By Professor Andrew Campbell, CEO Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)
After Independence in 1999, Timor-Leste was among the poorest and most food-insecure countries in the world. Much of its population suffered annual food shortages during the ‘hungry season’, with 58 per cent of children affected by stunting, and infant mortality rates among the highest in the world.
Australian scientists, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), identified fundamental productivity problems with the main food crops in Timor-Leste. The lack of a national seed system meant that even if farmers were aware of improved varieties to plant, they were unable to access sufficient quality-assured seed. So ACIAR developed a research project in partnership with the new government of Timor-Leste that trialed and introduced new, higher-yielding varieties of the major food crops, and developed a national seed system to ensure ready availability across the country. This evolved into a significant development program co-funded by the Australian aid program called ‘Seeds of Life’. The program showed farmers how to incorporate new varieties of plants and crops into their farming systems, and how to manage them to substantially increase food production and minimise the need for imported seeds from Indonesia and elsewhere.
Over its 15 years, the Seeds for Life program has directly benefited more than 60 per cent of the Timorese population, delivering new varieties of the major food crops maize, rice, cassava, peanuts and sweet potato, and increasing yields by up to 138 per cent. The introduction of new seed varieties increased the value of farm production in 2014 by US$4 million, an extra US$100 for each household. Successor projects managed and funded by ACIAR are now working on the livestock component of Timor-Leste farming systems and looking at new crops to continue to improve food security and human nutrition and health in Timor-Leste.
Countries across the Indo-Pacific region are grappling with complex, intersecting challenges of how to increase food production under more variable and difficult climate conditions. Many developing countries, including our neighbours in the Pacific, are confronting the ‘triple burden’ of having significant sections of their population facing chronic hunger, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency, while growing numbers of people are consuming excess calories and suffering from obesity and associated non-communicable diseases. Our contemporary challenge is not just how to grow more food, but how to feed more people healthier food, more efficiently — using less land, water, energy and nutrients, while substantially reducing carbon emissions.
Agricultural science, and agricultural research closely linked to industry practice, is one of Australia’s great strengths. It is largely why the Australian agricultural sector has consistently delivered total factor productivity increases well above the rest of the economy, despite operating (without subsidies) in some of the world’s poorest farming soils, in the world’s most variable climate, from the tropics to the desert.
The quality and breadth of Australian agricultural science, and its long tradition of scientists working in partnership with farmers and industry, are such that Australia has much to offer countries in our region as they tackle increasingly pressing and complex food security challenges. Recognition of this potential led to the establishment of ACIAR by the Fraser government in 1982, as a specialist agency within the Foreign Affairs portfolio.
The drivers for the establishment of ACIAR in 1982 are arguably even more compelling today.
In developing countries, most people are employed in agriculture. Improving agricultural practices and increasing productivity is the fastest and most effective way to lift people out of poverty, and to improve food security, with consequent benefits for human health and economic development.
A fundamental driver of agricultural productivity is effective agricultural research. Australia is well placed to make a significant contribution to this huge task. Our agricultural science expertise and ACIAR’s strong partnership model offers countries in our region support and innovation to lift agricultural production sustainably. In doing so, we provide pathways to improved food security, equal access to resources and decision-making for women and increased market access for smallholders. Ultimately improving livelihoods and bringing lasting local solutions, choice and change to those who need it most.
For 35 years, ACIAR has played a key role in Australia’s development assistance program. This places us in a perfect position to contribute meaningfully to the Foreign Policy White Paper.
Professor Andrew Campbell is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Through a series of influential national roles, Andrew has been at the leading edge of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management science and policy in Australia for more than 30 years. He is recognised for his visionary work on the relationship between people and land, firstly in developing the concept of whole farm planning, and then through Landcare, as Australia’s first National Landcare Facilitator.