By Joe Vile and Sam Coggins
Did you know that Australian science and knowledge contributes to the diets of 400 million people worldwide?
We couldn’t help but agree when John Anderson spoke and Andrew Campbell wrote in support of our agricultural aid work. Here we add the voices of young Australians that have seen the benefits — both to smallholder farmers overseas and to Australians.
This financial year, Australia will spend ~0.08% of its federal budget on aid connected to agriculture, fisheries and forestry. It doesn’t sound like much but this little bit of vegemite goes a long way. Australia’s work in agriculture for international development delivers real benefits for Australians and our neighbours.
An investment in agriculture for development is an investment in feeding our hungry planet - and so much more. We’ve heard about the economic returns to Australian farmers, we’ve heard about the increased regional security and political bonds and we’ve heard about the power of agriculture in lifting people out of poverty.
As Bill Gates puts it: “It’s been proven that of all the interventions designed to reduce poverty, improving agricultural productivity is the best.”
So what are some of the stories behind these statistics?
Along with benefits for farmers overseas, there are also benefits for Australians seeking wider experiences in food and agriculture. We’ve both benefitted enormously from our work and volunteer stints overseas. We’ve built technical skills, people skills and had a lot of fun while doing it!
Stories from fellow Aussies match ours. Two-way exchange with farmers doesn’t always have to be formal or serious. Here are a few of our favourite ag enthusiasts having a crack:
1. Craig Birchall is an agronomist, researcher and lecturer at the University of New England who works with smallholder farmers in Myanmar. Craig is pictured here with farmers from Ma Kyee Kan village. While discussing nutrient leaching, the farmers pointed out that plant roots don’t penetrate as far as Craig was indicating. When they got to digging soil pits, they found that the farmers were correct in some places. The roots in some villages hit a compacted soil layer resulting from decades and perhaps centuries of cultivation. Craig and the farmers discussed options to solve this issue like introducing tyned implements rather than discs.
2.Take Casey Onus from Univeristy of New England, who has been getting photos of chickpeas in Argentina in her Twitter inbox! She says: “Giving your time to others overseas can be as simple as responding to messages on Twitter. At times we can forget how lucky we are to have such great opportunities in Australia, so I find it rewarding being able to help farmers from across the globe with various questions. I've included a screenshot from where I gave some advice to Ivan in Argentina last year and he kept in touch to let me know how his crop of chickpeas went”. It’s never been easier to cross the world to share our agricultural expertise.
3.Erin Pope from the Eastern Wheatbelt in Western Australia spent time in Ethiopia in 2016 looking at how basic mechanisation could improve the efficiency of smallholder farmers. Erin learned a good lesson on how local farmers often see their needs differently to development practitioners. “We arrived at a trial site to hold a demonstration day with a farmer group, but word had spread and our group of 15 farmers turned into half a village. When asked for feedback on the machinery, one farmer turns to us and says ‘it might make the work easier, but it makes more noise than my son. I like my oxen.’”
4. Max Barot is an Australian vet who works with smallholder livestock farmers in South-east Asia and the Pacific. Max says “Our generation will face their own unique challenges and hurdles to feed the world in a safe, fair and sustainable way. As a young veterinarian these experiences are incredibly invaluable, through engaging and understanding different farming systems and developing relationships and partnerships. Some of these things can’t be taught, they must be experienced!”
5. Cooper Schouten says “Put people before things, decentralise, enable and empower those poorer and weaker, value and work on what matters to them and learn from communities rather than striving to always teach. Aim to reach the village, not the moon!” We love these humble words from PhD candidate Cooper, pictured here with a fellow bee farmer in Papua New Guinea.
These passionate young people are just a few of the many Aussie agriculturalists making a difference at home and abroad. There have never been so many opportunities to join them. Click here for a compilation of opportunities, featuring the recently launched Farmers Without Borders.
So get out there, and jump into a soil pit with a fellow farmer overseas!
Joe Vile is a Policy Officer at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. Prior to getting involved in Australian water reform, Joe worked with smallholder farmers in the Vietnam Mekong Delta to improve production in rice-shrimp rotation systems in the face of climate challenges.
Sam Coggins is a Graduate Research Officer at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Sam loves soil and is dedicated to supporting smallholder farmers.
Are you an agriculture enthusiast from Australia keen to work with farmers in developing countries? Here is a list of funded opportunities for you to have a go at it.
Joseph Sul and Simon Quigley working together for the benefit of beef producers in Vanuatu.
- Short overseas experiences (~3-6 weeks)
- ACIAR Farmers Without Borders (anybody). Australian farmers working in overseas research projects with farmers, producer groups, rural businesses and ACIAR partner organisations.
- Crawford Fund International Agricultural Student Awards (undergrad, Master’s and PhD students). Bursaries for Australian students to gain experience and expertise overseas ‘in the field’.
- New Colombo Plan Mobility Program (undergrad students). Funding to Australian universities and consortia to support undergraduate students in semester-based or short-term study, internships, mentorships, practicums and research in the Indo-Pacific.
Emily Lamberton working a rice field at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines with the support of a Crawford Fund International Agricultural Student Award.
- Longer overseas experiences (~3-24 months)
- Australian Volunteers for International Development (anybody >18 years). Supports skilled Australians to volunteer overseas to contribute to locally-driven, sustainable development.
- New Colombo Plan Scholarship (undergrad students). Scholarships for Australian undergraduates to work and study in the Indo-Pacific for ~6-18 months.
- Endeavour Leadership Program (anybody >18 years). Supports Australians to undertake a global mobility experience, within their study, research, or professional field.
- United Nations Internship (undergrad, Master’s and PhD students and recent graduates). First-hand impression of the United Nations working environment.
- World Bank Internship (undergrad, Master’s and PhD students). First-hand exposure to the mission and work of the World Bank Group in international development.
- Australia-based experiences (12-24 months)
- ACIAR Graduate program (Bachelor’s graduates). Non-ongoing work experience opportunity for recent Bachelor’s graduates to taste and contribute to research that benefits farmers in Australia and developing countries.
- Conference scholarships
- Crawford Fund Conference Scholarship (undergrad, Master’s and PhD students). Scholarship to attend the Crawford Fund’s food security conference at Parliament House as well as workshops with mentors experienced in international agricultural research.
- Chicago Council Next Generation Delegation (undergrad, Master’s and PhD students). Scholarship to attend the Chicago-Council’s Global Food Security Symposium in Washington DC.
- Bayer Youth Ag Summit (anybody 18-25 years). Brings together 100 young leaders in agriculture from all over the world once every two years.
- Thought For Food Challenge, Academy and Summit (anybody). Annual competition, educational program and summit created to support and connect aspiring social entrepreneurs focussed on food and agriculture.
Last updated: 12 December 2018
It’s hard to cross a road in the Philippines - let alone create high resolution soil maps. Yet Australian and Filipino researchers have found a way, distributing maps and techniques to agricultural professionals in the archipelago nation.
The land suitability maps are helping rural people in the Philippines create sustainable livelihoods, grow nutritious food for their communities and prevent water pollution, flash flooding and landslides. For example, the Cabulig River gorge in the north of Mindanao Island were identified as a priority area for agroforestry following analysis of the maps with local villagers, farmers, hydropower companies, plantation companies as well as local, provisional and national government representatives.
The ACIAR project is an insightful case study for how to make good science work in a partner country. The Australian and Filipino researchers recently published their methods and learnings in a paper in the journal Geoderma. We recently chatted with Project Leader and CSIRO scientist Dr Anthony Ringrose-Voase to clarify the lessons learned:
1. Leap-frog practical limitations
Soil labs, soil data and experienced soil surveyors are scarce in the Philippines. The intuitive solution would be to “build from scratch” – slowly develop standard soil labs, grind out conventional soil surveys and teach basic soil and statistical knowledge. However, the Australian and Filipino researchers combined their minds and the latest technology to implement a more effective and fast-acting approach:
- They developed simple soil sampling protocols that minimize the need for experienced soil surveyors.
- They purchased and calibrated the latest soil analysis tools that can rapidly collect soil data without the need for chemical laboratories to analyse the majority of the samples.
- They created user-friendly software programs that automate highly technical processes. This enables local land managers to focus on using the soil maps (not just developing them).
The researchers used technology and innovation to ‘leapfrog’ immovable practical challenges without compromising research quality.
Remar Lozarito from Claveria Local Government Unit working on land use plans with villagers from Barangay (village) Malagana during a participatory land use planning workshop using information from the soil survey of Cabulig Watershed, Nov 2016.
2. Make the most of labour affordability
We often think about the practical challenges for developing countries but there are also practical opportunities. As Anthony explained, “in Australia we are forced to do capital-intensive, low labour science but in developing countries you can flip that and do labour-intensive, low capital science”. For example, visible-near infrared (vis-NIR) spectroscopy and mid infrared (MIR) spectroscopy are two cutting-edge soil analysis tools. These gadgets can rapidly measure many important soil properties (e.g. clay content, pH, total Carbon, total Nitrogen, CEC) but not everything (e.g. plant-available Phosphorus). MIR is generally more accurate than vis-NIR but Australian soil scientists mostly use vis-NIR because it requires less labour. Labour costs are less limiting in the Philippines so the researchers were able to use MIR. This delivered accurate results, rural jobs and an opportunity to promote workplace health and safety.
Dr Mark Thomas, CSIRO, accessing a remote area of the Cabulig Watershed in Northern Mindanao on the slopes of Mt Sumagaya for soil survey. Nov 2011.
3. Give ownership to locals
There is always a risk that partner country organisations will not implement the findings of ACIAR projects. The Australian and Filipino researchers involved a wide range of farmers, government organisations and extension professionals from the beginning of the project. These locals were keen to utilise the results because they were given ownership of the project and its success. In Anthony’s words, “when people have busted a gut to create these soil maps they are more likely to use them”.
Dr Gerard Grealish describing and sampling a soil profile in San Nicolas near Jasaan in the Cabulig Watershed, Mar 2012.
My mate Amila was puzzled. I had just asked him if he ever gets sick of eating rice. I was certainly sick of it. I was halfway through a semester abroad in Sri Lanka and would have sold my soccer boots for a juicy steak. We sat in silence for a few minutes, riding the bus home to the student hostel. Eventually, Amila responded. "If I give up rice, what else do I eat?"
Before undertaking my semester of study in Sri Lanka, I was fortunate enough to complete a three-week internship at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) headquarters in the Philippines. IRRI is the largest non-profit agricultural research institute in Asia. On my first day, my supervisor Ann Yom Steel told me that it is the most important organization in the world. Ann might be biased given that she is IRRI's head of strategic planning. Having said that, after glimpsing the work that IRRI does in the Philippines and the impact that it has in Sri Lanka, I reckon she could be right.
Sam "stoked" to be in a photo with the world's longest running field experiment. Three rice crops have been harvested from the same plot of land almost every year since 1962. The environment remains healthy and productive.
IRRI serves rice farmers, which includes some of the poorest people in the world. The research centre has delivered more than 1000 improved rice varieties to 78 countries, trained more than 15,000 rice scientists, secured more than 127,000 rice varieties in the International Rice Genebank and developed an affordable irrigation strategy that cuts water wastage and soil methane emissions by up to 50%. IRRI’s plant breeders, scientists, administrators, networkers, economists and extension professionals continue to work passionately to empower farmers to sustainably grow more high-quality rice using less land, agrochemicals and water.
In Sri Lanka I met Mr H. M. Kudaa Banda, one of the many farmers that benefit from IRRI’s work. Mr Banda (70) has cultivated his solitary hectare of terraced rice fields for the last 52 years. With the help of rice varieties developed by IRRI, Mr Banda supports his family, sustains Sri Lankan culture and boosts food security in his community.
Amila (left) and Sam (right) touring the rice village of their other mate Chamara (centre) in Central Sri Lanka. The three of them studied agricultural science together at the University of Peradeniya.
IRRI not only empowers the farmers that grow rice but also the 3.5 billion people that rely on it as a staple food. For example, IRRI is working to support the world’s 2 billion anaemia sufferers by boosting the iron content of rice. I was frequently reminded of this pioneering research during my time in Sri Lanka. On the bus ride to the student hostel, my well-nourished Australian leg rested next Amila’s malnourished one. The sight sticks in my mind. I hope that Amila will be one of the many people to benefit from IRRI’s research.
No, rice research will not overcome all of the world's challenges. Poverty, environmental degradation and malnutrition are complex problems. Tackling them is hard. Even so, I believe that there is reason to be optimistic and to celebrate the meaningful contribution being made by IRRI and broader international agricultural research. I was inspired by what I saw; my experience motivated me to commit to a career in agriculture for international development. A genuine thank you to the New Colombo Plan Scholarship as well as Matthew Morell and everyone else at IRRI. I really am grateful for the opportunity that you gave me.
Mr Premasiri ploughs hard-to-access rice fields with his treasaured buffalo. He let Sam have a go but he "was pretty hopeless at it"!