Doing Well by Doing Good

November 23, 2020

A new look at benefits accruing from Australia’s investments in agricultural R&D

The Fund has brought a spotlight on benefits to Australia and developing countries from international agricultural R&D since the launch of “Doing Well by Doing Good”, written by the Fund’s foundation director, Emeritus Prof Derek Tribe AO OBE, back in 1991. Since then, the Fund has commissioned further reviews of benefits accruing to Australia from development-assistance-related investment in international agricultural research. We are pleased to announce our plans for an update on “Doing Well by Doing Good” to highlight trends, risks and benefits and analyse how Australian investment in agricultural R&D has returned benefits both in Australia and overseas and how these may be impacted by the impacts of COVID-19. Our CEO, Dr Colin Chartres, and our Director of Capacity Building, Prof Shaun Coffey, explain below, with reference to related recent authoritative reports.

Earlier this year, one of us published a short review on the potential impacts of COVID-19 on global food security and the lessons arising for Australia. This highlighted the nature of future risks to Australian agriculture arising from pests and diseases that are likely to emerge as the world becomes increasingly populated, and our natural environments come under increasing pressure from agriculture and urbanisation. It also indicated that we need to be increasingly vigilant and to maintain investment in international agricultural R&D and linkages to overseas international and national agricultural and health agencies to minimise future risks.

Now, several authoritative analyses have been published that add context to this initial assessment and also point to how international agricultural R&D can be more effective. The changing global situation reflected in these reviews, summarised below, lead us to consider revising “Doing Well by Doing Good” report that the Crawford Fund published in 2013. The Task Force report focused on detailing the significant benefits that accrued to Australia from engagement in international agricultural R&D. From our perspective, engaging strongly in the international agricultural R&D system is imperative from the perspective of trade, access to new plant varieties, maintaining our plant, animal and human health biosecurity and combating and adapting to the impacts of climate change, not to mention the ethical issues of helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Yet all this can be forgotten in a highly competitive funding environment. Thus, the need to highlight trends, risks and benefits over the last decade.

From the perspective of poverty and undernourishment, a preliminary assessment ((Von Braun, 2020) suggests the pandemic may add up to 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020. This potentially increases the number of undernourished to 909 million by 2030. This sets back seriously several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In the Asia-Pacific region, an ACIAR report,  indicates that smallholder farmers and fishers have had to react deftly and creatively as the situation unfolds, responding within the constraints of their local circumstances. Women, girls and other vulnerable groups have been hardest hit. The ACIAR assessment noted several key vulnerabilities that exacerbate the impact of the current pandemic, including:

  • dependence on food imports
  • exposure to climate change and extreme weather events
  • patchy biosecurity, animal and plant health services
  • fragmented value chains and food system governance.

A further detailed study by CERES 2030 consortium analysed more than 100,000 contributions to the literature and found up to 90% of studies focused on new technologies and less than 10% examined existing agricultural practices to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work. Far too often farmers were not involved or consulted in the research process. Similarly, the policy, and institutional frameworks that could enhance uptake of innovation often just don’t exist. The report also highlighted the contribution of extension services (technical advice, input and ideas) make to the adoption of new approaches, yet noted that these services are routinely not funded as part of the research and development process. The bottom line is, however, that current investment (US$12 billion) in agriculture in the developing world is only half that needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by 2030.

A third study of major importance is that of the SoAR Foundation  which demonstrates that CGIAR research has a benefit-cost ratio of 10:1 for the US$60 billion invested predominantly in enhancing yields of staple food crops over the last 50 years. Researchers in the CGIAR network of agricultural research centres routinely involved farmers in the research and development process, and have a focus on systems integration. This type of research, however, is less attractive in universities and other large private research institutions where research professionals are encouraged to focus on larger grants and bigger projects and less on the applied research needed to support smallholder farmers at a local and regional level.

The goals of the Crawford Fund are to both actively contribute to the training and development of those involved in agriculture overseas and to highlight the benefits that accrue to them and to Australian farmers and consumers through well-targeted agricultural R&D. In our proposed review of Doing Well by Doing Good, we want to analyse the situation since 2012 in terms of how Australian investment in agricultural R&D has returned benefits both in Australia and overseas and how these may be impacted by the impacts of COVID-19. The benefits include access by Australian farmers to crop varieties and knowledge developed by the CGIAR. Some key benefits were outlined by our Chair, John Anderson with board member Craig Emerson and CEO Colin Chartres in a previous Crawford Fund opinion piece. “Australia Post-COVID19 – A Global Role in Agriculture and Health.”

At the same time, we think it is pertinent for the review to help identify the types of R&D and interventions that have the highest payoff. We have strong suspicions from the above assessments that these will include R&D that involves farmers from the outset, focuses on the entire supply chain, capacity development, advisory services and knowledge transfer as well as biosecurity issues and interventions that will increase production without further environmental impacts. The findings of the revision will not only help us demonstrate both the financial returns on Australian investment and associated soft power benefits, but also areas that it will be important for the Crawford Fund to prioritise in future years.