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Meet our researchers: Associate Professor Robyn Alders AO

14 February 2017
First female vet science graduate awarded the Order of Australia

A veterinarian and farmer herself, A/Prof Robyn Alders has dedicated her career to international development work with traditional smallholder farmers.

UPDATE: Associate Professor Robyn Alders received the inaugural international Mitchell Humanitarian Award at a ceremony at the Australian National University on February 15. The award recognises Australians and others supported by Australian aid who have made an outstanding contribution to the cause of international development.

 

When environmental researchers began to carry out field work in the remote north east of Madagascar, they discovered a complex web of problems.

In the island’s forest communities, bushmeat was a traditional and vital source of food. The meat was rich in nutrients but carried the risk of zoonotic disease. The researchers realised too that hunting practices were destroying wildlife at an unsustainable rate.

The farmers they talked to said they would prefer to keep chickens rather than hunt wildlife, but the chickens kept dying.

Enter Robyn Alders, a veterinarian and researcher with more than 20 years’ experience of working with smallholders in Africa and Asia.

Called in to help the Malagasy farmers, she recognised that there was a major problem with Newcastle disease, an acute infectious disease that can cause huge mortalities in chickens. With partners from San Francisco Zoo and Harvard University, she helped to set up a sustainable vaccination program so that the vaccines could be produced locally and training given to local scientists and community members. Introduced in 2016, the program is already showing promising signs of success.

Associate Professor Robyn Alders

For Dr Alders, the project was the start of an ongoing collaboration with Harvard ecologist Chris Golden, who has been conducting field research in Madagascar since 1999.

They are both deeply involved in the Planetary Health Alliance, a network of universities and NGOs whose members have an interest in the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.

Based at Harvard, the PHA is supported financially by the Rockefeller Foundation. The University of Sydney is a member and has taken a lead by appointing Tony Capon as the world’s first Professor of Planetary Health.

Dr Alders explains: “This is a new area of study that has emerged from previous interdisciplinary initiatives and works across multiple disciplines including the social sciences.

“Planetary health puts human health front and centre, but also focuses on the ecological drivers that underpin human health.”

Dr Alders, a principal research fellow in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, was a founding member of the PHA’s scholars’ network. Her primary interests are food and nutrition security research and development activities.

Born into a farming family at Taralga near Goulburn, she trained as a vet at the University of Sydney and became interested in social justice and international development while living at Wesley College.

She spent more than 20 years working with smallholder farmers across Africa and Asia, developing ways of dealing with outbreaks of Newcastle disease and avian flu which often pose a devastating threat to small livestock producers.

In 2011 she was the first female veterinary science graduate to be awarded the Order of Australia, for her work as a researcher and educator and for her efforts to build food security in developing countries.

Remarkably, she has continued her academic career while pursuing a parallel life as a farmer.

“I own my own farm 30 minutes from where I grew up – 200 hectares producing Merino sheep,” she explains.

“It’s a way for me to understand what it’s like to farm in Australia now – and it’s not much fun dealing with intermittent income, with all the regulations, with the two-supermarket system and now increasing weather variability.”

She is also acutely aware that the developed world offers a deeply flawed template for the developing world to follow.

She points out: “Many of the examples and aspirations we are setting are inappropriate. If you look at issues like obesity and mental health, it’s obvious that our system isn’t working – so why on earth should low-income countries aspire to be like us?”

But she sees planetary health as the most effective way to tackle the multiple challenges facing human societies  

“Globally we are facing interconnected crises of climate change, the double burden of under- and over-nutrition, pandemics, mass migration and economic downturn,” she says.

“To respond effectively we need a global coalition that promotes welfare in the broadest sense by recognising the inseparable interdependence of human and natural systems.”

“No one individual, group or sector can deliver ethical and ecologically sustainable human and domestic animal diets. Together, we have to!”

 

Robyn Alders will be attending the inaugural Planetary Health/GeoHealth annual meeting at Harvard Medical School on 29-30 April 2017.

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