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Australia cultivating food security projects across Indo-Pacific

Tom Abke

Australia is tackling hunger and food insecurity from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea with pioneering agricultural projects and innovative fisheries management. At the heart of Canberra’s efforts is the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), a government agency established in 1982 that has partnered with more than 200 domestic and foreign institutions to support projects in East and Southern Africa, East, South and South​east Asia, and the Pacific region.

More than 370 million people in the Indo-Pacific are undernourished, accounting for about half of severe food insecurity globally, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

ACIAR’s most recent “research-for-development” project in Papua New Guinea (PNG) aims to revolutionize inland fish farming. Focusing on tilapia, a freshwater fish that’s a good low-fat source of protein, the $1.7 million initiative seeks to address critical nutritional needs while boosting local livelihoods. Led by Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) and partnering with PNG’s National Fisheries Authority, the research seeks to commercialize fish farming near cities and other urban areas, offering a sustainable path to economic growth and food security.

According to ACIAR, the project aligns with PNG’s Vision 2050 and the nation’s 2023-2027 Medium Term Development Plan, reflecting a commitment to community empowerment and sustainable aquaculture.

Jesmond Sammut, an associate professor at UNSW, said he has observed transformative societal changes where fish farming has been introduced, as evidenced by the growth of PNG’s aquaculture industry from about 11,000 fish farms in 2009 to over 70,000 in 2023. “The increase in protein in diets is the most obvious, but the increase in self-esteem and pride in farmers is also uplifting,” Sammut said in a September 2023 news release.

In Timor-Leste, an island nation of about 1.5 million people that gained independence in 2002, ACIAR’s projects have seen 19 new crop varieties introduced. Coordinated with the University of Western Australia (UWA), the initiative has been embraced by smallholder farmers across the nation, ACIAR said in a December 2023 news release. The new varieties, including red rice and hybrid corn, are a result of two decades of agricultural research between Australia and Timor-Leste.

The new varieties were unveiled at a recent international seminar in the Timor-Leste capital, Dili, attended by President Dr. José Ramos-Horta. The UWA-led Agricultural Innovations for Communities program focuses on improving agricultural productivity and profitability, thereby enhancing rural livelihoods, according to ACIAR.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, ACIAR’s contributions were spotlighted with the November 2023 opening of the Sleng Fishway in the Kralanh district in Siem Reap province. The infrastructure project, the first of its kind in the Southeast Asian country, aims to revitalize fisheries and enhance rural prosperity. Funded by ACIAR and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the fishway — which allows fish to navigate a 1.4-meter-tall weir — is designed to boost fish migration, ensuring access to protein-rich food sources for more than 20,000 residents from 31 villages.

The collaborative effort, which also involves Australia’s Charles Sturt University, the Fisheries Administration of Cambodia and local communities, highlights ACIAR’s approach of engaging diverse stakeholders for sustainable outcomes, the agency reported.

ACIAR, which has regional offices in Vientiane, Laos, and Suva, Fiji, said its projects across the Indo-Pacific highlight its vision of a world where poverty is reduced, and livelihoods are improved through more productive and sustainable agriculture.

Tom Abke is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Singapore.

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