News: Our Conference Scholar Reflections from … The Australian Capital Territory, October 2018

The Crawford Fund has a number of programs to encourage the next generation in international agriculture for development – in their studies, careers and in volunteering.

There’s our opportunities in volunteering for projects overseas through the Australian Volunteers Program; our work with Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (RAID), and our special international student awards to enable students to be involved in overseas projects as part of university study.

Our conference scholarship program started in 2010 in the hope that by experiencing the Crawford Fund conference and network, our special program of activities around the conference and being mentored by inspirational experienced researchers, young researchers would be inspired and energised to be more involved.

Our competitive Conference Scholarships are offered to young people with a genuine interest in international agricultural research and development to attend the conference and a special set of activities that we have developed since the program commenced in 2010. Our conference scholar alumni now stands at almost 270.

One of the requirements of the scholarship is that each scholar provides us with a reflection on their experience and we will be providing those reflections over the coming weeks, grouped by State.

Once again, we would like to thank our wonderful mentors who volunteer their time and offer valuable guidance, support and insights to the scholars throughout the conference. Our scholars’ mentors are listed with each scholar’s report.

Fives scholars from the Australian Capital Territory attended the 2018 Crawford Fund conference – four supported by our ACT Committee and one supported by Plant Health Australia.

ACT Committee Sponsored Scholars

Annamaria De Rosa, The Australian National University

“It was an inspiring and motivating experience to learn about the challenges faced by researchers and policy makers in international agriculture and it introduced us to a welcoming and encouraging network driving change and keen to cultivate and empower the next generation.”

Demi Gamble, The Australian National University and CSIRO Agriculture & Food

“One of the main points I absorbed through the diversity of speakers and refreshing, novel approaches each posed to improve future global food security, is that we will rely on collaborative effort from a wide range of disciplines in order to achieve this monumental goal. I particularly liked The Honorable John Anderson’s passionate argument that each of us may not necessarily need to solve world hunger as an individual, but work on advancing our own field to collectively, as a global effort, work towards this goal in unity.” 

Evie Packett, CSIRO/The Australian National University

“The conference speakers did a fantastic job outlining the successes of the Green Revolution in reducing global starvation. Speakers then highlighted the next frontier for agricultural researchers to target – those still starving, completing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and increasing the nutritional content of food. While fewer people around the world are starving, scores are still micronutrient deficient. The conference explained to me that agricultural research needs to explore food quality, not just quantity, in the future. This century, countries can also have double health burdens, such as obesity and micronutrient deficiencies and solutions will need to holistically tackle both. “

Joseph Vile, Murray-Darling Basin Authority

“Professor Robyn Alders highlighted the challenges that women face in getting involved in international agricultural work… I found it really encouraging and also important to see so many young women in the Scholars group. They were able to get first-hand advice from Professor Alders about entering the industry… almost half of farmers worldwide are women, and many of them take chief responsibility for their family’s nutrition. We need more women involved in the research, policy development, project design and extension that will help lift their sustainability, productivity and health. We cannot do this with only men in the driver’s seat.”

Plant Health Australia Sponsored Scholar

Jenny Shanks, Plant Health Australia

“In addition to the conference I attended the two half-day scholar workshops. The workshops gave insight into the Crawford Fund, ACIAR and RAID. I was encouraged to hear the applied aspects in past and current ACIAR projects. This tapped into my thoughts around bridging the gap between short and long-term goals and sustainability, through education and training. The discussions, introductions and networking opportunities between my mentor and fellow scholars and other attendees have broadened my view on agriculture and food security.”

ACT COMMITTEE

Annamaria De Rosa, The Australian National University

Mentor: Tim Reeves, Crawford Fund Board

The Scholar Program for the 2018 Crawford Conference “Reshaping agriculture for better nutrition – The Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus” has offered many benefits. It was an inspiring and motivating experience to learn about the challenges faced by researchers and policy makers in international agriculture and it introduced us to a welcoming and encouraging network driving change and keen to cultivate and empower the next generation.

The scholar days’ activities provided us with opportunities to network and meet other agriculture students and scientists and share ideas with leading personalities in international agriculture through the mentoring program. It actively facilitated making connections and that in itself is an invaluable experience. I am extremely grateful of the time and great advice which was provided to me by my mentor, Prof Tim Reeves. During the scholar days we were also presented with information on how to achieve our aspirations to enter or progress in the international agriculture world. We heard stories and advice about volunteering and working in developing countries and learnt about some career options both in the public and private sectors.

The main conference day at Parliament House was a unique experience. We heard some background from Prof Andrew Campbell and Prof Glenn Denning on the key agricultural challenges we face in a new green revolution; defined by constraints in agricultural land, increases in productivity, needing to be climate smart and also with a focus on improving food quality. The urgency and devastating impacts resulting from poor food nutrition and unhealthy diets were highlighted by Dr Alessandro Demaio and Dr Jessica Fanzo. They presented some terrifying statistics on the effects of poor food quality, leading to a global malnutrition epidemic where roughly half of the planet is affected by some form of malnutrition and 22 per cent of the world’s children under five years of age are stunted in growth and brain development. Also, a topic of discussion, were the obesity rates which are rising all over the world and the urgent need for better education around healthy diets.

Addressing these nutrition challenges were a range of interesting projects aiming to improve nutritional quality of diets globally. Joanna Kane-Potaka spoke about the importance of diversifying staples and promoted the nutritional benefits of super-foods such as pearl millet and sorghum. Tania Paul and Philmah Seta Waken reported on their efforts to increase the use of traditional and more-nutritious vegetables within communities in Papua New Guinea. A/Prof Alex Johnson talked about the iron-biofortified rice developed in his lab, providing a great example of how biotechnology can be used to tackle the world’s most prevalent micronutrient deficiency.

I am very grateful to have had the chance to attend this wonderful conference, it was stimulating, it offered amazing examples of research responding to current nutrition challenges and it further fuelled my enthusiasm for agriculture.

Demi Gamble, The Australian National University and CSIRO Agriculture & Food

Mentor: Tony Fischer, Crawford Fund ACT Committee

The Crawford Fund Conference I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend was one of the most valuable conferences I have attended to date. The topic that directed our discussions – ‘Reshaping Agriculture for Better Nutrition’ – stimulated much debate and collaboration, and, for a niche-driven student such as myself, opened my mind to the possibilities of scientific research. The diversity of speakers was extensive, highlighting not only the extent of the global issues of food security at hand, but also the enormity of possibilities posed to us to improve our future through research, development, policy, legislation, education and initiatives.

As someone who is so consumed in pure, fundamental science, I was particularly intrigued by the policies and practices that have been developed downstream to scientific research in global applications directed at improving agricultural practice and food production. I was particularly amazed by the Smart Food initiative – encouraging the production and consumption of foods that are sustainable nutritiously, environmentally and economically for farmers. I appreciate that this challenge is enormous and riddled with trade-offs, but to see a group that are actively working towards this was extremely inspiring.

Of course, as a fellow science-enthusiast, I was excited by the achievements presented by Associate Professor Alex Johnson in his development of staple cereals biofortified with essential minerals that are common culprits for malnutrition in Africa. Seeing how fundamental scientific research can lead to the production of nutrient enriched foods to directly improve malnutrition in developing countries was certainly motivating, and I’m excited to watch this field expand further.

One of the main points I absorbed through the diversity of speakers and refreshing, novel approaches each posed to improve future global food security, is that we will rely on collaborative effort from a wide range of disciplines in order to achieve this monumental goal. I particularly liked The Honorable John Anderson’s passionate argument that each of us may not necessarily need to solve world hunger as an individual, but work on advancing our own field to collectively, as a global effort, work towards this goal in unity.

I could go on, but these are some of the main messages that struck home for me. I was delighted to see how action-forward the topics discussed at the conference were, something that is lacking in scientific conferences that are considerably more reserved and conservative. As such, I look forward to attending future conferences by the Crawford Fund as an integral way to follow the international movement to achieving global food security.

Evie Packett, CSIRO Land and Water/The Australian National University

Mentor: Robyn Johnson, ACIAR

The Crawford Fund’s 2018 Conference revealed the complexities of managing the agriculture, food, nutrition and health nexus to me. As a student and professional working within the water management space, I deal with considerations of agricultural irrigation and water efficiency on farms. However, this conference broadened my understanding of the agricultural space and put my work as a hydrologist in a wider context.

I was able to ask other agricultural research experts how they see water management in relation to their work.  This enabled me to reveal links between disciplines. For example, one of the answers I received, was that wastewater management needed to be done more effectively so that treated water could help support the growth of healthy foods. I was able to translate the perspectives of other disciplines on water management back to my colleagues and think about how my future research could assist agricultural goals.

The conference speakers did a fantastic job outlining the successes of the Green Revolution in reducing global starvation. Speakers then highlighted the next frontier for agricultural researchers to target – those still starving, completing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and increasing the nutritional content of food. While fewer people around the world are starving, scores are still micronutrient deficient. The conference explained to me that agricultural research needs to explore food quality, not just quantity, in the future. This century, countries can also have double health burdens, such as obesity and micronutrient deficiencies and solutions will need to holistically tackle both. 

Finding integrated solutions was a theme that cross-cut the conference. Speakers emphasised that future research needed to take holistic systems-thinking approaches in order to find solutions to nexus problems. Solutions in agricultural challenges have to be implementable, with an understanding of how the real world works. For example, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics’ (ICRISAT) programme focuses on delivering ‘Smart Food’ – healthy for consumers, good for the planet and economically viable for farmers. This way they ensure that their research solutions deal with the varied demands of the SDGs and can be translated into practical action. The conference also provided a valuable space for field experts to debate how to deliver widescale impacts, such as the viability of genetically modifying the major world food staples (rice, wheat, maize) or to increase the production of vegetables to diversify people’s nutritional content. 

Finally, the mentor programme for the conference scholars was deeply valuable for my own intellectual understanding of research for international development. Informal conversation with my mentor, Robyn Johnston (ACIAR), allowed me to explore questions about the nature of development research and how to ethically and efficiently deliver development programmes. This opportunity meant I could explore assumptions in my work with an expert in my field. This will make my work stronger in the future. 

I am very lucky to have been given the opportunity to attend this conference and I would like to thank the Crawford Fund, RAID and the scholar funders. 

Joseph Vile, Murray-Darling Basin Authority

Mentor: James Quilty, International Rice Research Institute

The Crawford Fund Chair John Anderson began the conference with an impassioned and timely defence of foreign aid. This was in the context of severe drought in NSW and Queensland, with suggestions that foreign aid funding be diverted to Australian farmers suffering severe drought in New South Wales and Queensland. I grew up during the ‘millennium drought’ on my family’s sheep and wheat farm in NSW. Since then I have worked alongside smallholder rice farmers in Vietnam and kava farmers in Fiji. So, this is a debate I am deeply connected to. The ‘Australia first’ and ‘buy local’ sentiment is understandable, but it can lead to the demonisation of foreign farmers. There are many long-term benefits of agricultural aid programs and partnerships, some of which return to Australia in the form of new crop varieties, improved farming techniques for semi-arid areas, international university enrolments, and ‘soft power’ influence. These benefits were echoed by ACIAR CEO Andrew Campbell at the conference and show that agriculture is a star performer within our decreasing aid budget. Could this different and more positive slant on ‘boomerang aid’ be a way we can bring the Australian public along on the foreign aid journey?

Professor Robyn Alders highlighted the challenges that women face in getting involved in international agricultural work. Looking around the Crawford Conference, it was obvious that there were more men in attendance. I found it really encouraging and also important to see so many young women in the Scholars group. They were able to get first-hand advice from Professor Alders about entering the industry. Professor Alders also explained that the increasing prevalence of pornography and accessibility across the world via smart phones is contributing to young, independent women being viewed in a certain way when they enter communities. This is a new challenge and was not an issue when Robyn was starting her career. Why am I writing about this as a man? Because I have a role to ensure women have the same opportunity as me to be involved. In addition to this, almost half of farmers worldwide are women, and many of them take chief responsibility for their family’s nutrition. We need more women involved in the research, policy development, project design and extension that will help lift their sustainability, productivity and health. We cannot do this with only men in the driver’s seat.

The conference scholars’ days were incredibly valuable to me. As a young scholar I was matched with James Quilty, a senior researcher from the International Rice Research Institute who has 7 years’ experience working at their headquarters in the Philippines. James shared valuable experiences of his journey through IT to agricultural research, then to management. He also asked the big questions that a mentor should – ‘where do you want to take your career?’, ‘where does a Masters or a PhD fit into this?’, and perhaps most importantly, ‘what excites you?

For future scholars reading this, I’m going to recommend my highlight presentation: Associate Professor Alex Johnson on how wheat as a key global staple is ‘letting the team down’ with a lack of micronutrients, and the promising role that biofortification can play to correct this. 

Finally, thanks to the Crawford Fund for your continued support for young people in agriculture!

PLANT HEALTH AUSTRALIA

Jenny Shanks

Mentor: Suzie Newman, Plant & Food Research NZ

Having not been truly made aware of international agricultural research, in any capacity, during my university years, I was keen to learn more. I was given the opportunity through my nomination by Plant Health Australia to attend the Crawford Fund Conference and Scholar Program for this year’s event ‘Reshaping Agriculture for Better Nutrition: The Agriculture, Food, Nutrition, Health Nexus’. It was an eye and ear opening experience to learn what is happening in an international space for agriculture in developing locations.

From the starting blocks the opening address by Mr John Anderson made it evident that my knowledge and understanding of the global dilemma of malnutrition was lacking. We have always been inundated and flooded with media and stories around hunger, starvation, and that an improved calorie rich (wheat, rice, maize) intake will assist developing countries. However, we are now seeing increasing numbers affected by obesity, in both developed and developing countries; over 2 billion people.

As agriculturists and scientists, have we shifted the pendulum too far to one side or has it always been quantity over quality? One presentation by Dr Jessica Fanzo, highlighted the lines between malnutrition, long term health impacts and responsibility. I found her presentation interesting and enlightening – wealth isn’t everything. It’s around availability to nutritious food and not just having easy access to highly-processed food. The discussion should be around education as regardless of income vegetables are in the low consumption group. The flow on impacts malnutrition has in developing communities is thought provoking. If we can’t make a change at some point in the circle, then we may never reach several of the Sustainability Development Goals we have set.

I suppose I never really thought about my role as a scientist, as a researcher and what impact I have or had. In years past we may have walked into locations, with the best intentions, and encouraged change through new products or crops. But have we encouraged adoption for change without taking on board factors related to location and culture? Dr Anna Okello mentioned that what we do in one location, won’t necessary work in another and we need to understand our role as scientists and agents of change when we walk into developing countries. Our personal and opinionated views on types of food consumption in developed countries, can have impacts on our messages/ preferences for developing countries.

The case study presented by Ms Tania Paul and Ms Philmah Seta Waken outlined the positive work and outcomes projects which focused on providing capability and capacity for development, education, growth and change; while using traditional methods and foods. These approaches are more likely to succeed longer term and be beneficial to the communities receiving the assistance.

Thinking along the lines of education throughout the conference I found myself mulling over ideas of what can I do, what knowledge do I have and what role can I play in this space. Throughout the event, the conference themes and issues were front and centre; the causes and contributing factors of malnutrition, wealth vs accessibility, meeting Sustainability Development Goals and identifying the responsible body in achieving these goals. But for me, I could see a gap between the first 3-5 years of a project which aims to encourage agriculture change for improved nutrition and achieving the long-term goals in 15-20 years. I feel this gap can be bridged through education and skill training.

Cultural practices suitable to the environment, farming practices that are easy and manageable within limits, crop management practices, pesticide use and pest management, crop processing and post-harvest practices to capture and retain the nutritious value of the commodity need to be included in projects. An upward cycle of improved nutrition, well-being and growth coupled with education for long-term sustainability, should be adopted as goals of projects in developing communities.

In addition to the conference I attended the two half-day scholar workshops. The workshops gave insight into the Crawford Fund, ACIAR and RAID. I was encouraged to hear the applied aspects in past and current ACIAR projects. This tapped into my thoughts around bridging the gap between short and long-term goals and sustainability, through education and training. The discussions, introductions and networking opportunities between my mentor and fellow scholars and other attendees have broadened my view on agriculture and food security. Overall, I am grateful to the Crawford Fund and Plant Health Australia for providing me with the opportunity to attend the 2018 Crawford Fund event.