Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Biosecurity under the microscope in South-East Asia

The marvels of modern technology are enabling border inspectors, scientists and farmers in South-East Asia to consult live with experts across the world and identify serious plant pests...

Lao PDRs’ and Cambodia’s plant biosecurity system is very limited, largely due to lack of local expertise, equipment and communication networks. A strong capability in research and diagnostics is a crucial part of protecting agricultural industries from damaging pests, managing borders against pest incursions, and meeting requirements for trade.

Identifying incoming pests and diseases is essential for biosecurity
(image: G. Kong)
Several ACIAR projects are improving this situation, through building individual and organisational capacity to identify and manage plant health issues in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The first project has just finished in Thailand, with the major achievement of establishing a diagnostic laboratory in Bangkok capable of using molecular biology and remote microscopy to identify serious plant pests. Along the way, researchers have identified several new diseases/hosts and developed new protocols to identify serious plant pests, including fruit flies, citrus canker and potato spindle tuber virus.

‘Remote diagnostics’ - How does it work?
Remote diagnostics allows people to share and access information across the world in real time, using remote microscope equipment and web collaboration tools such as Skype. Border inspectors and scientists can capture microscope images of an organism in question and consult live with Australian (or international) experts in plant pests and diseases to identify it.

From microscope to expert advice, thanks to the internet (image: G. Kong)
With new advances in technology, researchers or farmers can even use mobile devices such as wireless microscopes, with phone apps that upload images and return information to the network from out in the field. Pest information can be stored and shared, and the network’s experts can be consulted to identify a pest or provide further advice on what to do next.

Farmers can identify and manage pests in their field through the use of remote microscopes
and mobile phones (image: G. Kong)
Building on success
New work is building on the first project’s success, since Thailand is now capable of offering plant biosecurity services to neighbouring countries. Being ahead in the game, Thailand will be used as a base for training scientists and technicians in Laos and Cambodia.  The capability of the diagnostic lab in Bangkok will be enhanced, to improve Thailand’s own diagnostics and act as a terrific resource for Laos and Cambodia.

The aim is to create a network of remote microscopy centres across the three countries and so strengthen regional biosecurity capacity. The microscopy and associated IT equipment has been installed in all three countries, and local scientists and technicians have been trained in its use. Building up the research capacity has been a real highlight of this work. Training courses on taxonomy and biosecurity research tools such as molecular biology (to confirm pest identifications) have been held in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and more will be run in the near future.

On-screen diagnosis in action
(image: G. Kong)

Australia is providing an invaluable online database of plant pests and diseases (Plant and Disease Image Library, PaDIL), so that information about regionally important pests can be shared. Most importantly, the communications network being set up through these projects will allow pest and disease identifications to be made faster and with more confidence.

Award-winning progress
This work led by Dr Gary Kong of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre is award-winning. The team has won an Excellence in Innovation award from the CRC Association of Australia, The Australian’s Innovation Challenge award for agriculture, and the Queensland Premier’s Award for Excellence in Public Service Delivery.

Great progress is being made, with a truly collaborative spirit evident from all sides. Building the capacity of individuals and institutions in biosecurity research and diagnostics in these countries will enable them to self-develop their systems over time. Efforts into establishing good diagnostic systems and processes will pay off, especially when combined with well-developed incursion response and prevention strategies.

Benefits far and wide
"This work contributes to a robust plant health system that can withstand international scrutiny by providing diagnostic capability and evidence of pest presence and absence. These are the things that affect trade, so our efforts will help these countries gain greater access to export markets," says Dr Kong.

For smallholder farmers, the strengthened biosecurity should result in improved incomes, through better prices for their commodities and reduced costs associated with pest incursions.

Australia also benefits from this work, through pre-border surveillance in South-East Asia. 

Dr Kong says "Pests are really difficult and costly to eliminate once they have breached our borders. Increasing vigilance and diagnostic capacity in South-East Asia will help these countries to monitor the presence and movement of pests. This is valuable information for Australia as we also need to be vigilant about specific pests that we don't currently have."

By Dr Les Baxter (ACIAR’s Horticulture research program manager) and Dr Wendy Henderson (ACIAR Communications)

More information
ACIAR projects:
HORT/2006/170 Plant Biosecurity: Technological research and training for improved pest diagnostics in Thailand and Australia

HORT/2012/027 Establishing a remote microscope network for pest identification in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand

HORT/2010/069 Enabling improved plant biosecurity practices in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Managing soil and water in Burma's Central Dry Zone

ACIAR Graduate Research Officer, Jack Koci, recently travelled to Burma to understand research opportunities to improve land and water resource management in the Central Dry Zone (CDZ)...

A small scoping team from ACIAR recently met with stakeholders in Burma to determine priorities for improving agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers in the CDZ. Research into sustainable land and water resources management was identified as a high priority.  

Onion farmers preparing for harvest
Burma is one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia and has among the lowest social development indicators in the region, ranking 149 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  The CDZ, located in the middle part of Burma, has some of the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity in the country.

Across the CDZ, rainfall variability is high, water-use efficiency is low, vegetation cover is sparse and the soil is severely degraded – eroded and of low fertility. Smallholders farming in these environments face considerable challenges in achieving food security, while land managers lack the resources and capacity to support sustainable agricultural development.

Land suitability mapping is one approach that would benefit both smallholders and land managers. This technique involves looking at the characteristics of the land and matching it to appropriate crops or other uses.
Salt crusting in the Central Dry Zone
presents a serious challenge for farmers

An example of its applicability is in managing soil salinity. Salinity is a particularly serious issue in the CDZ due to saline sub-soils, high evapotranspiration rates and restricted outward drainage of groundwater. In salt-affected areas, prevention is always better than cure. If high-risk areas are identified before they are used in agricultural production, interventions (such as improving drainage or planting salt-tolerant crops) can be put in place to minimise the impact.

On a field trip we visited several smallholder farmers to get a better understanding of the challenges they face. An onion farmer near Mandalay told us he was concerned that his yields were declining as a result of irrigating with saline groundwater. On a dryland farming system near Nay Pyi Taw, we saw how rising saline groundwater had left a crust of salt on the soil surface.

Researchers discuss farming challenges with a smallholder farmer
The biophysical conditions of the CDZ are similar to many Australian agro-ecosystems, such as the Murray–Darling Basin and the Burdekin in North Queensland. Australian scientists have good experience working in these environments and can offer their expertise in managing land in Burma.

Land suitability mapping will be crucial in enabling Burmese smallholder farmers to plan for and practise sustainable agriculture, to get the most from their land.

By Jack Koci, ACIAR Graduate Research Officer

More information:
ACIAR has a multi-disciplinary program in Burma covering crops (rice, legumes), fisheries and livestock production, and a socio-economic component designed to support the commodity-based components and provide capacity development:

AH/2011/054 Improving livelihoods of small-scale livestock producers in the central dry zone through research on animal production and health in Myanmar, led by University of Queensland

ASEM/2011/043 Strengthening institutional capacity, extension services and rural livelihoods in the Central Dry Zone and Ayeyarwaddy Delta regions of Myanmar, led by University of New England

FIS/2011/052 Improving research and development of Myanmar's inland and coastal fisheries, led by the WorldFish Center

SMCN/2011/046 Diversification and intensification of rice-based systems in lower Myanmar, led by the International Rice Research Institute

SMCN/2011/047 Increasing productivity of legume-based farming systems in the central dry zone of Myanmar, led by University of New England

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Kau kau is a key to improving livelihoods in Papua New Guinea

ACIAR Graduate Officer Rebecca McBride recently travelled to Lae, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG), to visit two ACIAR projects that are directly and indirectly looking at sweetpotato production, processing and marketing.

Sweetpotato, or 'kau kau' as it is called locally, is a key staple in PNG. It makes up 43% of the total dietary intake there. Although annual production is estimated at 3 million tonnes, only 2% of this is sold in markets. The rest is used for household consumption or fed to livestock.
Sweetpotato at the markets. They are commonly sold in piles at a set price.
Piles at the same price can vary significantly in quantity and quality.
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)
The first project is focused on the sweetpotato value chain and has surveyed retailers and consumers to determine their preferences and demand for product. The major focus for the project is on sweetpotato quality, which was found to be of low importance to producers, compared to quantity. The project aims to demonstrate to farmers the value of better harvesting and postharvest techniques.

The project team interacts directly with a group of women farmers and recently conducted a simple business training session with them. Some of the women admitted they hadn't previously considered costs of labour, transport and lost product when calculating their profit from selling their sweetpotatoes. After this training they were eager to learn more about how they could improve their businesses. The project leaders and their local partners are going to focus their future training on improving postharvest handling, sorting and selling sweetpotato.
Group photo - sweetpotato processing workshop
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

The second project is indirectly related to kau kau, as it explores the sustainability of establishing mini feed mills at the village level. The aim is to use cheap, local feed resources where possible to maintain livestock productivity and improve farm viability. Smallholder farmers are already beginning to develop their livestock operations, including the use of commercial feeds for improved nutrition, but the high costs of imported ingredients leave them vulnerable to significant losses.

While there are few substitutes for the high protein component of these feeds, the imported sources of carbohydrate can be swapped for local sweetpotato and cassava, significantly decreasing the cost. The team are currently trialling different feeds to determine the optimum compositions for feeding fish, poultry and pigs.
Sweetpotato packaging. Bags are large and, as you can see,
can get very heavy! (photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

These two projects have the potential to complement each other nicely. The first will train farmers to sort their product into consumer grade and unmarketable material. The second project could provide a market or value-add option for the ‘seconds’ or leftover sweetpotatoes. Both projects will improve the profitability of smallholders and semi-commercial enterprise in PNG.

P.S. We spent a week at the National Agricultural Research Institute just outside of Lae, in the picturesque Markham Valley. One meeting-free morning we drove into town and visited the local markets to look at the fresh produce including the kau kau. I certainly got a first-hand feel for the transport issues caused by local road infrastructure!

Lae, a port city, is situated at one end of the Highlands Highway, the main road connecting the highlands region to the coast, used regularly for transporting produce. I only travelled on a small section, but could understand how the road - or rather where the road itself is missing(!) - causes a lot of the produce losses during transport. Though I didn’t see one myself, I was assured you could lose whole vehicles down some of the pot-holes. The question is – are they still called ‘pot’-holes at that point?!

By Rebecca McBride, ACIAR Graduate Officer

More information:
ACIAR projects:
ASEM/2010/053 Enhancing role of small scale feed milling in the development of the monogastric industries in Papua New Guinea is led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

An integrated approach for systemic change and sustained development of the Papua New Guinea sweetpotato value chain is led by the University of New England.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Boosting breadfruit in Fiji

Training land owners in breadfruit propagation techniques could provide a big boost for a crop that could potentially become one of Fiji’s most important food industries.

A trial of a novel approach to establishing breadfruit has given a group of young landholders the ability to propagate breadfruit plants for their own farms and for commercial sale.

Fiji farmers with breadfruit suckers (photo: Livai Tora,
Koko Siga Ltd  Fiji)
Conducted by Fiji’s own Tutu Training Center (TRTC), with funding through ACIAR’s Pacific Breadfruit Project (PBP), the initial training attracted over 100 male and female farmers from Vanua Levu villages.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Upcoming Publication: Crop yields & global food security

An invaluable reference book on opportunities for crop yield increase to feed the world to 2050 will be released by ACIAR in May 2014. This will be published in ACIAR’s Monograph series (No. 158). Download a flyer.

CROP YIELDS AND GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY: will yield increases continue to feed the world? is aimed at agricultural scientists and economists, decision-makers in the food production industry, concerned citizens and tertiary students.   The authors, Tony Fischer, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades, are all world-renowned agricultural scientists.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Glimmer of hope amid cocoa devastation in PNG

Mrs Odelia Virua Taman (photo: A. Gavin, DFAT)
Mrs Odelia Virua Taman is a progressive cocoa grower in East New Britain who is reaping the rewards of controlling cocoa pod borer (CPB), which has devastated much of Papua New Guinea’s valuable crop.

Monday, 31 March 2014

SIMLESA becomes kid’s business

ACIAR’s Dr John Dixon recently heard great news from the SIMLESA (‘Sustainable intensification of maize-legume cropping systems for food security in eastern and southern Africa’) Program in eastern Kenya.

A farmer group (known also as a ‘local innovation platform’) at the Kyeni SIMLESA Program site is enthusiastically participating in the program; thanks in part, they say, to John’s interactions with them. The group has tested the program’s maize and legume varieties and various conservation agriculture (CA) practices. Their tests have led to two CA tillage methods being endorsed by the community, and two maize and three bean varieties being chosen for wider adoption, both within and beyond the initial program sites.
The Kyeni farmer group presenting John with 'SIMLESA I'
(photo: A. Micheni)