Sam Coggins

Sam Coggins

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:

  1. They developed simple soil sampling protocols that minimize the need for experienced soil surveyors.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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.

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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”.

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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 Coggins 5 1404Sam "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.

Sam Coggins 1 1402Amila (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.

Sam Coggins 3 1403Mr Premasiri ploughs hard-to-access rice fields with his treasaured buffalo. He let Sam have a go but he "was pretty hopeless at it"!