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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 358


Senator ROBERT RAY (Minister for Defence) (3.36 p.m.) —I seek leave to make a statement on behalf of the Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs (Mr Bilney) relating to the annual report of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and to incorporate the statement in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The statement read as follows

MINISTERIAL STATEMENT TO PARLIAMENT

TABLING OF THE ANNUAL REPORT OF THE AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH

3 FEBRUARY 1994, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Introduction

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is one of the Australian aid program's "quiet achievers". The Centre commissions and promotes research aimed at improving sustainable agricultural production in developing countries—principally in the Asia-Pacific region. By doing so it contributes to their well being—particularly benefiting rural areas where most people in developing countries live. By increasing general economic growth amongst many of our neighbours, the Centre's research in turn assists Australia's economic growth and its security.

ACIAR was set up as a statutory authority in 1982. Its mandate was broadened in 1992, following a highly favourable review of its operations by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Some of the many complimentary remarks made about the Centre following the tabling of the report included that of Committee Chairman Senator Chris Schacht, who said, `In my view ACIAR is one of those good news stories that does not get the coverage in the Australian media that organisations like it should get'. Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, described it as a `lean, professional organisation with an excellent approach to its task'.

ACIAR's new mandate is to:

commission research into improving agricultural production in developing countries

fund some project-related training (both informal and postgraduate)

commission some development of results from its research programs

administer the Australian Government's funding contribution to the International Agricultural Research Centres.

Promoting bilateral research collaboration between Australia and developing countries remains ACIAR's primary aim. It mobilises Australian agricultural research expertise to help developing countries help themselves. It achieves this by commissioning research groups in Australian universities, the CSIRO and the state agriculture departments to carry out joint research projects in partnership with their counterparts in developing countries. The commissioned research focuses on high-priority problems in developing countries in fields in which Australia has particular scientific and technical competence—and there are many. Research takes place both in Australia and in the partner countries, and it is a feature of ACIAR projects that they are specifically chosen to maximise the benefits to both our developing-country partners and Australia.

It is sometimes argued that international agricultural assistance simply helps our competitors and reduces markets for Australian agricultural products. In reality the reverse is true. By increasing incomes, it enables people to purchase more, and experience demonstrates that one of the first things they buy more of is food. In Indonesia, for example, as agricultural production increased during the 1980s Australian wheat exports to Indonesia increased by over 200,000 tonnes.

ACIAR research helps Australian farmers directly as well as indirectly. It is conservatively estimated, for example, that the international agricultural research to which Australia contributes through ACIAR has increased the earnings of Australian farmers by more than $2 billion over the last two decades, principally through the use of high yielding varieties of wheat.

Australia is rare among aid donor countries in that it shares with most developing countries a similar location in tropical, subtropical or `mediterranean' latitudes. As a result, Australia's agricultural scientists find themselves working within an extensive and very successful network of agricultural research establishments, dealing more often than not with agricultural problems similar to those of much of the developing world. It is ACIAR's contribution to have given Australia a more effective focus for its research collaboration with developing countries.

Research

During 11 years of operations ACIAR has commissioned around 240 projects, usually over 3-year periods, 170 of which have been completed.

It has tackled the critical problem of agricultural land degradation and the associated spoilage of natural resources. The Rio Earth Summit's Agenda 21 calls for action to safeguard agricultural production by protecting natural resources and minimising environmental pollution. ACIAR has responded in a number of ways, including mounting a coordinated effort to alleviate the physical problems arising from poor farming practices on hilly lands in the Southeast Asian region. The research complements studies to determine how best to introduce suitable technologies to smallholder farmers with little understanding of the need for change.

It has discovered new varieties of Australian trees and shrubs that will help meet the fuel wood, agroforestry and industrial needs of developing countries. Seven years' research to find better adapted trees for China has led to the planting of 17 000 hectares of high-performing acacia and eucalypt species and the provision for further plantings of acacias in China's 5-year plan. In Indonesia propagation techniques for acacias are now being applied to large-scale forestry. In addition, Pakistan, Thailand and Australia, together with many other countries with salt-affected agricultural lands, stand to benefit from the identification of salt-tolerant trees and shrubs that can restore some productivity to otherwise useless land.

It has developed environmentally safe, appropriate technologies that have improved the health and productivity of animals owned by smallholder farming communities. In India, farmers have had milk production increases of over 10 per cent in dairy cattle and buffalo, as a result of the combined effect on their nutrition of giving them nutrient blocks with medication added to control internal parasites. In the Pacific Islands scientists have found that goats need almost no medication for internal parasites if they are moved through a rotational grazing system that prevents infection from pastures.

Many of the traditional crops of Southeast Asia, Africa and the Pacific, such as coconut, banana, sweet potato and cassava, suffer from viral, bacterial and fungal diseases. ACIAR research has developed more productive, disease-free lines of some of these crops. For example, banana varieties with resistance to black sigatoka disease have been identified. This disease is a potential scourge of banana crops world-wide, including Australia, and was recently isolated and contained in north Queensland as a direct result of this project. The possession of resistant varieties is a good insurance policy to protect our multi-million dollar banana industry.

Biological control and integrated pest management have been encouraged and progressed through ACIAR's crop protection program. Last year two ACIAR publications on biological control containing some outstanding examples of successful programs to control pests and weeds in Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. In addition, researchers have compiled a large body of data on fruit flies in Malaysia, Thailand and four Pacific countries that will lead to better control of fruit flies and improved quarantine protection. Associated with this is the development of bait spraying for preharvest control of fruit flies in orchards and field crops. When cover sprays are used for control they often kill pollinating bees and other beneficial insects, but bait spraying uses a tiny quantity of insecticide mixed with a substance such as hydrolysed yeast that attracts only fruit flies. The method is not only safer but cheaper in materials and labour. The investment of $800,000 in this project is projected to yield an overall benefit to Australia of $176 million through local application—a staggering 220:1 return.

ACIAR has become a major player in the arena of safe postharvest handling, processing, storage, transport and marketing of both durable and perishable foods in the humid tropics. Much of the increase in food production in Asia over recent decades can be attributed to early maturing varieties which enable two crops per year to be harvested instead of one. This has presented producers with the challenge of storing grains during the wet season with high humidity and heightened pest activity. The Postharvest Program works closely with national, regional and international agencies concerned with food handling. Smaller-scale operators and farmer cooperatives are specifically targeted in the program's current work on outdoor storage and grain drying, with high potential to deliver the benefits of new technology to the poorer sector.

Concern world-wide about dwindling fisheries resources is mirrored in the ACIAR Fisheries program. Ongoing studies in countries of the Indo-Pacific have given a clearer understanding of the effects of commercial baitfishing on traditional fishing grounds and provided a better basis for effective co-management arrangements between traditional owners and industry. A current study of the seasonal abundance and distribution of billfish, such as marlin and sailfish, will assist Pacific countries to preserve the habitats and regulate the catch of these fish, which are of particular interest to game fishermen.

In association with its applied research, ACIAR funds economic studies to ensure that new technologies are implemented and that national agricultural policies are appropriate for the promotion of economic development. One research project devised a computer model of the Philippines economy that focuses on interactions between the agricultural sector and the rest of the economy. Application of the model revealed that one third of economic growth in the Philippines over recent decades resulted from technological advances in agriculture, and that the economic gains primarily benefited lower-income groups. This study is the most comprehensive of its kind to date, and is likely to have international influence in promoting agricultural research as a means of achieving both economic growth and poverty alleviation.

Training

Part of ACIAR's mission is to enhance the research capacity of institutions in developing countries. This is achieved by visits from Australian scientists who spend time with their colleagues in their home-country institutions, by the conduct of project-related training courses both overseas and in Australia, and by the awarding of ACIAR Fellowships for project-related postgraduate training in Australia. The effects of these activities are becoming evident as ACIAR's programs mature and diversify in its 25 or so partner countries. There is a true sense of international partnership, and evidence of the increasing confidence of partner country scientists is reflected in the increasing number of authors from Southeast Asia in the published scientific literature. Furthermore, countries that once looked to Australia for expertise are now sources of information to assist their neighbours. For instance a recent forestry research initiative in Laos went ahead because the Thai partners bridged the cultural and language gap and conducted training in Thailand.

ACIAR, with funding assistance from the Crawford Fund for International Agricultural Research, has staged a number of master classes associated with specific projects to give advanced training to developing-country scientists. One on molecular genetics held at Monash University involved 14 senior researchers from seven countries; another on plant virology held in Thailand attracted 20 scientists from nine countries. Response from the participants has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

International standing

In February 1992 ACIAR took over responsibility for administering Australia's contribution to the International Agricultural Research Centres, previously undertaken by AIDAB. ACIAR has reinstated the Special Purpose Grants program which is designed to aid research collaboration of the international centres with Australian and developing-country institutions. ACIAR's familiarity with the operations of the international centres make it well placed to administer Australia's commitment to them, both in terms of development assistance and enlightened self interest.

ACIAR is now held in high regard internationally and frequently cited as an model of excellence for others to follow in institutional planning. Recently the Centre acted as implementing agency for the establishment of the new Centre for International Forestry Research, which is now up and running in Bogor, Indonesia. ACIAR research coordinators regularly undertake short-term advisory consultancies for other international bodies such as FAO and the World Bank.

In tabling the 1992-93 Annual Report of the Centre, I hope I have demonstrated to honourable members that ACIAR continues to be a "quiet achiever" among Australia's successful international initiatives. Like AIDAB, the other aid agency within the Development Cooperation portfolio, it is staffed by dedicated men and women who have a commitment to excellence which ought to be a matter of pride to all Australians, as it is to me.

I conclude with an observation from one of the Centre's overseas partners, the Agricultural University of Malaysia. When ACIAR was reviewed in 1991 Professor Syed, a Deputy Vice Chancellor of that university, made a submission to the review committee. He praised ACIAR for helping to advance agriculture in the tropical and developing nations, and pointed to manifold benefits arising from joint research. But while Malaysia appreciated the solutions arising from the research, Professor Syed said that the enhancement of expertise amongst project scientists was of equal significance. He believed involvement in ACIAR projects was one of the few means by which local scientists could gain access to foreign expertise and participate in technology transfer.

This is, in the end, what ACIAR exists for—to help other countries help themselves. I believe that it does so out of all proportion to its cost. I commend the Report to the Senate.


Senator ROBERT RAY —I table the speech and the annual report of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research for 1992-93. I move:

  That the Senate take note of the documents.

  Debate (on motion by Senator McGauran) adjourned.