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CEO review

The 2019–20 financial year began with the world enjoying historically high levels of aggregate food supply after good seasons in major food-producing regions. It ended with a global pandemic (the sixth major zoonotic disease since 1980) threatening to precipitate food security crises in vulnerable regions everywhere.

As we continue to grapple with the multifaceted and far-reaching implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the reasons for which ACIAR was established are more compelling than ever: Australia’s deep and broad scientific expertise in sustainable and resilient food systems is a strategic national asset as we work with partners across the region to tackle the intersecting challenges of health security, food security, water security and biosecurity—which all feed ultimately into our own national security.

The purpose of ACIAR is to contribute to reducing poverty and improving the livelihoods of many in the Indo-Pacific region through more productive and sustainable agriculture emerging from collaborative international research.

The work of ACIAR, targeted at the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors, is part of Australia’s broader development assistance program, supporting research collaboration while emphasising individual and institutional capacity building and private sector-led development.

As set out in the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982, our core business is to:

  • commission research to identify and find solutions to the agricultural problems of developing countries
  • communicate the results of that research
  • establish and fund training schemes and development activities related to those research programs
  • fund international agricultural research centres.

I am very confident that in 2019–20, notwithstanding the biggest disruption in a generation, ACIAR delivered very effectively against its statutory mandate.

Despite the disruptive influence of the pandemic in every facet of our operation, and the very heavy impact of the COVID-19 disease in some of our partner countries, 2019–20 was a successful year of innovation, consolidation and achievement for ACIAR.

ACIAR objectives

ACIAR works towards six high-level objectives, as articulated in the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027.

Our research partnerships build knowledge to underpin three crucial development objectives.

  • Improving food security and reducing poverty among smallholder farmers and rural communities
  • Managing natural resources and producing food more sustainably, adapting to climate variability and mitigating climate change
  • Enhancing human nutrition and reducing risks to human health

Three objectives ensure that our work is equitable, inclusive and empowering.

  • Improving gender equity and empowerment of women and girls
  • Fostering more inclusive agrifood and forestry value chains, engaging the private sector where possible
  • Building scientific and policy capability within our partner countries

Our objectives also align with and contribute to the broader goals of the Australian Government development assistance program and the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2020 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

ACIAR builds and fosters science and policy partnerships to achieve its objectives. Through these partnerships, we grow the knowledge base for sustainable farming and food systems, which in turn improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers, fishers and forest growers in our partner countries. Our work in 2019–20 was delivered through three modalities:

  • multilateral collaborations and co-investments
  • bilateral country research partnerships
  • capacity building programs.

Multilateral collaborations and co-investments

Through multilateral collaborations and co-investment programs, ACIAR works with development partners to pursue shared goals. During 2019–20, ACIAR provided funding to support, on behalf of Australia, about 25 multilateral and regional collaborations.

Chief among our multilateral collaborations is support to CGIAR—the world’s largest agricultural innovation network. The CGIAR comprises 15 international agricultural research centres dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food and nutrition security for human health and improving natural resource systems and ecosystem services. It hosts the most important gene banks for the world’s major food crops. As part of its mandated role, ACIAR has managed Australia’s contribution to CGIAR since 1982. Accordingly, Australia has high-level representation on the CGIAR governance bodies, which in 2019–20 included the System Council and its Strategic Impact Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, and the System Management Board. Australia’s expertise in, and commitment to, international agricultural research is reflected in ACIAR staff and Australian research leaders being involved in the highest levels of governance of the CGIAR system.

CGIAR donors work together to deliver greatest impact. One current example is The Crops to End Hunger Initiative, which aims to improve and modernise global crop breeding programs. Australia has provided significant leadership to the initiative, which was implemented in 2019–20 after two years of planning.

CGIAR delivers significant economic and social returns on investment. Over its lifetime, the average return on investment for every US$1 provided to CGIAR is evaluated at US$17. The outcomes of CGIAR investment contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and advance the interests of developed and developing countries alike. Benefits of CGIAR wheat research, for example, range from US$2.2 billion to US$3.1 billion per year—up to a 100-fold return on investment.

Australian agricultural industries have benefited from CGIAR research, with research outputs keeping Australian farmers competitive in world markets, by increasing yields and/or reducing costs. For example, CGIAR germplasm has been incorporated into, and greatly improved Australian sorghum and chickpea varieties. Research collaboration with the CGIAR, through exchange of livestock germplasm, has led improvements in the productivity of Australia’s livestock sector.

The CGIAR is currently undertaking an historic reform process (One CGIAR) to bring the 15 centres into a much better integrated and more cohesive governance framework to build on a unique comparative advantage. ACIAR actively contributed to the reform process throughout 2019–20.

During 2019–20, ACIAR also continued its engagement with international agricultural research centres and networks outside the CGIAR system:

  • The Pacific Community (SPC)
  • Asia–Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI), which ACIAR chaired in 2019–20
  • World Vegetable Centre (WorldVeg)
  • Centre for Agricultural Biosciences International (CABI)
  • Australia Africa Universities Network (AAUN).

Co-investment alliances were also built upon to facilitate programs with:

  • Coconut Genetic Resources Network
  • Pacific Plant Biosecurity Partnership
  • Alliance for Agricultural Research and Development for Food Security (an initiative between ACIAR, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and the Crawford Fund)
  • Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) (a partnership with the Canadian International Development Research Centre)
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

ACIAR worked closely with governments and institutions in the Pacific region to participate in the Pacific Week of Agriculture and Forestry, held in Samoa in September 2019. The event was an intensive week of meetings, workshops and displays aligned to the theme, ‘Enhanced Partnerships for Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry Systems in the Pacific’. The forum provides a valuable opportunity to engage with many partners to inform our program in the Pacific region. ACIAR will have a significant role working with partners to develop the 2021 Pacific Week of Agriculture as a premier regional event.

Bilateral country research partnerships

Our research program brokers and manages bilateral research partnerships in partner countries to address challenges to productivity and sustainability for smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters throughout the Indo-Pacific region. During 2019–20, ACIAR:

  • managed a portfolio of more than 200 ongoing or new projects
  • worked with almost 500 organisations from Australia and partner countries.

While the research we support takes a longer-term view of solutions to improve livelihoods, inevitably in the last quarter of 2019–20, all projects faced short-term challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the ACIAR Business Continuity Plan, we intensively managed our partnerships in-country, 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.

A significant initiative of our Business Continuity Plan was to commission very quickly a multi-stage assessment of current and emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food system risks and resilience across the Indo-Pacific region. The first phase, ‘Food System Security, Resilience and Emerging Risks in the Indo-Pacific in the context of COVID-19: a rapid assessment’, was released in May 2020. This phase collated insights from the ACIAR network of partners, researchers and advisors, including the Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Policy Advisory Council, to rapidly develop a picture of food systems vulnerabilities across the region. The second stage assessment, led by CSIRO and the Australian National University, was a series of detailed studies based on Papua New Guinea, Pacific island countries, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and the Philippines to identify specific vulnerabilities, impacts and opportunities for action. The findings of the second phase will be released in November 2020.

This work suggests that there are serious risks that the COVID-19 health crisis will precipitate food security crises in our region, at least at sub-national levels. The third phase of this work will identify intervention options for ACIAR and our partners.

ACIAR analysed likely COVID-19 impacts and risks on active research projects. The initial indication was that at least 25% of projects would need substantive redesign, including potential adjustment to objectives, methodologies and partners. This analysis and adaptive management is ongoing to maximise productivity despite restrictions on travel for Australian scientists and their on-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 the program areas in which ACIAR invests—the key sectors of crops, fisheries, forestry, horticulture and livestock; sciences that support the resource base (soil and land management, and water and climate), and the science to generate economic and social benefit (agribusiness and social sciences).

During 2019–20, ACIAR started planning a new research program on agriculture’s contribution to climate change, and opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors in our region. The Climate Change Program commenced in September 2020. In 2019–20, ACIAR was vice-chair of the Global Research Alliance for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases and will assume the chair role in 2020–21.

ACIAR consolidated its partnership with DFAT on the Research for One Health Systems Strengthening program during 2019–20, which focuses on the intersection of animal, human and environmental health to develop effective integration across the human and animal health regulatory systems, surveillance, diagnostics and response. The COVID-19 pandemic, arising from a zoonotic disease (a disease caused by a ‘spillover’ virus from animals to humans) highlights the importance of One Health. With its network of highly relevant partnerships and its track record as a trusted science broker with deep in-house expertise, ACIAR is a regional leader in One Health research that is closely linked to policy and development objectives.

With more than 200 active projects throughout the Indo-Pacific region during 2019–20, it is beyond the scope of this review to summarise the impacts and results of all ACIAR-supported projects. However, by way of example, some notable project achievements are highlighted as follows.

  • A project in Papua New Guinea, led by Dr Geoff Gurr of Charles Sturt University, broadened the knowledge of Bogia coconut syndrome and will inform protocols for the safe movement of coconuts. The lethal yellowing disease affects coconut and banana, and threatens both industries in the Pacific and Australia. The project has educated stakeholders about host range, vectors and possible modes of spread, as well as diagnostics for the disease. The new knowledge is timely as Papua New Guinea prepares to move its international coconut gene bank from Madang to Milne Bay, and as the demand for planting material of high-quality varieties grows rapidly. Results suggest that the disease is not seed borne, although the transfer of sprouted seed with green leaf attached is a major mode of transmission.
  • In Tonga, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries (MAFFF) imported 1600 citrus trees (various cultivars) and 655 mixed species fruit trees to distribute to households and villages across all the key islands in Tonga. A project led by Professor Steven Underhill of the University of the Sunshine Coast had tangible impact on Tonga’s agricultural policy by providing confidence in the ability to grow fruit trees commercially and the need to diversify and enhance locally-sourced fruits. This coincided with the first commercial harvest of ACIAR-funded citrus orchards located on the Nishi farm on Tongatapu.
  • Australian scientists and engineers working in the Murray–Darling Basin developed fish passages (concrete staircases) to enable fish to swim upstream, through or around structures such as dams and weirs. This technology is now being adapted to the much more challenging context of the regulated rivers in South-East Asia, with the Xayaburi Corporation constructing the largest fishway in the world on the Mekong River in Laos. A project led by Professor Lee Baumgartner of Charles Sturt University has pioneered new methodologies to monitor fish passage in tropical river systems, in partnership with Xayaburi Corporation and the Lao government.
  • A tool to aid risk assessments in wet markets in Vietnam has been developed through a project led Dr Fred Unger of the International Livestock Research Institute. The Food Safety Performance Tool developed by the ‘SafePork’ project will be promoted to ensure a consistent approach to risk assessments in wet/informal market systems and is relevant across east Asia.
  • Improved biosecurity practices and a new vegetable supply chain has tripled the income of tomato farmers in Myanmar. A project led by Dr Gordon Rogers of Applied Horticultural Research enabled access to high-value markets and farmers from Taungobyi village in Southern Shan State delivered 900 kg of tomatoes to retail markets in Yangon. Grown in accordance with Good Agricultural Practices protocols, ensuring crops are grown and handled to safe standards and in a way that excludes food-borne diseases and pathogens, the farmers were able to sell their tomatoes for 34 cents/kg, much higher than the typical farm gate price of 10 cents/kg. The project is part of a wider effort across Myanmar and Vietnam to help farmers maximise returns for their produce and supply vegetables to more profitable, but more demanding, urban markets.
  • A meta-analysis of thousands of comparisons between conventional and conservation agriculture practices in South Asia, incorporating data from large ACIAR-supported projects on conservation agriculture in the region, was published in Nature Sustainability. The review found that in most systems and environments, conservation agriculture practices (many of which were developed in Australia) benefit farmers and the environment, even when only partly adopted. The conclusions were consistent with results of much earlier ACIAR projects in the Middle East in the 1990s.

Capacity building

Our Capacity Building Program identifies and establishes opportunities for individuals and institutions in partner countries to boost leadership, technical, policy and management skills in agricultural research-for-development.

In March 2020, ACIAR moved quickly to design and launch a new program to enable ACIAR alumni to access support for small (up to A$20,000) research projects, especially for short-term COVID-19 relevant work. The Alumni Research Support Facility initiative provided funding for 40 small projects that build resilience and respond to the emerging challenges that COVID-19 placed on agricultural systems in our partner countries.

Many of the activities within the ACIAR Capacity Building Program continued during 2019–20, however substantial modifications to online delivery were required as the impact of the pandemic intensified.

  • The Meryl Williams Fellowship, targeting women in research leadership, was launched in February 2020, in Sydney. Dr Meryl Williams attended the launch and met the inaugural cohort of 20 Fellows from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The Meryl Williams Fellowship is a key initiative in the ACIAR Gender Policy and Strategy, complementing our leadership (alongside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian International Development Research Centre in particular) in boosting gender research support across the CGIAR. It is delivered by the University of New England in partnership with Coffey (International Development). It aims to help more women achieve and succeed in positions of leadership in international agricultural research by strengthening their leadership skills, confidence and networks. Candidates undertake a 15-month study program, which was modified from a combination of face-to-face and online delivery, to entirely online delivery. Applications for the second cohort of the Meryl Williams Fellowship opened on 1 May 2020.
  • The first cohort of the John Allwright Fellowship Executive Leadership program graduated in an on-line certificate ceremony hosted by the University of New England in June 2020. There were 25 inaugural Fellows who completed a 15-month tailor-made program designed to give emerging scientists the skills needed to become effective leaders in their home countries. The executive leadership program adds value to our significant investment in John Allwright Fellows by equipping them with leadership and management skills to complement their postgraduate journey in Australia.

The year ahead

The ACIAR portfolio of applied research targets long-term challenges: food security, water security and biosecurity, climate change, equity of opportunities for men and women farmers, and access to opportunities to improve livelihoods for the 500 million smallholder farmers who produce food for half of the world’s population. Addressing these challenges remains as urgent as ever. However, for the year ahead, our attention is understandably focused on the steps to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work of ACIAR and its partners will be vital in the next few years, to equip smallholder farmers in the Indo-Pacific region with the knowledge, skills, technology and frameworks to restore disrupted production systems and value chains across the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. In some regions disrupted supply chains may lead to greater investment in revitalising local food production, creating opportunities for ACIAR partners. The breadth of the ACIAR research portfolio, reflecting the world-leading capabilities of the Australian agricultural innovation system, is a strategic soft power asset—from the sciences that support productivity, biosecurity and sustainability, to the disciplines that support the development of effective value chains and adoption processes.

In 2020–21, we will be reshaping our traditional operating models that have depended heavily on international travel by Australian scientists to partner countries, extensive regional travel within partner countries, and travel to Australia for training by scientists from partner countries. While a global crisis accelerates this remodelling, it also presents new opportunities to experiment with and identify new technologies and new modalities to achieve our purpose more efficiently and effectively.

In delivering on our far-sighted mandate, I am lucky to be leading an organisation staffed by very talented and committed people, in Australia and our 10 country offices, who are doing an outstanding job in challenging circumstances. We are guided in this work by eminent experts on the Commission for International Agricultural Research, and I would like to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Commissioners who retired in 2019–20, in particular the Chair Mr Don Heatley, Ms Catherine Marriott and Professor Gabrielle Persley.