The COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020 is a global health and economic crisis that will disrupt the lives and livelihoods of diverse communities around the world for years to come. This includes almost 500 million smallholder farmers who produce food for half of the global population.
While the health crisis caused by the pandemic has yet to precipitate a global food crisis, food systems in the Indo-Pacific region are under significant pressure, often amplifying existing problems and weaknesses.
In response, we pivoted our research program to focus on these emerging threats. The research we support often takes a long-term view of solutions to improve livelihoods; however, the last quarter of 2019–20 saw all projects facing short-term challenges due to the pandemic. As part of our Business Continuity Plan, we intensively managed our in-country partnerships, including maintaining formal and informal communication through the response, re-engagement and recovery phases, and reassuring all major partners of our ongoing commitment to collaboration.
Adapting to change
Lockdowns and domestic and international travel restrictions meant that hands-on fieldwork was put on hold, as scientists, technicians and extension staff had to work from home. We quickly analysed the likely impacts of COVID-19 and the risks it posed to active research projects. The initial indication was that at least 25% of these projects needed substantive redesign, including potential adjustments to objectives, methodologies and partners.
This analysis and adaptive management is ongoing, to maximise productivity despite restrictions on travel for Australian scientists and their in-country partners. Amidst the disruption of the global pandemic, ACIAR-supported projects continued to yield benefits at individual, community and institutional levels in our partner countries. Diverse project results reflect our nine program areas: key agriculture sectors (Crops, Livestock Systems, Fisheries, Forestry and Horticulture), the science needed to sustain the resource base (Soil and Land Management, Water, and Climate Change) and disciplines that generate economic and social understanding (Agribusiness and Social Sciences).
Rapid assessment of food system security
A significant initiative of our Business Continuity Plan was to commission a multistage assessment of the current and emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food system risks and resilience across the Indo-Pacific region. The first stage, Food systems security, resilience and emerging risks in the Indo-Pacific in the context of COVID-19: a rapid assessment, was released in May 2020. This stage collated insights from our network of partners, researchers and advisers, including the Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Policy Advisory Council, to rapidly develop a picture of food system vulnerabilities across the region. The second- and third-stage assessments are scheduled for release in 2020–21.
Alumni boost pandemic-resilient agriculture
In March 2020, we moved quickly to design and launch a new program to enable our alumni to access support for small (up to $20,000) research projects, especially for short-term work related to COVID-19. The Alumni Research Support Facility initiative provided funding for 40 small projects that build resilience and respond to the emerging challenges that COVID-19 has placed on agricultural systems in our partner countries. The alumni are working hand-in-hand with Australian researchers to provide insights into how this pandemic is affecting local food security issues and to ensure the food future of the Indo-Pacific region. More than half of these researchers are women, ensuring that their voices and views will play a leading role in shaping the response to this pandemic.
Building new opportunities
ACIAR identified new opportunities ready to be scaled up in COVID-19-relevant areas like One Health, biosecurity and improving resilience in food supply chains, both within partner countries and between Australia and partner countries. This included discussions with potential co-investors, such as Canada’s International Development Research Centre, to look at how we can take promising One Health pilot research to scale to make a significant difference in reducing the risks of future pandemics arising from zoonotic diseases, with a particular focus on South-East Asia and the Pacific region.
Fresh vegetables delivered to Filipino communities affected by COVID-19
With support from ACIAR, the Visayas State University (VSU) in central Philippines distributed free vegetables to students and families in communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
VSU launched the initiative, ‘Enhancing vegetable production for COVID-19 mitigation’, to help ensure a steady supply of different vegetable crops in response to stresses on food supply caused by the pandemic.
This activity is part of an ACIAR–VSU project that was already helping farmers acquire accreditation to market ‘safe vegetables’ under the banner of the Philippines Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification. The project established model farms within VSU and other areas in Leyte where healthy vegetables are being produced with the safe use of pesticides.
Harvested vegetables from the ACIAR–VSU model farms were included in the food packs distributed by VSU to stranded students and families in neighbouring communities. By mid-May 2020, more than 2,000 food packs had been distributed.
‘This initiative was a quick-response activity, which was based on our experience after Typhoon Haiyan,’ said Dr Othello Capuno, VSU Vice President for Research and project coordinator for the ACIAR–VSU GAP project. ‘When the enhanced community quarantine was implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our access to our primary source of vegetables was restricted so we decided to adapt and implement this project.’
Several students at VSU had also been stranded in the dormitories. Most of them were unable to go back to their homes or conduct field research, due to travel restrictions from the enhanced community quarantine implemented from mid-March.
‘Healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are not readily available to us at this time. Canned goods and instant foods are very helpful, but there are also potential health risks from eating these kinds of food every day,’ said Blanche Franchette Llera, a 21-year-old graduate student studying horticulture.
ACIAR and VSU have long been partners in agricultural research. From keeping soils healthy to improving market access, ACIAR has been working with VSU for a decade to support farmers to produce greater quantities of high-quality and safe vegetables, ensuring food security and better incomes.