Thursday, 18 December 2014

Tiny wasps to safeguard forest plantations in the Mekong region

Tiny wasps were the subject of the first meeting for partners in the ACIAR project ‘Biological control of galling insect pests of eucalypts’ held in Vientiane, Lao PDR in July 2014. Delegates from Vietnam, Cambodia and Lao PDR outlined the eucalypt pest situation in the Mekong region, where large-scale reforestation projects are in train.

The project aims to develop effective biocontrol measures to manage the gall wasp (Leptocybe invasa), which attacks eucalypts in the Mekong region.  It involves gathering international expertise to apply biocontrol that will enable the Mekong region to respond rapidly and effectively to future threats from these invasive pests. The project will benefit plantation managers, nursery and smallholder growers, as well as local communities.

Participants at the inception meeting in Vientiane, Lao PDR. 

The wasps cause plant galls, which are the lumpy growths on leaves and stems that plants produce around eggs laid by some insects known as galling insects. The feeding larvae and the energy used in producing galls suppress plant growth and can cause economic damage to tree nurseries and plantations.

Damage to growth in young eucalypts caused by the gall wasp Leptocybe invasa.

The gall wasp is regarded as one of the most severe, invasive eucalypt pests affecting plantation forestry worldwide. In recent years the wasps have become a huge impediment to new eucalypt plantations and reforestation programs in the Mekong region.

The researchers are looking at ways to identify and release suitable biocontrol agents, including parasitoid wasps, already in the region. They will also test and release appropriate parasitoids from other regions. Partner countries will collaborate in research, surveys and training to learn about the pests and their biocontrol agents, develop forest health surveillance, share information, and screen, release and evaluate effective control agents.

The parasitoid wasps seek out and lay their eggs on or inside the gall wasp larvae living in the galls. The hatched parasitoids consume the immature gall wasps before they can leave the gall as adults, so preventing them from attacking new plants.

The project’s inception meeting for partners was hosted this year by the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) in Vientiane. Project leader, Dr Simon Lawson discussed the project’s objectives; showing how it would generate more knowledge about the gall wasps, their genetic variation, the damage they cause and the parasitoids that are likely biocontrol agents. He also discussed the important redistribution and introductions of biocontrol agents as well as training for forest operatives in the Mekong region.

Dr Simon Lawson shows damage symptoms caused by gall wasps in eucalypts.

The first day of the meeting was spent planning surveillance programs for gall wasps and their known parasitoids in all partner countries, and discussing systems for screening and releasing new parasitoids. On the second day, the delegates travelled to a nursery, plantations and a sawmill, to look at pest symptoms and discuss methods for collecting, rearing and testing insects. The third day of the meeting was spent planning specifically for NAFRI’s role in the project.

The project is expected to also include the Forest Research and Development Bureau, the Royal Forest Department, Thailand.

Participants visiting a nursery near Vientiane.

More information:

Project contact: Dr Simon Lawson:

Project partners:

• Dr Linkham Douangsavanh, Deputy Director General of NAFRI
• Dr Simon Lawson, Project Leader, University of the Sunshine Coast and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Queensland Australia
• Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research
Representatives of collaborating organisations include:
• Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Forestry Administration
• Vietnam Academy of Forest Sciences
• Birla Lao Pulp and Plantation Company Limited
• Burapha Agroforestry Company Limited
• Oji Lao Plantation Forest Company Limited
• Stora Enso Lao Company Limited
• Sun Paper Holding Lao Company Limited

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Rice futures in the Mekong region

Farmers in the Mekong region could remain poor if they grow rice alone. This is one of the messages that have come out of a recent meeting of policymakers and agricultural researchers in Cambodia.

Ideas on policy measures for improving rice-based farming systems in the Mekong region are outlined in a conference proceedings just released by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR). 

Cambodian smallholder farmers in rice fields. Photo: ACIAR.
The report, A policy dialogue on rice futures: rice-based farming systems research in the Mekong region, marks the conclusion of a AU$14.8 million ACIAR program on farm productivity and policy-focused research in the region. 

The meeting brought together 60 senior policymakers and agricultural researchers, primarily from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. The resulting report comprises 25 edited papers, including five synopses of panel and audience deliberations. 

ACIAR’s convener of the event, Dr Mike Nunn, said that the policy dialogue challenged the participants to elicit important messages arising from research to inform policymaking and implementation in the region.

“The forum emphasised that farmers in the Mekong region will remain poor if they grow rice alone. In Cambodia, for example, an individual farmer would need to grow 3 hectares of rice to earn an income equivalent to working in the city at US$100/month. It’s easier and less risky for them to choose the latter.”

Participants identified and discussed a plethora of policy responses with the potential to change the fortunes of the region and its farming communities.

According to Dr Nunn, “Policy settings and research investments need to be about much, much more than just increasing production. Although there are opportunities to improve rice-growing practices, there is also a need to manage infrastructure, value-add, diversify and integrate other components into the farming system to increase farmers’ incomes”.

For more policy ideas and insights on the future of the Mekong region’s rice-based farming systems download the proceedings.

ACIAR works closely with policymakers in our partner countries to optimise the impact of its research-for-development investments. The Rice-based Systems Research program is one of four programs developed by ACIAR under the Australian Government’s Food Security through Rural Development initiative (2009–14). 

For more information contact: 

Dr Mike Nunn, ACIAR Research Program Manager for Animal Health, +61 2 6217 0540,

Friday, 5 December 2014

ACIAR celebrates World Soil Day - 5 December 2014

Did you know that 95% of our food comes from soil? And that there are more organisms in one tablespoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth?

Despite soil being all around us, we often fail to realise how much we need it for food, water and most importantly, life! Today marks World Soil Day, a day for celebration and recognition of the importance of soil as a critical component of natural systems and a vital contributor to human wellbeing. The day is celebrated by the global community of 60,000 soil scientists charged with responsibility of generating and communicating soil knowledge for the common good.

Soil hosts a quarter of our planet’s diversity. It is so valuable that the UN General Assembly has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. The aim of the International Year of Soils is to be a platform for raising awareness of the importance of soils for food security and essential ecosystem functions.



OK, so soil is important. What is ACIAR doing?

ACIAR recognises that maintaining and improving soil condition is fundamental for successful and sustainable farming. Our Soil Management and Crop Nutrition (SMCN) program focuses on increasing the productivity and sustainability of smallholder cropping and farming systems throughout South-East Asia and the Pacific region. The program aims to enhance food security and smallholder livelihoods through interventions in soil and water management, nutrient management and crop rotations. ACIAR’s projects include: improving soil and water management and crop productivity of dryland agricultural systems of Aceh and NSW; integrating water, soil and nutrient management for sustainable farming systems in south central coastal Vietnam and Australia; and increasing productivity of legume-based farming systems in the central dry zone of Burma. A comprehensive list of all of ACIAR’s soil projects can be found on ACIAR’s SMCN website.


What’s being done in Australia?

On 23–27 November, Soil Science Australia hosted the National Soil Science Conference in Melbourne. The theme of the conference was ‘Securing Australia’s soils—for profitable industries and healthy landscapes’. The conference brought together over 400 delegates from throughout Australasia including researchers, analysts, educators, advisers, extension agents, land managers and policymakers. ACIAR is pleased to have been a Bronze Sponsor of the conference, with several papers showcasing Australia’s research for development effort (these can be read in the conference proceedings). ACIAR research officer Jack Koci, who attended the conference, noted, “A number of keynote speakers highlighted the need to change public perception of soils and agriculture. People have largely lost touch with where and how food is produced and the science that goes into its production”.

As part of the conference, participants went on a field trip to the Gippsland region to learn about the famous Giant Gippsland Earthworm (which can grow up to 3 metres!) and its role in improving soil structures. Jack Koci wrote a piece about this curious creature on the Cosmos Magazine blogsite!

The Giant Gippsland Earthworm. Source: The Giant Earthworm project
So as you can see, soil is much more exciting than just brown dirt that clumps to the bottom of your shoes. Don’t take soil for granted, as it leads an important, but often underappreciated role in ensuring a sustainable food future and healthy ecosystem for all organisms to live. Happy Soil Day!

By Elise Crabb, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, ACIAR

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Teak fever in Solomon Islands

Me go long Solomon Islands lookem wat now one fella projek long ACIAR doem. In other words, in October 2014, I travelled to Solomon Islands to participate in an end-of-project review of an ACIAR forestry project on teak production. While I may not have picked up the local lingo in 5 days, I certainly learnt a lot about forestry in the Pacific.

Before setting off, my supervisor mentioned that I would be visiting some beautiful sites. I certainly was not disappointed. From the air, spectacular coral reefs and blue lagoons stretched for miles, interspersed by lush green islands and mountain ranges. From our boat we could see tropical fish darting between coral as we passed villages on stilts by the shore. They send me on all the tough assignments!

Village by the water (Photo: Jack Koci/ACIAR).

The beautiful scenery was one thing, the humidity was another. Stepping off the boat in Munda in Western Province, I was immediately struck by the intense heat and humidity. Originally from far northern Queensland, I thought I would be used to the so-called ‘balmy conditions.’ I was wrong. Within minutes I was dripping with sweat. It seemed the one year I had spent in Canberra had turned me into a dreaded southerner.

Travelling to field sites on Kolombangara Island (left) and seeking shelter from the storm 2 minutes later (right) (Photo: Jack Koci/ACIAR).

In Solomon Islands, individuals and communities have been establishing high-value timber (predominantly teak) plantings over the past 15–20 years. Like many other tree species, teak should first be planted at a high density, to ensure the stems grow straight and tall. As competition for nutrients, water and light increases; the plantings should gradually be thinned (removed) to allow the best performing trees to ‘fatten up’ and reach full market potential. Unfortunately, many growers have been reluctant to thin, believing that they will lose money as each tree has a potentially high value. As a result, the plantings have become overstocked, with growth reduced to a minimum and poor market potential.

Smallholder teak plantation on Rendova Island (Photo: Jack Koci/ACIAR).

The project we were reviewing sought to find a planting system that would allow growers to plant high-value timbers, such as teak, in a way that would encourage thinning and that would also lead to better management of the land. This in turn, would allow for income generation throughout the life of the plantation. This was achieved by alternately planting teak with flueggea (Flueggea flexuosa), a species that is widely used for housing and construction. Growers can profit from thinning flueggea, while the teak is left to grow out. Food and cash crops can be grown between the trees, ensuring the land is productive throughout the 20–25 year rotation.

Inner (left – with author) and outer (right) parts of a Nelder wheel, Kolambangera Island. The Nelder wheel is an experimental layout in which trees are planted where linear spokes intersect with the concentric arcs in a wheel design. Using this system it is possible to plant trees at many different densities (Photo: Jack Koci/ACIAR).

A particular strength of the project has been the capacity it has built. People who will benefit in the medium to long term include: Vaeno Vigulu, John Allwright Fellow, who is soon to complete his PhD at Griffith University; Rural Training Centre staff using the agroforestry booklet and demonstration trials in teaching; the local growers making inventories of their plantations; and the forestry officers involved in extension and dissemination.

I left Solomon Islands with a serious case of teak fever and an ever-increasing interest in the forestry sector. Forestry, when performed sustainably and managed appropriately, isn’t the devastating extractive industry it’s often made out to be. Rather, it plays a critical role in supporting rural livelihoods and provides considerable ecosystem services.  ACIAR might make a forester out of me yet!

By Jack Koci, Research Officer, ACIAR.

More information about ACIAR forestry projects in Solomon Islands:
Enhancing economic opportunities offered by community and smallholder forestry in Solomon Islands

Development of market mechanism for teak and other high-value timber in the Western Province of Solomon Islands 

Friday, 28 November 2014

Battling Panama disease in Philippines' bananas

Every few years, it seems, a scare goes around threatening the end of the global commercial banana industry—and usually the focus of the scare-stories is Panama disease, caused by the fungus ‘Foc’ (short for Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense).

The variety that made banana the ‘world’s favourite fruit’ was Gros Michel, but it was knocked out as a commercial crop in the 1950s and 1960s by Panama disease, specifically a form that we now call ‘Foc Race 1’. The banana that took its place was Cavendish, a variety found to be resistant to that form of Panama disease and subsequently distributed around the world. It currently dominates the global trade in bananas. But now the Cavendish banana has met its nemesis in the form of Tropical Race 4 of Panama disease—Foc-TR4. The new form of the disease has just about wiped out commercial Cavendish production in Malaysia and Indonesia (despite the best efforts of ACIAR’s previous Panama disease project in Indonesia), and this year there have been outbreaks, for the first time, in Africa and the Middle East.

A banana plantation devastated by Panama disease (Tropical Race 4). Photo: Richard Markham/ACIAR

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Animation: a new approach to communication for development

A new approach to communication for development will help low-literate farmers adopt improved agronomic practices in Timor-Leste.

Farmers who adopt new maize varieties developed by the Seeds of Life (SoL) program and Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) can expect significant yield increases if they use traditional cultivation methods. If they also apply appropriate agronomic practices (such as planting in lines, weeding, drying and storing seed in airtight containers etc.), even higher yield increases are achievable. But how do you teach these practices to farmers?

Farmers at a maize field day: a traditional form of communication for development

Friday, 7 November 2014

Vanuatu Chocolate - it's all in the smell

Judges son and father, Josh and Mark Bahen, cocoa grower Denis Nambith and cocoa buyer Basille Malily enjoy
 chocolate over the water in Port Vila at the end of the competition. Photographer: Conor Ashleigh
First Annual Vanuatu Chocolate Competition Salon Culinaire 2014
The joy that is chocolate, the desire to source flavoursome cocoa beans, and the opportunity to improve livelihoods for Vanuatu cocoa growers – could these ingredients be a recipe for success?