Australian scientists working across the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors have long been recognised as innovators and world leaders in their respective fields. This reputation was the foundation of Sir John Crawford’s belief and proposal that Australian scientists had much to offer scientists and farmers in developing countries of the Indo-Pacific region.
The original ACIAR partnership model of bringing together the best people from Australia and partner countries to co-design research projects to address a specific issue or opportunity, remains largely unchanged 40 years later. ACIAR has built a reputation for brokering unique, innovative and agile research teams that make a positive and significant impact.
The research partnerships that ACIAR has brokered have given rise to new knowledge, which has informed science for many years to follow, they have enabled the development of new tools and systems that remain fundamental to scientific practice decades later, and they have fostered the development and adoption of technologies that have changed the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters across the Indo-Pacific region.
While innovation and impact are the clear deliverables of research, ACIAR partnerships have also provided opportunities for Australian and overseas scientists to embark upon and consolidate a career in science.
The establishment of ACIAR provided a new source of funding to address challenges common to tropical production systems in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. This also meant that science organisations in Australia with a focus on tropical production systems had a new opportunity to expand their research programs and endeavours, which may not have been possible without ACIAR.
Lasting legacy and career-shaping experience
The ACIAR mandate to commission research to identify and find solutions to agricultural problems of developing countries made it inevitable that one of its most significant and enduring partners would be Australia’s national scientific research agency – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Since ACIAR was established, it has supported approximately 270 projects in which a CSIRO scientist was project leader, and countless more projects where CSIRO staff were members of the project team.
The collaborations and partnerships between ACIAR and CSIRO have led to innovations benefiting agriculture in partner countries and in Australia. These innovations have lifted crop and livestock productivity, increased the efficiency of inputs and resources, and reduced adverse impacts of agriculture on communities and the environment.
The crop modelling platform Agricultural Production Systems sIMulator (APSIM) is a classic example of innovation and ongoing impact arising from an ACIAR–CSIRO partnership. As an early career scientist with the CSIRO research team, Dr Brian Keating was posted to work on the project in 1985. The project was the first ACIAR-supported farming systems research in Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s (and the largest ACIAR project at the time) between partners CSIRO and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, under the title ‘The improvement of dryland agriculture in the African semi-arid tropics’. The aim of the project was to find effective management responses and affordable technological innovations to solve some of the problems of dryland farming in the semi-arid tropics.
‘The whole farm “systems” approach of the project was ambitious, and researchers had to develop new analytical technology to identify pathways to sustainably intensify maize/bean/livestock farming systems in semi-arid landscapes. A sister project was undertaken in Katherine, in Australia’s Northern Territory, and this saw Dr Peter Carberry start his long and successful career in CSIRO,’ said Dr Keating.
Informed by this research, CSIRO partnered with the crop and soil modelling work of the State of Queensland, and with training opportunities through the University of Queensland, in a joint venture.
The resulting technology was APSIM, a software program to interpret and integrate data about landscapes, soils, climates, germplasm and farming practices. The program can run (model) simulations, based on the data, and in effect enable virtual experiments on ways to improve farming systems. APSIM meant research could truly address climate variability and risk in ways that otherwise require decades of experimentation. APSIM’s applications have extended from agronomic research to include on-farm decision support, the design of breeding programs, greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation research, and more recently continental-scale yield forecasting and analytics.
Not only was the approach itself groundbreaking at the time, but APSIM remains in use by agricultural scientists all over the world. The original design continues to be refined and developed with other partners to broaden its applications and develop the now internationally recognised and leading platform for scientists to model a diverse range of crop, animal, soil, climate and management options.
‘The farm systems model became a means to these ends rather than an end in itself, and the approaches and tools that the ACIAR projects of the 1980s and 1990s developed continue to deliver value in diverse partnerships around the world to the present day.
‘The impacts of the research program over the next 40 years went well beyond the APSIM model itself, to include a transformation in the way agronomic research was conducted in Australia and abroad, with shifts towards greater on-farm and participative approaches, stronger integration of socioeconomic considerations and greater focus on climate variability and risk considerations in technology development and adoption.’
In addition to the lasting legacy of APSIM and the new approaches to agronomic research developed during his time on the project, Dr Keating also described great personal rewards from being involved in the ACIAR-supported program.
‘My time in Kenya with ACIAR was transformational. In terms of problem-solving, building confidence and sheer research opportunities, it shaped my career. It was enabling and uplifting. And best of all, because of the way ACIAR is set up to promote research in both the partner country and Australia, it did not require a choice between working internationally and remaining engaged with promoting Australian agriculture. Looking back now, I can see how this experience ended up shaping the evolution of CSIRO’s capabilities in farming systems research over the last 35 years.’
Dr Keating acknowledges Dr Jim Ryan, Dr Gabrielle Persley, Dr Denis Blight and Professor Jim McWilliam as the visionaries who, alongside Sir John Crawford, were most responsible for creating the ACIAR partnership model, which is built on strong relationships with Australian research institutions.
‘CSIRO was always a strong advocate for ACIAR given the common interest in projecting Australian science into the wider world. Drs Ted Henzell and Bob Clements were CSIRO leaders who laid an incredibly strong foundation for the ACIAR–CSIRO partnership in the 1980s and 1990s.
‘So strong are those bonds that CSIRO has remained engaged in agricultural research aid in Africa every year since 1984, and the APSIM team is today the strongest in the world at computational modelling of farm systems.’
ACIAR partnerships are also career-shaping experiences for the scientists involved. Dr Keating is now Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland and Chair of the Advisory Board of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI). Dr Keating built on his work in Africa, to become a pioneer of the application of simulation models in farming systems research in Africa and Australia. He continued working for CSIRO throughout his career, including senior roles of Chief of Sustainable Ecosystems (2004–2008), Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Flagship (2008–2013) and CSIRO Executive for Agriculture, Food and Health (2014–2015).
Opportunities and benefits for tropical agriculture
Brokering partnerships to provide solutions to agricultural problems in neighbouring countries and the Indo-Pacific region meant that many research projects were naturally based on subtropical and tropical farming systems. In turn, this means science agencies with expertise and experience in subtropical and tropical agriculture were obvious partners of the newly established agency.
Over 40 years, Queensland-based organisations have been the commissioned organisation for about 25% of projects brokered by ACIAR.
Dr Beth Woods has had a long association with ACIAR in many different capacities and explained the significance of the establishment of ACIAR to research agencies in Queensland. ‘ACIAR provided one of the few sources of funding support for collaborative research into tropical and subtropical farming systems, because this was the production environment in important partner countries in the 1990s,’ said Dr Woods.
‘There was almost no research into these systems in the rest of Australia, and therefore very limited opportunities for Queensland scientists to collaborate.
‘In addition, ACIAR provided a way to support small Australian industries which would otherwise not have had sufficient resources to mount an effective research program, and also a way to prepare for biosecurity threats which might eventually get to Australia from neighbouring countries.’
Dr Woods is an ardent believer that partnerships are crucial for research impact, and those partners should not only include the funder, but also the beneficiaries of the research.
‘In our national system for agricultural R&D [research and development], partners are needed from the outset to secure funding for part or all of the research work. In my view we also need to think through the implementation or delivery partners, before we start, for research to have impact. Of course, it may change over time – research does not always follow a straight line – but community and industry beneficiaries ideally will come along on that journey with you. From fruit fly to TR4 (Panama disease in bananas) to grain and pulse diseases and insects, I can think of a myriad of examples where we needed a broad set of community members to understand the research and to be part of the solution.’
Through ACIAR support, research organisations in Queensland have been able to build knowledge and tools to deal with the most serious of horticultural pests – fruit fly. Fruit fly poses a major obstacle to the sustainability and success of many horticultural crops in the Indo-Pacific region. Horticulturalists in Australia rely on their fruit fly free status to minimise crop losses and, more critically, to maintain access to international markets.
Management of fruit fly was the focus of some of the earliest ACIAR-supported projects. In 1984, the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and research organisations in Malaysia and Thailand were funded to investigate the biology and control of fruit flies. In addition to reducing economic losses and improving knowledge of species causing damage (there are at least 200 species of fruit fly in South-East Asia), the research partnership was motivated by the desire to increase coordination between neighbouring countries and countries involved in fresh fruit trade to achieve more effective regional management of the fruit fly pest.
Dr Beth Woods OAM has been involved with ACIAR in many capacities, from project collaborator to Chair of the ACIAR Board of Management (2000–2004). Dr Woods served as a member of the Policy Advisory Council from 1991 to 1997, and as President for two terms, 2000 to 2004 and 2007 to 2014. The first term as President also meant she was Chair of the then ACIAR Board of Management. In 2020, Dr Woods was appointed to the Commission for International Agricultural Research.
As a leading agricultural researcher and manager in Australia and internationally, Dr Woods has also served on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Board and held leadership positions at both the University of Queensland and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries; and chaired the boards of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and WorldFish.
Subsequent projects were funded by ACIAR to continue building the knowledge base and to develop practical management strategies. The new projects included Pacific island countries, Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and Indonesia, in addition to Malaysia and Thailand.
Australian agriculture saw the benefit of this ACIAR-funded work in 1995, when a new species of fruit fly, papaya fruit fly, was discovered near Cairns in north Queensland. As a result of the knowledge and expertise developed by the projects, the new pest was quickly identified, and its range of host plants understood. Knowing characteristics and life cycle of the fruit fly also meant that appropriate management strategies could be quickly implemented. Papaya fruit fly can be hosted by 160 different fruit species (but not papaya!) so rapid identification was critical to prevent devastating impact on Australian horticultural businesses.
From 1984 until 2009, ACIAR invested A$22.9 million across 17 fruit fly research projects, which delivered benefits worth more than A$46.2 million to Australia and A$212 million to partner countries, in net present value terms in 2007.
ACIAR also facilitated the establishment of the International Centre for the Management of Pest Fruit Flies at Griffith University in Queensland. The research centre operated until 2019. In 2022, Griffith University hosts an international fruit fly management laboratory at its Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security.
While the impact assessment of the program (published in 2008) showed significant returns on total investment, it also highlighted that in the large and complex program, there were some research components that had large impacts and others that had none. The pattern of benefits was variable by type of benefit and by country.
Biosecurity benefits, for example, were realised in some Pacific island countries but there were few or no biosecurity benefits for other partner countries. Biosecurity benefits were not realised where necessary preconditions were absent, such as countries with long land borders and countries with large numbers of endemic pest fruit fly species that infest and damage a range of economically important crops. Biosecurity benefits were also absent in the countries without the financial and organisational capacity and commitment to continue necessary ongoing quarantine activities.
The results of the assessment served as a good reminder to ACIAR and its partners that benefits from research may not be realised by partner countries due to factors beyond the control and reach of the researchers and beneficiaries. With the benefit of such experiences and ongoing impact assessment, ACIAR project planning and design processes have evolved over the decades to include beneficiaries, extension agents and value-chain experts to maximise the opportunity for impact.