This paper traces the interactions of scientists, farmers, and politicians of the State of South Australia (SA) with countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the two-way flow of technology and knowledge for intensifying the dryland farming systems frontier. These exchanges were motivated by the strong similarities in the climate of the two regions, both characterized by a relatively dry Mediterranean climate. From the 1930s SA farmers and scientists developed productive dryland farming systems through the integration of sheep and wheat. The key to this system was the incorporation of legume pasture species that had arrived accidentally in SA from the countries of the Mediterranean region. To obtain more diverse pasture species and wild types, SA scientists made sporadic exchanges and visits to the Mediterranean region from the late 19th century. This culminated in systematic and increasingly frequent, scientific expeditions from the early 1950s to collect wild pasture species, after their huge economic benefits to SA agriculture had become apparent. Based on these collections and many subsequent expeditions, SA established the world’s largest genebank for Mediterranean pasture legumes that became an integral part of its scientific efforts to improve its dryland farming systems.
The paper then relates how South Australian actors attempted to export their dryland farming system including the introduced pasture legumes back to the MENA countries from around 1970. This reverse transfer was initiated through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). However, much of the transfer was contracted by the South Australian public and private sectors directly with countries and organizations in MENA. The major aim was to establish markets for SA machinery, technical expertise and even pasture seed derived from species endemic to the region, taking advantage of resources provided by the 1970s oil boom. At the same time, Australian scientists and local officials in MENA saw a huge opportunity to improve cereal and livestock productivity that would accelerate development of the region. More than a dozen research-cum-demonstration projects were mounted employing Australian expertise and inputs. Some of these were technically successful but ultimately failed due to a host of social, economic, and institutional reasons.
The concluding section reflects on the limitations of using “climatic analogues” as a basis for expansion of a commodity frontier through technology transfer across regions of very different social, economic and institutional contexts, the place of international organizations in the post-colonial period in breaking down long-standing imperial barriers to scientific interchange, and the outsized role of individuals who enthusiastically championed the application of a specific technology in the face of mounting evidence of its lack of suitability. The conclusions also reflect on the nuances provided by this study to the emerging historiology of commodity frontiers.