Opinion: Benefits to Australia from involvement in agricultural research for development, using WA as an example, February 2018

By Prof William Erskine

Agriculture in Australia is an imported construct now closely adapted to the local landscape. Its health and vibrancy continues to rely on close interaction with the innovation system of the rest of the world. The export of rural goods – worth AUD $46.5 billion in 2015 – links Australia with its trading partners and simultaneously contributes to global food security. Among the Australian States, WA has the highest proportion (80%) of its agricultural production sent for export. So although WA is isolated geographically, in reality its agriculture is very closely connected internationally. Among trading partners there are lower-middle-income countries with major populations of poor people – for example, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. Improving the livelihoods of the poor is the aim of agricultural research for development, for which the Crawford Fund is a national support organisation. The close interaction of Australia with trading partners for mutual benefit and also food security has resulted in massive impacts at both ends in the sectors – education, technology transfer (including germplasm and rhizobia), goods and services and also biosecurity.

Prof William Erskine discussing maize storage with a smallholder farmer

International Education with Developing Countries, like agriculture, is another major export earner for Australia worth $19.5 billion in 2015. Although the higher education sector for agriculture does not have particularities in WA, some very large such projects have occurred. For example, the Australian Collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Project (ACNARP) with Thailand which targeted capacity building and problem solving in rain-fed agriculture from 1982 to 1995. The project was organized by the Western Australian Overseas Projects Authority (WAOPA) of the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (formerly DAFWA) and graduated a total of 78 Thai MSc/PhD students from the University of Western Australia. Such tertiary agriculture education clearly benefits both the recipients and the receiving tertiary education provider.

Technology transfer: Citing some old examples back in the 1970s WA research/development projects in Libya and Iraq in 1970s funded by the respective governments were including the improvement of dryland farming systems particularly with pasture/feed and sheep breeding and included the export of Australian manufactured equipment. Such projects were also organized by WAOPA, which formed a crucial role in linking WA with international agricultural development. Australia still exports wheat to Iraq today.

Another characteristic of WA is its acid sandy soils with low nutrient content – widespread across the wheat belt. A thorough understanding of such nutrient deficiencies in WA formed the platform to solve crop micronutrient deficiencies abroad – from Northern Thailand across to parts of the Indo-Gangetic Plain in South Asia. Another upshot from WA’s hostile soil conditions was it stimulated crop domestication for local conditions – imported crops were poorly adapted to the WA’s edaphic conditions – and the State has become a new domestication centre as evidenced by the narrow-leaf lupin and a range of forage legumes e.g. Biserrula, Pink and French serradellas, bladder clover, Tagasaste and recently Messina. This domestication has relied on the introductions of plant germplasm with their associated rhizobia from the Mediterranean region followed by breeding. Narrow-leaf lupin is now an export, as is the germplasm of the new crops. In short, Australia is umbilically connected to the Mediterranean region for germplasm.

The rotation of Australian scientists internationally to international centres and/or ACIAR projects and then back to Australia has formed a key pathway to broaden research experience and contribute to both the developing world and Australia. For example, Phil Cocks, John Hamblin, Gus Gintzburger, Ken Street, Wal Anderson, Peter White, Kadambot Siddique and Steve Loss – all with strong links to WA – have variously worked at ICARDA formerly in Syria and contributed to WA on their return.

WA’s Indian Ocean Access has led to a particular focus on ties with Africa. In 2013 the Crawford Fund Parliamentary Conference was a joint meeting held in Perth 2013 – Bread from Stones – with Africa Down Under. Support came from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through the Australian Development Research Awards Scheme (ADRAS) and Murdoch University Africa Research Group. The theme was how new infrastructure investment from mining can benefit agriculture. Other benefits to WA’s agriculture from African links include the import and domestication of additional pasture species of potential benefit to Australia such as Lebeckia pasture.

WA’s distinctive trade dependency in agriculture has resulted in high exposure to the risks from biological threats and the need to maintain our export opportunities. This has resulted in a major focus on biosecurity in the activities of the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (formerly (DAFWA). The Crawford Fund has also assisted in capacity building in pest identification/recognition in neighbouring countries to safeguard our agricultural resources.

In summary, over the last thirty years the impact of the interaction of WA with developing country agricultural development has been massive in both directions. This win-win is due to several factors. It has often stemmed from a homology in dryland cropping environments and soils. It has benefitted from the practical problem-solving skills of Australian scientists – This has been a cornerstone for sharing. Capacity building to grow both trade and talent has and will continue to be important ­- especially for the Crawford Fund. WA’s agricultural trade connections with the rest of the world have been crucial in its relationships with the rest of the world. The interaction has contributed to improved market intelligence, relationship building, and education and capacity building to retain policies oriented toward open trade. It has led to an inter-dependence in biosecurity and in germplasm. Agricultural development often underpins trade. Looking ahead, the experience gathered through the on-going adaptation of growers to climate change in the SW of WA may be an emerging opportunity that can be shared with the developing world for mutual benefit.

About Prof William Erskine

Prof William Erskine is Director of the Centre for Plant Genetics and Breeding at The University of Western Australia and a member of the Crawford Fund’s WA Committee. He was at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria as Assistant Director General (Research) from 2001-2007, Leader of the Germplasm Improvement Program (1998-2001), and Lentil Breeder from 1980 for 18 years.