Opinion

Why mixed family farming is crucial

Robyn Alders on why mixed family farming is crucial to supporting balanced and diverse diets through the seasons.

This is an excerpt from a paper co-authored by: Robyn Alders, Brigitte Bagnol, Julia de Bruyn, Joanita Jong, Mu Li, Hilda Lumbwe, Robyn McConchie, Wende Mualaga, and Johanna Wong.

For optimal growth and health, we need not only sufficient calories but the right mix of essential micronutrients for each stage of our lives.  If this mix is not achieved, the resulting undernutrition will affect health, physical, and cognitive development in children with long-term effects on productivity in adulthood.  Food and nutrition security is a global priority requiring a multi-pronged approach based on nutrition-sensitive landscapes.

Despite increases in agricultural production over the past two decades, undernutrition rates in children in Tanzania, Zambia and Timor-Leste remain high – with the levels of stunting (low height for age, an indicator of chronic undernutrition) in children under five years of age averaging 42%, 45% and 50% respectively.  All three countries are seeking sustainable solutions to the food security challenge that will improve human nutrition through increased household income and dietary diversification.

Local initiatives, such as enhancing traditional livestock-crop systems, can provide a sustainable solution to the ongoing nutritional challenges in Africa and Asia.  Animal source foods are rich in energy, protein, and essential micronutrients that have greater bioavailability than in plant sources. Young children, with limited gastric capacity and high nutritional requirements, particularly benefit from diets with high nutrient density and quality. Nutritional security can be achieved and undernutrition reduced more efficiently when people have access to an optimal combination of food from both animal and plant sources.

Rural communities that rely on rain fed crops often go through severe hunger periods just prior to the major harvesting season when their stored grains have been exhausted.  These significant peaks and troughs in household food availability are reduced when there is diversity in family farming activities. For example when grain supplies have been depleted, village poultry may be used for consumption or sale.  Village poultry have the additional quality of being able to scavenge feedstuffs not typically consumed by humans. By improving village poultry health and wellbeing, families have greater access to poultry meat and eggs which are a source of high quality protein, micronutrients and income.  Poultry manure can also contribute to increased soil fertility for the production of indigenous vegetables at the household level, further diversifying the range of foods eaten.

We are actively working to reduce childhood undernutrition in Tanzania, Zambia and Timor-Leste by enhancing the key role that women play in improving village poultry, crop and vegetable integration to strengthen household nutrition in an ecologically sustainable manner.  A One Health approach, bringing together human, animal and environmental health, is being employed in support of increased poultry and crop value chain efficiency and household food and nutrition security.  Our team includes animal, crop and human health specialists, economists, ecologists and social scientists who work in partnership with participating communities and local government.

Our activities are funded by the Australian International Food Security Research Centre, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Crawford Fund and the Governments of Tanzania, Zambia and Timor-Leste.


Robyn Alders was born and raised on a grazing property on the Southern Tablelands of NSW, Australia. For over 20 years, she has worked closely with smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia as a veterinarian, researcher and colleague. For much of this time, she has been working on the development of sustainable Newcastle disease (ND) control in poultry in rural areas as this disease is a key constraint to small livestock producers, many of whom own only poultry. The ND control activities have included project management; epidemiology; production and quality control of thermotolerant ND vaccine; development and testing of innovative extension materials; community development; incorporating ethnoveterinary knowledge; training of extension personnel, animal health workers, livestock officers and laboratory personnel; and the development of user-pays schemes. Since 2004, Robyn has been involved with highly pathogenic avian influenza control and preparedness in Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Lao PDR, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. In Indonesia, she oversaw the training and communication components of the FAO HPAI Participatory Disease Surveillance and Response Program from May 2007 to September 2009. From May 2008 to June 2011, Robyn directed the International Veterinary Medicine Program at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in the USA and remains an Adjunct Associate Professor with this program. From July 2011 to May 2012, Robyn was the Team Leader of a Newcastle disease control project in Angola implemented by the KYEEMA Foundation and funded by the European Union. In August 2012, she rejoined the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney as a Principal Research Fellow to pursue domestic and international food and nutrition security research and development activities.