A research program to build industries

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ACIAR-funded projects address industry development at many levels – preserving and introducing new genetics and varieties, introducing new technologies and upskilling in-country researchers and extension personnel, and increasing farm profitability.

A feature of the work of ACIAR over the years has been its flexible and encompassing approach to project design. ACIAR has worked with science partners and stakeholders to not only address the research issue at hand, but also facilitate the uptake or delivery of benefits to communities and industries, and if there was potential, extend the benefits to additional countries.

A series of projects focused on citrus demonstrates the flexible and evolving nature of the ACIAR partnership and research model over the decades. This series started with work in China in the early 1990s, and then extended to Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia. As well as developing and delivering improved scion varieties and rootstock types in Australia and partner countries, partner-country researchers gained important knowledge and skills for ongoing variety identification and development.

Other programs of citrus-focused research and extension ran in Bhutan (2007–2017) and in Pakistan (2007–2016), with wider outcomes in upskilling the knowledge of both Department of Agriculture personnel and citrus growers, and in nursery and citrus production techniques, pest and diseases management, pruning and irrigation management, and variety and rootstock development.

The work also had significant biosecurity benefits to Australia, through an increased understanding of the citrus diseases present in Asian countries. Supplemental funding or in-kind support from the Australian industry, including the research and development corporation for Australia’s horticulture industry, now known as Hort Innovation, helped maximise benefits to both Australian growers and overseas partners.

The investment in a suite of citrus-related research and development projects across Asia has resulted in stronger industries for all partners.


Better varieties for better incomes

One of the earliest ACIAR research partnerships was with China, a centre of origin for many types of citrus fruits. Building on established scientific and diplomatic linkages, China and Australia agreed to exchange citrus germplasm material – such as seeds, rootstock and scion varieties – for assessment and to develop new and better varieties for citrus production.

An Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB) citrus project completed in Hunan Province, China, in the early 1980s, concluded that further investment in citrus would be beneficial to both China and Australia. Subsequently, citrus rootstock improvement was identified as a priority area for further collaborative research, following a visit to China by Mrs Patricia Barkley, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and Dr Gabrielle Persley, ACIAR, in 1986. A feasibility study in 1988 by Dr Ken Bevington, NSW DPI, Dr Steve Sykes, CSIRO, and Mr Robert Moore, ACIAR, recommended that a citrus rootstock improvement project should proceed.

In 1992, ACIAR funded what would become a decades-long program to screen citrus germplasm for disease resistance, salinity tolerance, uniformity and graft union compatibility. The program aimed to supply growers in China and Vietnam with high-quality, disease-free and virus-free planting material that, once established and in production, would generate income for local communities. The first projects were led by Mrs Barkley and Dr Bevington of NSW DPI.

Dr Tahir Khurshid is a research physiologist with the NSW DPI. He has been involved with the ACIAR-supported citrus projects since 1999. He evaluated 56 varieties of rootstock from China and Vietnam, with six promising rootstocks commercially released in Australia in 2017, offering increased productivity for Australian growers.

‘This result would not have been possible without the support of ACIAR. Australian scientists had a good relationship with their counterparts in China. With project arrangements in place and ACIAR support, Australia gained access to Chinese rootstocks and we were able to identify new rootstock for Australian growers.’

As a result of the science partnership, China’s citrus industry added Australian citrus varieties – such as the Lane Late navel – to the mix of varieties it grows. As a later-maturing variety, Lane Late allows growers to harvest and supply the market over a longer period and is worth about A$38.4 million a year to the Chinese industry.

The Australia-Pakistan Agriculture Sector Linkages Program (ASLP) was established in 2006 to improve livelihood systems for the rural poor in Pakistan and build links between the agriculture sectors of Australia and Pakistan. Research and extension on citrus focused on improving orchard and management practices for Kinnow mandarins, as a major crop for local and export markets. The project also introduced new germplasm.

Over almost a decade, and two projects, more than 5,000 growers were trained in new practices, seven new varieties and six rootstocks of citrus were introduced to extend and expand the marketing period, and greater understanding of value chains was attained to improve fruit quality to achieve higher market prices and reduce wastage through improved harvesting and post-harvest practices.

Dr Khurshid also led one of the two projects in Pakistan for a decade, which resulted in the commercialisation of Daisy mandarin (Citrus reticulata) and Arnold Blood orange, extending the citrus production season in Pakistan. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province the rootstock Troyer citrange has been introduced to replace sour orange (Citrus aurantuim) rootstock.

Testing and ongoing registration of new varieties and rootstocks more than a decade after the project finished indicates the building of in-country capacity during the project phase. Additionally, Pakistani women and men were trained in nursery skills to produce high-quality citrus trees at home, boosting their incomes.

A man is kneeling next to a tree. He is holding a notebook and is also holding small branches of the tree growing up from the ground.
Dr Tahir Khurshid assessing the graft union compatibility on the Chinese rootstocks with imperial mandarin. The exchange of rootstock between China, Vietnam and Australia advanced variety development and production in all three countries. Photo: Steven Falivene

Researcher honoured

In 2017, citrus breeders from Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries selected and developed a new rootstock, based on one of the Chinese citrus rootstocks. The new rootstock was distinctly different from currently available rootstocks in Australia. It was named ‘Barkley’ after NSW DPI pathologist Patricia Barkley, who was regarded as one of Australia’s most distinguished citrus researchers.


Better protection of the industry in Australia and overseas

This series of projects gave Australian researchers the opportunity to study diseases in the Asia region and to contribute to biosecurity preparation and planning in Australia. The projects bolstered Australian knowledge about exotic citrus diseases such as huanglongbing (citrus greening disease) and its vector, the Asiatic citrus psyllid.

‘Learning about huanglongbing was a crucial takeaway from ACIAR-funded citrus projects in Bhutan,’ said Ms Sandra Hardy, project leader and former NSW DPI Citrus Program Leader.

‘By going to Bhutan, we really got firsthand experience of how devastating huanglongbing can be, how difficult it is to eradicate and how important it is for Australia to have a facility that contains all our germplasm in protected sites.

‘One of the biggest benefits to Australia from these projects, was their contribution to biosecurity.’

Australian researchers developed additional knowledge on exotic pest detection and management. As a result, the Australian industry is better informed and better prepared for serious disease incursions, as well as having new rootstock and integrated pest management options.

In China, Vietnam and Bhutan, a new understanding of the importance of disease-free budwood and grafted rootstock was developed. Training was completed in molecular analysis techniques for germplasm and disease assessment in China and Vietnam. The construction of insect-proof screen houses in China, Vietnam and Bhutan made maintenance
of disease-free mother trees possible.

A woman wearing an orange shirt is standing between two men. One of the men is holding a small tree in his hand. They are smiling and talking.
Mr Dorjee (left), National Citrus Coordinator with the Bhutan Department of Agriculture Dorjee and project leader in Bhutan for the ACIAR-supported mandarin improvement project, visited various Australian citrus industry operations in 2011. He is pictured with Ms Sandra Hardy (centre), the Australian leader for the project and Industry Leader–Citrus for NSW Department of Primary Industries, and Mr Gary Eyles, citrus nurseryman and owner of Eyles Citrus, Kenthurst, New South Wales. Photo: Kevin Chamberlain | 2011

Skills and lifelong involvement

Importantly, ACIAR-funded research equipped smallholder farmers in partner countries with knowledge, skills and highly trained local expertise to transform their capacity and future wellbeing.

A man in a white polo shirt inspects a tree, with two men looking on.
Dr Andrew Beattie inspects a citrus tree alongside researchers in Bhutan. Dr Beattie led three ACIAR-funded citrus projects and supported many PhD and master students from China, Vietnam, Bhutan and Indonesia. Photo: ACIAR | 2016

In Bhutan, the projects had a focus on capacity building. Citrus growers and local Department of Agriculture staff in Bhutan learned about citrus management and production techniques, such as pruning, nursery production, and fertiliser and irrigation management in demonstration orchards, workshops and overseas training visits to Australia. The techniques were identified to have the potential to improve productivity of orchards in Bhutan.

The world’s first mandarin production manual was developed by the NSW DPI with support from ACIAR, based on the work in Bhutan. The manual included content on everything from orchard basics to post-harvest handling and pest and disease management. The manual is still in use today, by both Bhutanese and Australian citrus growers.

Dr Andrew Beattie, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University, led three ACIAR-funded citrus projects and supported many PhD and master students from China, Vietnam, Bhutan and Indonesia.

‘We were there to do research, and one of the best ways was having students involved. All the work we did has been ongoing and, even though I’m retired now, I’m still involved and so are the students. I think that’s testament to the way ACIAR structured the program at the time.’

One of Dr Beattie’s PhD students and John Allwright Fellowship recipient, Ms Namgay Om, completed her PhD in 2017 and returned to Bhutan to her senior role at the National Plant Protection Centre. Her PhD was based on huanglongbing and its transmission by psyllids. Dr Om’s new expertise has been a valued resource for the management of huanglongbing in Bhutan.

The translation of knowledge into impact is a key to the success in ACIAR project development and increasing farm profitability. Across East and South-East Asia, an ACIAR-commissioned impact assessment concluded that projects in China, Vietnam and Bhutan achieved:

  • an extension of the Chinese citrus season into the festival and off-season market
  • an increase in Vietnam’s citrus production from 11,000 tonnes in 1991 to 440,000 tonnes in 2000
  • an increase in Bhutan’s citrus production capacity, with progress towards improved production practices and grower knowledge
  • new rootstocks for the Australian citrus industry.

In Pakistan, the impact of ACIAR-supported citrus-focused projects included:

  • improved farm and nursery management practices
  • new varieties and rootstocks to extend the production season
  • identification of issues to address in the
    value chain.
3 : 1 return on ACIAR investment Benefits included: • preserving citrus genetics • developing technologies to develop disease-free planting material • building science capacity • introducing more profitable varieties. Source: ACIAR Impact Assessment No. 98, 2019
icon of a camera illustration
Featured left: A labourer sorts freshly picked oranges at a market in the Samdrup Jongkhar district of Bhutan. ACIAR-supported projects contributed to improved production practices and grower knowledge in Bhutan, as well as giving Australian scientists firsthand experience of the citrus greening disease, huanglongbing. Photo: Talukdar David | Shutterstock.com |2019
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