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ISSUE THREE 2015 PARTNERS
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Technology that simulates the complex interactions determining farm productivity
and profitability was first developed in Kenya by an early ACIAR project; that work
continues today, a legacy of ACIAR's vision and international engagement
BY GIO BRAIDOTTI
Dr Brian Keating oversees hundreds of
researchers deployed across CSIRO
Flagships dedicated to agriculture, food,
nutrition and biosecurity. Yet for all his
years at CSIRO, he says it was his association with
ACIAR that most profoundly shaped his career. "My
career evolved in parallel with ACIAR," he says.
In 1984, just two years after ACIAR's
establishment, Dr Keating was recruited to join what
was then one of ACIAR's largest projects in Africa
under a program led by Dr James Ryan (page 11).
The aim was so ambitious that the team had
to pioneer analytical technology that enabled
researchers to work at a whole-farm-system
level. For Kenya, the goal was to develop and use
this enhanced analytical capability to identify
pathways to sustainably intensify maize/bean/
livestock farming systems in semi-arid landscapes.
A sister project was undertaken in Katherine, in
Australia's Northern Territory.
Over the five years Dr Keating spent in Kenya, he
started on a research endeavour that culminated
in the world's best systems-wide farm model---the
Agricultural Production Systems sIMulator (APSIM).
APSIM's flexible architecture allows data
pertaining to landscapes, soils, climates,
germplasm, gene-by-environment effects and
farming practices to interact in simulations that
allow virtual experiments on ways to improve
farming outcomes to be undertaken in hours
instead of decades. It is a software package also
capable of supporting agronomy research and is
even helping in the design of breeding programs.
The technology's capacity is so advanced
that APSIM thrives even when modelling highly
marginal landscapes and rainfall variability, as is
the case across much of Australian agriculture.
Today, APSIM is the engine within Yield Prophet,
one of the most powerful and widely used
crop and yield-management tools employed in
In Kenya in 1984, where APSIM was born,
ACIAR was brought to a new level, ultimately
providing the means to analyse whole farming
systems in the prevailing environment and to
identify the most optimal ways to lift productivity
"It all started on a plane trip to Africa," Dr
Keating recalls. "We were responsible for bringing
the first PC into Kenya. This was before laptops;
it was called a luggable PC and weighed 12
kilograms ... and I lugged that machine around
PHOTO: LOUISE RALPH
Simulations and outcomes on the ground
were closely monitored for 20 production cycles
(10 years). Year after year, the results matched
the predictions, and so CSIRO's computational
approach was validated.
This new-found modelling capacity meant that
when an ACIAR team acted on the ground it was
as if they had decades of experience improving
the target farming system.
"My time in Kenya with ACIAR was fantastic," Dr
Keating says. "In terms of problem-solving, building
confidence and sheer research opportunities, it
shaped my career. It was enabling and uplifting.
And best of all, because of the way ACIAR is set up
to promote research in both the partner country
and Australia, it did not require a choice between
working internationally and remaining engaged
with promoting Australian agriculture."
He names Dr Ryan, Dr Gabrielle Persley,
Dr Denis Blight and ACIAR's first director, Professor
Jim McWilliam, as the visionaries who, alongside
Sir John Crawford, were most responsible for creating
the ACIAR model, including the strong relationships
built with Australian research institutions.
So strong are those bonds that CSIRO has
remained engaged in agricultural research aid to
Africa every year since 1984 and the APSIM team is
today the strongest in the world at computational
modelling of farm systems.
Dr Keating believes CSIRO's interest in both
modelling and Africa will only continue to grow.
He notes that six of the world's 10 fastest-growing
economies are in Africa, along with untapped
mineral and land resources. Australia's business
footprint is big in Africa, he says, and with common
interests and challenges, it will remain big across
business, trade and education especially.
"The landscapes, climate, crops and animals in
Africa can be quite similar to Australian agriculture,"
he says. "That makes for a solid partnership.
Additionally, Australia, unlike much of the developed
world, had to acquire skills farming these risky
landscapes to survive. I describe it as an 'environment
of sub-optimality' in which you have to work smarter
just to survive, and that means managing risk, in part
through the parsimonious use of inputs."
The result of sustained applied research that is
delivered alongside Australian farmers is a nation
with some of the world's best low-input farming
systems and a research infrastructure especially
suited to working internationally. n
Dr Brian Keating
As executive director of
CSIRO's Agriculture, Food and
Health Sector, Dr Brian Keating
directs research that is vital
to the Australian economy,
environment, food security
and industrial capacity, such as
aquaculture. CSIRO research in
this sector is also responding to
a strong demand for science-
based solutions to major global
challenges, including issues of
international signi cance to
poverty alleviation, such as the
need to increase agricultural
productivity, disease prevention,
biosecurity and the need for
strong and sustainable industries
and economies in rural regions.
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