benefit from the development work that is funded through CGIAR. In the past many CIMMYT wheat varieties were used by Australian farmers, including Borlaug100, a wheat variety developed by CIMMYT, that was released in Australia in 2020.
‘And we work with Australian scientists – for example, we use the Australian crop modelling system APSIM in our research – so it’s not just funding but also about access to knowledge and tools that are useful.’
Benefits to Australia
CGIAR research outputs have helped Australian farmers increase yields and reduce costs. For example, superior genes in plants and livestock, identified by CGIAR programs, have been incorporated into plant and animal breeding programs in Australia, giving Australian farmers access to better performing crops and livestock.
Australia well represented
Over the 50-year history of CGIAR, Australia has been well represented at the highest levels of CGIAR itself, as well as in leadership positions of the international agricultural research centres. Many Australian scientists and economists have demonstrated that despite its relatively small population and a challenging agricultural environment, Australia is well placed globally to share knowledge and skills, and to contribute to global efforts to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters.
Sir John Crawford paved the way, chairing the first Technical Advisory Committee of CGIAR, following strong advocacy for the development of CGIAR.
Dr Lloyd Evans was another Australian whose influence was instrumental in Australia’s support of the CGIAR centres, as well as the establishment of ACIAR. A pioneering crop physiologist, Dr Evans served on the Technical Advisory Committee for many years, on the boards of IRRI and CIMMYT, and on the Policy Advisory Council (1982–1988) for the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs. Dr Jim Ryan and Dr Ted Henzell also served on the CGIAR Technical Advisory Committee.
Many other Australians and associates of ACIAR have contributed to the international agricultural research centres as board members and chairs of boards, as well as senior managers. To name just a very few – Professor John Dillon served on the boards of five CGIAR centres, was Chair of three, and twice served as the Chair of the committee of the CGIAR Board; Dr Meryl Williams was Director-General of WorldFish (1994–2004); Dr George Rothschild was Director-General of IRRI (1995–1997); and Dr Jim Ryan was Director-General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) (1991–1997).
ACIAR sets up a CGIAR centre
ACIAR was commissioned by the CGIAR in 1992 to establish its forestry research centre. Dr Ian Bevege, ACIAR Principal Adviser, led the process, which included selecting a host country for the centre, the first Director-General and a governing board. The work was completed in 1993 when the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) was established in Bogor, Indonesia.
ACIAR hosts CGIAR System Council
As Australia’s representative in international agricultural research networks, ACIAR has hosted the world’s leading scientists and policymakers on agricultural production and food security, providing opportunities to showcase Australia’s agricultural science innovation system and strengthen Australia’s relationship and contribution to international networks.
In November 2022, ACIAR hosted the CGIAR System Council. The CGIAR System Council comprises representatives of funders and developing countries, and is the strategic decision-making body that reviews the strategy, mission, impact and continued relevancy of CGIAR in a rapidly changing landscape of agricultural research for development.
The System Council works in partnership with the CGIAR System Board, which is responsible for providing leadership and governance for CGIAR in the delivery of its mission.
Dr Juergen Voegele, System Council Chair (2016–current) and World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development, invited Australia to host the 17th CGIAR System Council meeting. ACIAR timed the System Council meeting to coincide with the TropAg International Agriculture Conference in Brisbane, a biennial conference attended by more than 1,000 food and agricultural scientists. Hosted by the University of Queensland, a major ACIAR collaborator, the conference featured scientists actively engaged in agrifood systems research for improved nutrition, sustainability and human health.
The Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Policy Advisory Council – bodies established under the ACIAR Act to advise the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs – also met at this time. To capitalise on the presence of global leaders and leading scientists, the Commission, supported by the Policy Advisory Council, hosted a 3-part dialogue entitled ‘Food security and food systems transformation in the Indo-Pacific – the role for science’.
Australia hosts CGIAR Consultative Group
In 1989, at the invitation of the Australian Government, CGIAR held its mid-term Consultative Group Meeting in Canberra. At this time, the CGIAR governance structure comprised the Consultative Group, which was advised by a Technical Advisory Committee. Australia’s contribution to CGIAR was managed by the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB).
The Director-General of AIDAB requested that ACIAR Director, Dr Jim McWilliam, represent Australia at the meeting, with assistance from staff from AIDAB and ACIAR.
The meeting started with a one-day seminar. It was opened by the Australian Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, the Honourable John Kerin MP. The seminar was entitled ‘Lessons from Australian Research’, and eight distinguished Australian scientists gave meeting delegates a broad overview of Australian agricultural research, highlighting that ‘Australia is one of the few developed nations which faces economic pressures and environmental conditions similar to those in many developing countries’ and therefore emphasising the relevance of Australian research to ‘CGIAR’s client countries’.
ACIAR co-sponsored two other seminars in conjunction with the meeting. One on ‘Agricultural Biotechnology Opportunities for International Development’ was drawn from a World Bank study by Dr Gabrielle Persley. The other was based on the theme of ‘Agricultural Prospects and Challenges in Developing Countries’, and was presented by economists associated with CGIAR, Dr John Mellor and Professor Alex McCalla, and CGIAR Chairman, Dr David Hopper.
The formal Consultative Group Meeting was opened by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Senator the Honourable Gareth Evans. In the opening address, Senator Evans also announced that the Australian Government had pledged $A0.5 million over the next five years to the recently established Crawford Fund.
Participating in international agricultural research networks
Australia’s representation in international agricultural research is longstanding and diverse. CGIAR, with its 15 international agricultural research centres, is the largest international organisation that ACIAR has engaged with over its 40 years.
ACIAR has also represented Australia and supported international research centres and networks, in addition to those of CGIAR, providing core funding, funding for research projects and/or scientific expertise. Current and previously supported organisations include:
- Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA)
- Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI)
- Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI)
- Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA)
- International Board for Soil Research and Management (IBSRAM)
- International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
- International Foundation for Science
- The Pacific Community (SPC)
- World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg) – previously known as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC).
Working with like-minded partners
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada has much in common with ACIAR. IDRC is a government agency, established by an Act of the Canadian Parliament in 1970, with a mandate ‘to initiate, encourage, support, and conduct research into the problems of the developing regions of the world and into the means for applying and adapting scientific, technical, and other knowledge to the economic and social advancement of those regions’. IDRC has a broader remit than ACIAR – in addition to food systems, IDRC also supports research and innovation in human health, education, governance, and sustainable and inclusive economies.
Australian economist Sir John Crawford served on the Board of IDRC during the 1970s. The IDRC was the inspiration for the model of ACIAR that Sir John proposed to the Australian Government. While sharing common goals and modes of operation, it was not until several decades later that IDRC and ACIAR would become research and innovation partners.
IDRC President from 2013 to 2023, and previously Vice-President, Program and Partnership Branch, Dr Jean Lebel, said ACIAR and IDRC have built a very strong and loyal friendship.
‘I made my first contact with ACIAR through its Deputy Director, Dr Jim Ryan, when I was sitting at the executive commission of the CGIAR in the early 2000s. But of course, the connections between IDRC and ACIAR go back to much further than that.
‘I had regular contact with Dr Nick Austin, when he was Chief Executive Officer, and we talked about collaborating for several years. In 2013 we got our first program together – Cultivate Africa’s Future.
‘IDRC celebrated 50 years in 2020. It’s quite remarkable that IDRC and ACIAR have maintained the partnership with its intellectual underpinning and the level of relationship between staff over all these years. ACIAR is one of the very few organisations in the world with the same motivation as IDRC.’
Since 2013, IDRC and ACIAR have identified several opportunities to combine expertise and resources in supporting research that focuses on broad-scale issues. Both organisations place high importance on designing targeted programs that take account of local conditions and cultural factors.
Combating food insecurity
Key to enhancing Africa’s capacity to sustainably feed itself is ensuring that local agricultural scientists have the capacity and opportunity to conduct innovative research, to facilitate adoption of research to smallholder farmers.
The establishment of a competitive research grant program in 2013, named Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF), reflected commitment from Canada and Australia to deliver food security innovations to more people in Sub-Saharan Africa. African and international research organisations were invited to compete for grants of up to CA$3 million each to support innovative applied research. Under the call, research organisations from 10 countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – were eligible.
Seven collaborative research projects were selected for the first phase of the program. The projects helped smallholder farmers reduce post-harvest loss of crops, improve yields and livestock productivity through better water use, and improve nutrition. Resulting innovations were expected to be applicable to other parts of Africa and could support national and regional food security efforts on the continent.
CultiAF, which extended to a 2-phase program, was the first formal co-funded collaboration between ACIAR and IDRC, with a total investment of A$37 million between 2013 and 2023.
CultiAF successfully led to 19 innovations in African food systems, which included adoption of new technologies for soil moisture monitoring for irrigation, solar tents for fish drying, and increased production of bean varieties suited to use in higher-value pre-cooked consumer products.
Reducing food loss
Global estimates suggest that 30% of food is lost in the value chain. However, in developing countries, losses can be as high as 80% during production and processing. In 2021, ACIAR and IDRC launched the Food Loss Research Program – a partnership to support in-country research teams to identify and test opportunities to reduce food loss.
While increasing food production is the traditional goal of much agricultural research for development, the Food Loss Research Program looks at how much food can be saved through improvements to the value chain, so that less product is lost or wasted before it gets sold. Savings throughout the value chain also have potential to improve livelihoods and income for smallholders, as well as increase local food security.
Three projects in the program aim to reduce losses along value chains: horticultural produce in the Pacific region, mango and tomatoes in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and catfish in Vietnam and Laos. A fourth project will investigate food loss affecting vulnerable urban communities in Zambia and Malawi.
In the Pacific project, it is hoped that reducing loss at all points in the value chain will help to boost the availability and affordability of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Project leader Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni of the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa said that getting the fresh food system operating efficiently is critically important for the region to address non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.
‘Lost productivity also disincentivises farmers from participating in commercial value chains, has adverse gender impacts in terms of female market vendor economic loss, and increases the region’s reliance on imported produce. Food loss means income loss for farmers, and nutrition loss for consumers,’ she said.
‘Using a gender-inclusive approach, we will work with farmers and vendors to identify the levels of food losses in each country. Then, using foresighting and key informants in each partner country, we will prioritise value chains for interventions that can produce the most social, health and economic benefits for farmers and vendors.’
A history of working together
ACIAR and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) enjoyed a strong working relationship for many years before embarking on co-funding research collaborations in 2013.
The ACIAR communication program was developed with the benefit of the experience of IDRC. In 1983 former Director of the Publications Division of IDRC, Mr David Spurgeon, was engaged to develop the ACIAR Communications Program. In 1984, the Director of Communications at IDRC, Mr Reg MacIntyre, took sabbatical leave and worked at ACIAR to develop and manage the Publications Program.
In 1985, ACIAR and IDRC jointly supported the East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal, published by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. The ACIAR–IDRC assistance funded a scientific editor to travel to promote the journal and solicit manuscripts, and provided training for the editor. It also funded training to improve the scientific writing, interpretation and presentation skills of African scientists. The journal is still active in 2022 and is published by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
In 1989 ACIAR and IDRC co-sponsored a workshop in Fiji on the dissemination of agricultural research results in the South Pacific. The workshop was attended by 35 publishers or extension agents from six South Pacific countries, regional organisations, and Australia and Canada. The workshop shone a spotlight on the need to improve the transfer of results from researcher to end user; a need for better training of agricultural extensionists and finding more effective ways of sharing information.