In March, the University of Sydney launched its new Centre for Carbon, Water and Food. The centre’s director, Mark Adams explains the significance for Australia-China relations.
Many Australians are familiar with the idea of partnerships between Australia and China in the minerals sector but they might be surprised to learn of their shared interest and collaboration in addressing food security.
The need to increase production on a shrinking land base, with less water and with less fossil fuels, will dominate national and international policy debates for coming decades. At the beginning of the Asian Century identified by the Australian government, it is globally recognised that food security can only be delivered by a concerted, international effort.
Australia and China face many of the same challenges in food security. In China, for example, water yield and quality in major river systems and the land base for agriculture are threatened by both degradation and alternative uses, much like in Australia. We both face the same problems with respect to water, soil, pests and disease.
At the same time, China successfully feeds 21 percent of the world’s population with just nine percent of the world’s arable land while Australia, with a population of less than 23 million, produces sufficient food to feed up to 60 million people.
Harnessing the expertise developed in achieving those outcomes and working together for mutual benefit was articulated in December 2012 in Australia’s federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) publication Feeding the Future: A Joint Australia–China Report on Strengthening Investment and Technological Cooperation in Agriculture to Enhance Food Security.
Based on discussions, it recognised that “Australia and China share a common interest in ensuring food security nationally, regionally and globally” and could work together to ease growing pressure on food supplies.
It described Australia and China as natural partners for collaboration. “Both are major agricultural producers. Both face challenges to maintain and expand food production. Both are at the forefront of agricultural innovation, research and development.”
The University of Sydney’s relationship with China predates the DFAT report by several decades but the recent opening of the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food exemplifies its recommendation for the two countries to coordinate their research on agri-food issues.
The $21 million Centre for Carbon, Water and Food (pictured right) is Australia’s first multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to tackling the nation’s and region’s biggest food security and environmental challenges through the integrated study of carbon, food and water.
At the Centre’s launch by the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, two memoranda of understanding were signed by representatives from the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Science and Nanjing Agricultural University to tackle the mutual challenge of food security.
The longstanding relationship between the University of Sydney and China means the agreements are the culmination of several decades of collaboration already undertaken between the University’s researchers and Chinese colleagues from a multitude of institutions.
By comparing research approaches and collaborating on research we are able to learn from each other and redouble our efforts to address mutual areas of concern.
The purpose-built Centre draws on the University’s already established world-class expertise in areas such as soil science, ecology and ecophysiology, and plant breeding.
The memorandum will see the establishment of a Sino-Australia Joint Laboratory for Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems established and housed at the Centre, with a mirror facility in Beijing, and a Sino-Australian Laboratory for Food Security established there, with a mirror facility in Nanjing.
The new agreements will enable joint research in areas such as crop protection, food and soil security and the mitigation of climate-change effects on agricultural ecosystems, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The bilateral effort will include research projects for external agencies such as the World Bank and Gates Foundation, creating further international benefit from the collaboration.
Each partnership will deliver for both Australia and China over the coming decade and both countries will use it to help build relationships with other institutions and countries.
Such partnerships are critical to the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food’s long term strategy and include other Chinese organisations such as North-West Agriculture and Forestry at University Xi’an and with the Beijing Genomics Institute.
Such collaborations come at time when, as observed by agricultural economist Phil Pardey, from the University of Minnesota, most countries have experienced a slowdown in the rate of growth in spending on agricultural research and development, especially that focused on improving farm productivity.
This is despite a rising tide of authoritative voices calling for increased investment in agricultural research and in spite of the fact public investment in such research and development provides brilliant returns. These investments have historically had benefit to cost ratios of 10 or more, that is returning 10 times the initial investment. ■
*Professor Mark Adams is the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and Director of the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food at the University of Sydney.