Out of Asia and Africa: new solutions to meeting the world's hunger goals

17 July 2013

If a child in Cambodia has to spend their day searching for weeds to feed their family's cattle they will not have time to go to school. If their family only use that cattle for manure, farm work and as a portable asset, 'a bank account on four hoofs', instead of selling it for meat, they will not improve their finances.

In a public lecture today Associate Professor Robyn Alders and Professor Peter Windsor, both from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science, will discuss new solutions to feeding the world and the role its 2.5 billion agricultural workers can play.

Drawing on their work with smallholder farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia they will describe the complex links between agriculture, human and domestic animal disease, gender and ecosystem management.

"If a woman in Zambia grows maize instead of the less-fashionable sorghum or millet she will have more food but of lower nutritional value. If she cannot keep her chickens healthy she loses a source of protein and a source of income for medicine, school fees or iodised salt," Professor Alders said.

"In developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa children suffer rates of stunting close to, or more than, 50 percent. Caused by lack of food and nutrients stunting will continue to have an impact on their physical and cognitive health into adulthood. In a self-perpetuating cycle this will also make them less productive, creating less food and wealth for themselves.

"I do a lot of work in Africa, where women do between 60 and 80 percent of the agricultural work but receive very little education, agricultural training or aid money." Teasing out how to support these women's contribution is challenging. Ownership of a few healthy chickens is often better for families than becoming involved in intensive poultry production, despite it increasingly being encouraged as the modern choice.

Domestic ownership is often less risky and more efficient as household chooks can find high quality food for themselves instead of having to be fed grain, the price of which constantly fluctuates.

"A project vaccinating against (Newcastle) disease in chickens has extended across Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique and demonstrated the link between women's ownership of healthy domestic chickens and improved quality of life."

Professor Windsor has spent 20 years in Asia on programs encouraging owners of buffalo and cattle in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to see themselves as animal producers and not animal keepers.

"By shifting people's perceptions so they see their cattle as a source of protein for themselves or for sale, we are showing they can improve their family's health and finances."

"In Northern Laos the high country is dominated by rubber and rice production but is more suited to producing cattle, which does not require burning the land. Over 13,000 people in that area took part in a cattle production project, including learning how to create markets and treat cattle disease."

In Cambodia landholders learned how to use biodigestors, simple machines which convert the methane from cattle manure into a fuel source for their cooking.

"The environmental impact of collecting fuel from the landscape is reduced as is the time and labour required, often that of children and women. It is a perfect example of the impact changes can make, if handled with cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the complex interactions involved."

Event details:

What: JD Stewart Lecture, The Hunger Goals: New Solutions to Feeding the World

When: 5.45pm - 6.45pm

Where: Eastern Ave Auditorium, University of Sydney

Cost: Free

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