Growing the Seeds of Knowledge: The role for Australia in International Agricultural Development

Whilst the offers of vegemite may be a contested and not very delicious one for people across the world, the offers that Australia has towards global food security are certainly not. Australia is sharing its unique knowledge in agriculture with many developing countries, through programs run by organisations such as ACIAR and Crawford Fund. This week we look at the role of Australia in International Agricultural Development.

The problem itself is simple: by 2050 the world needs to be able to feed nine billion people with the same resources that we have available today.  The solution, however, is far more complex.

So where does Australia sit?

Australia has maintained itself as a prominent innovator, implementing a wide array of new technologies and genetic advancements to keep ahead of a changing climate. Recent modeling by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) demonstrates how Australian farmers have stayed ahead of a disruptive climate.

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Teasing out the impact of climate on Total Farm Productivity (TFP) (source)


This expertise in managing a harsh climate provides Australia with ample opportunity to share the experience with developing countries.

Australia has two main roles in global food security. Firstly, Australia has a role as the farm to many parts of the world, producing quality foods which are exported globally. But, as the saying goes – give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime – Australia has huge offerings in exporting the aforementioned agricultural knowledge harnessed down under.

“Australia’s most valuable asset to support food security in our region and the world is our knowledge base in agriculture” (Prasad & Langridge 2013)

When the contributions of Australia’s agricultural research are taken into consideration, Australia contributes to the diets of up to 400 million people worldwide. However, with the population expected to boom to nine billion by 2050, Australia (nor any country) can be the food bowl for Asia or the world. But the knowledge that Australia can supply can improve agricultural systems globally to ensure global food security.

Andrew Campbell, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) points out that the success of Australia’s agricultural system in a land of drought, floods, and harsh climates means that Australia is well placed to provide knowledge to poor countries to grow more food sustainably.

“If the world was your farm, Australia is not your best paddock, in fact there aren’t many worse” – Andrew Campbell.

Australia largely has ancient and infertile soils, a harsh and variable climate, and degraded food producing regions from acidification and salinity. But it is this ability for Australian agriculture to thrive in harsh conditions that positions Australia so well to provide technical knowledge and expertise to less developed regions to improve agricultural systems. This is the result of effective research, innovations in technology, and low government subsidies.

The strategies Australia has developed towards a successful agricultural sector can generate much knowledge for agricultural systems globally.

 “they work from the desert to the tropics, when you haven’t got enough water and when the soils are poor, so they’re actually very relevant to a lot of developing countries” – Andrew Campbell.

The Crawford Fund Task Force into the World Food Crisis had some important findings into the role of Australia for global food security. These involve public policy options, a focus on rural development, investments in science and technology, and Australian exports.

 “We can contribute to the wellbeing of the poorest people in the developing world by placing agricultural policy, rural development, and the discovery and delivery of new technology and improved farming practice for food production at the heart of our aid program”.

The Report also identified that Australia should be seeking to increase exports of knowledge, particularly in areas of climate change mitigation, agricultural adaptations in semi-arid tropics, and sustainable farming practices. The Report highlights:

“To do this we need incentives to attract young Australians to agricultural science and related disciplines, and to enable interested Australian scientists to participate in international agricultural research”

 Agricultural productivity over the past 20 years in the developing world has declined by one third in Africa and two-thirds in Asia and Latin America. This is largely due to falling investments in rural infrastructure and agricultural research, and poor policy decisions in international trade (e.g. the food price crisis and global subsidies). Research must be linked to other sectors such as education and extension services, infrastructure, technology improvements and accessibility, and policy reforms.

There is overwhelming evidence that over the past five decades agricultural research and development has greatly enhanced agricultural productivity globally (IFPRI 2013). Returns on investment in international agricultural research are in the order of 20-80%. Further to this, GDP growth generated by agriculture is four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth generated in other sectors (IFAD 2012). Just 1% increase in agricultural yields leads to a 0.6%-1.2% reduction in the number of people living below $1/day.

In the words of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (2014 African Union Chairperson):

“for most countries, agriculture indeed constitutes the development battlefield where we can win the war on poverty, hunger and indignity”

For a country like Australia that is a world leader in agricultural expertise, this means we can also be a world leader in using our expertise to target poverty reduction.

Find out more about the programs being led by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research here.

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