ABC Australia interviews Dr. Andrew Noble, Deputy Director Research, ICARDA
International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) works in a number of fragile countries experiencing conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. The center has deep experience in rebuilding agriculture and food systems in post-conflict locations.
ABC: We were lucky in Australia not to have experienced in the last few decades the terrible impacts of war, which have stormed for years many regions of the world. Decades of war left huge impacts in many countries, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, affecting not only the people but also the environment. Farms, crops and livestock are devastated along with homes and infrastructure. One thinks that crops and food systems are just reflecting research but it actually translates into means of feeding people, particularly in these post-conflict countries. Do crop and food system fall down the list when aid arrives?
Noble: In fact, crops and food security become one of the highest priorities when operating in post-conflict locations. If you look at the regions in which ICARDA is working, which are mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, you learn that 50 percent of all the food consumed is imported. The region is experiencing high dependency on external drivers to ensure its food security. One of the main areas ICARDA is trying to address is to reduce the food sufficiency gap through effectively applying its science, technology and innovation into building agricultural systems in post-conflict countries, which will be able to deliver food security and more importantly, nutritional security.
ABC: Long-term wars and conflicts must place extraordinary pressure on population food needs, in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria. How does your organization support these people beyond the immediate aid need?
Noble: ICARDA is supporting these post-conflict countries through a science based approach. ICARDA’s scientists are focusing on building national systems and provide these systems with superior genetic material that would effectively grow and deliver food in these environments. We support post-conflict countries by our strategic approach of developing value chains that add value to commodities and improve livelihoods through new ways of generating income. In the past, for instance, we supported Syria, prior to the current conflict, not only to become self-sufficient but also a net wheat exporter. You can establish a functional agri-food systems in a relatively short period of time, and we operate following this development focus.
ABC: In the early days, once your scientists are on the ground in a post-conflict country, it must be hard to know where to start. How do you take those early days and start setting up, hopefully, a long term sustainable crop system for local people?
Noble: Probably a good example is Afghanistan, where we have been operating for the past 15 years and have built production systems with our partners. By bringing in new seed material, we are consolidating strong bread wheat production systems in rural regions of Afghanistan. We have also brought in novel approaches to reintroduce women into agriculture and we have excellent examples of women entrepreneurs that are contributing to seed production.
ABC: In this case, women are operating certain procedures and techniques?
Noble: Exactly! We are adopting a holistic approach by providing both the science and the development component in collaboration with our key partners. I would like to point out that Australia has played a very significant role both for Afghanistan and ICARDA as an organization. For example, ACIAR has funded (through Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) several projects that have had huge implications for bringing back agricultural livelihoods in rural areas.
ABC: Improving local families’ livelihoods, in these war-torn regions.
Noble: Absolutely! And if you look at the percentages of communities that are living in rural areas – take the Middle East for example – 43 percent are actually outside of cities and are dependent on agriculture economies. This becomes a key focus in bringing stability back, from a food security perspective.
ABC: How do you and your colleagues continue to be optimistic in your work and keep supporting people in need by providing food supply systems?
Noble: I think you have to be an optimist in this work and I also believe that at the end of the day peace will come in these regions. This is an opportunity for ICARDA to contribute to building capacity in post-conflict countries. We have three core areas that we work in: (1) cereals – wheat and barley; (2) pulses – critical from a nutrition point of view, including varieties such as lentil, faba bean and cheek pea; and (3) small ruminants – sheep and goats. If you put these three elements together with the environments in which we are operating, it results in an efficient and sustainable agricultural production system. These elements are key to reestablishing agricultural value chains in post-conflict areas. There are several other benefits arising from our operations, for instance the entire lentil agricultural production system in Australia is built using genetic material that has been developed by ICARDA, while operating in these dry regions.
ABC: That is interesting.
Noble: Therefore, this is not a one-way flow, it’s essentially a synergy or a symbiosis. Also, the physical agricultural environments in Australia’s southern grain producing regions are very similar to what you find in North Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, you can take technology and innovation developed in Australia and use it in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, farmers in Australia had been very innovative in regards to conservation agriculture and zero tillage systems. in Australia, we are talking about very big production systems and we deal mostly with smallholder farmers, but we use the Australian knowledge and assistance, to develop agricultural systems in similar dry areas, together with GRDC and ACIAR. The conservation agriculture and zero tillage in the Middle East and North Africa is growing exponentially. I would say that there is a great synergy between the agriculture production systems here in southern Australia and the ones in the regions we are operating in.
ABC: After conflict, this is an essential work and sometimes goes unnoticed. I wish the very best to you and your colleagues, for working to provide these essential food resources for people living in post-conflict areas trying to rebuild their lives. Andrew Noble, it was a great pleasure to discuss with you and take care in your next trip.
Noble: Thank you very much.
ABC Interview by Adam Shirley