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Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommends increased funding for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in light of its contribution to Australian agriculture and to developing countries

JENNY HUTCHISON: And now let's turn to a success story. It's about a 12-year old statutory authority which researches the agricultural problems of developing countries. Liberal backbencher Michael MacKellar explains.

MICHAEL MacKELLAR: The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade examined the effectiveness of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, known as ACIAR. Specifically, the Committee looked at (a) the effectiveness of ACIAR as an element of Australia's official development assistance program against its charter embodied in the ACIAR Act of 1982; and (b) the desirability or otherwise of the continued existence of the Centre as a statutory authority after the expiration of 12 years of operations, which is in June 1994 - the maximum length of existence specified in the current Act.

What was a surprise to the Committee was that ACIAR is a really good news story. Outside the field of those involved in agricultural research, the work of ACIAR is almost completely unknown. Its work has great benefit and should be much more widely publicised. Furthermore, the high level of ACIAR's performance sets an example for other statutory bodies to try to match.

The figures which ACIAR provided the Committee, based on an economic assessment of the costs and returns of 12 research projects, are very impressive indeed. Based on these 12 research projects alone, ACIAR claims that for a total research cost of $27.4 million - that's in 1990 dollars - the expected benefits over the next 15 to 20 years would be $816.7 million - again in 1990 dollars.

The Committee was rigorous in its questioning of the basis of the cost benefit analysis, but even with a sizeable error factor built in, the Committee acknowledges that the outcome of ACIAR's research to date, has at the very least proved cost efficient, unlike a number of projects undertaken under the general aid program.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Two other members involved in the review of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, provided specific examples of very successful projects. First, Ian Sinclair.

IAN SINCLAIR: It was remarkable to us that by the work of Australian scientists, so much economic benefit had flown; indeed, one of the parallel benefits of this work is that not only has it extended into overseas countries, but there's certainly been a flow-off in a number of areas in Australia. For example, in the storage and handling of tropical fruits, much of the work that is being undertaken in Queensland University has as much application to our own produce as it does to the produce of the South Pacific and South- East Asia. But some of the work has involved quite extraordinary dedication, and on page 86 of the report there's reference, for example, to the biological control of salvinia water weed, and this was a three-year project led by Dr Peter Room and Dr Wendy Forno at the CSIRO Division of Entomology, and it was quite remarkable the extent to which the efforts by these two scientists and their assistants had brought such enormous benefits to the community. And of course, it really related not only to the economic benefits, to rice farmers and fishermen and their families and to hydro-electricity authorities, but it had a health flow-on because of a reduced spread of disease by mosquitoes, and the economic benefits have been assessed at a cost ratio of 32 : 1, which is a phenomenal figure.

JOHN LANGMORE: Newcastle disease is the world's most important virulent disease, viral disease, in village chicken populations, and we have a very mild variety of that disease in Australia. And it occurred to a couple of researchers that they could use that mild viral strain to develop a heat-resistant oral vaccine which could be used to stop the disease in Asia; and they did that. Now chickens are very important, obviously, as a source of protein and of cash in low-income countries, yet Newcastle disease was wiping out large populations of chickens, sometimes annually. What's happened is that this strain developed in Australia has been used to stop the disease in one of the states of Malaysia. It's now been adapted for use in five other South-East Asian countries, and an independent assessment of the benefit of this research shows that over the six countries in which the oral vaccine is now being used, the saving is about $150 million.

So for a cost to Australia of $3 million - that's all the project costs, $3 million - there's been a saving to those six lower- income countries of about $150 million; a benefit cost ratio of 25 : 1. Now that's a particularly good example of the cost effectiveness of the funds that are spent through this agricultural research organisation. And that's the reason why the Committee has recommended that funding for ACIAR be increased to 3.5 per cent of the aid budget by 1997. I think, in fact, that's our most important recommendation. Obviously, with the aid program, we have to constantly review it to see which parts are most effective and which parts are less effective. Clearly, this is one of the most effective parts; therefore, the Committee has recommended that its funding be substantially increased, and I hope that the Government will accept that recommendation because this is one of the areas where Australia being an agricultural country can make the greatest contribution to developing countries.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Ian Sinclair and then John Langmore with good news for an agricultural research institute.