07:47am Thursday 12 December 2019

Managing diseases to protect the world's food supply

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates two thirds of the world’s population are either underfed or starving, and plant diseases play a major role in food shortages. Global loss of crops due to plant disease is conservatively estimated to be between 10 and 30 percent.

The University of Sydney’s Professor Robert Park is one of a team of scientists leading the charge against cereal rust. His 15 October lecture, Rust Never Sleeps: Combating Plant Rust Diseases to Protect Our Food Supplies, will outline the magnitude of damage caused by cereal rust diseases, the implications of their rampant spread and what needs to be done to control them. It will be a compelling lecture for anyone with an interest in the threat to global food security.

Rust diseases are caused by fungal pathogens which are among the most harmful pests in agriculture and horticulture. Characterised by rusty coloured spores, they are a particularly high biosecurity threat.

According to Professor Park their abundance in cereal plants is a major concern as cereals are grown in greater quantities and provide more food energy worldwide than any other crop. Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world, with demand expected to increase by 60 per cent by 2050.
“Ironically, it’s their popularity as a food source that has imperilled them,” Professor Park said.

“We’ve been domesticating cereal plants for around 8,000 years and our efforts to develop better yielding and disease resistant crops have had the negative effect of guiding the evolution of crop pathogens.
“Such ‘man guided’ evolution has led to the emergence of new rust races, at times causing devastating epidemics.

“We’ve inadvertently selected new pathogen strains that have, at times, caused crop failure and famine.”

Professor Park’s has been conducting Australia-wide analyses of wheat, barley and oat rust pathogens for the last 25 years, most recently looking at tackling cereal rusts through the development of resistance genes. His research on the Australia-wide population genetics of four major rusts in cereals has provided the basis for national resistance breeding efforts for the past two decades. Genetic resistance to rust diseases in wheat alone was estimated to save Australia more than $AUD1billion in 2009.

Professor Park is also involved in the global effort to tackle a new race of stem rust, known as Ug99, which has emerged in several east African countries in recent years. There is a high risk of Ug99 spreading across to India in the immediate future and scope for it to even find its way to Australia.

Professor Park will also discuss the work of his former colleague, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug, during Rust Never Sleeps. Dr Borlaug is known as the ‘father of the Green Revolution’ because of his work to improve grain varieties. The Green Revolution helped double the world’s food output from 1960 to 2000, doubling India’s wheat harvest between 1965 and 1972.

Professor Park currently holds the Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the Institute and is the Director of Cereal Rust Research at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

Event details:

What: Rust Never Sleeps: Combating Plant Rust Diseases to Protect Our Food Supplies
When: Wednesday 15 October, 5.45-6.45pm
Where: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney
Cost: Free but registration essential.

Media enquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 0434 605018

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