Sydney Science discusses managing diseases to protect the world’s food supply

Efforts to control plant diseases which contribute significantly to global hunger was the centerpiece of this year’s Sydney Science Forum—a free public lecture—at the University of Sydney.

The World Health Organization (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.

University of Sydney environmental sciences
Study agriculture at the University of Sydney

The University of Sydney's Professor Robert Park is one of a team of scientists leading the charge against cereal rust. His Oct. 15 lecture, “Rust Never Sleeps: Combating Plant Rust Diseases to Protect Our Food Supplies,” outlined the magnitude of damage caused by cereal rust diseases, the implications of their rampant spread and what needs to be done to control them.

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 $1 billion AUD 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 also discussed 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 Sydney Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

Sydney Faculty of Agriculture and Environment

The faculty has access to some of the world’s best-equipped and newest research facilities, including the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food, and the world renowned Plant Breeding Institute. The faculty’s substantial field stations in Australia include 1,200 hectares of farmland, and house state-of-the-art research facilities with enviable amenities for large-scale field studies in agricultural science, food science, environmental studies, ecology, bush-fire research and more.

The Master of Agriculture and Environment is focused on providing students with the knowledge and skills necessary to tackle and create solutions for our time in areas such as food security, climate change, and management of carbon, water and the environment within the changing complexity of global markets and world economics.

If you have a degree in science, economics or related work experience (accreditation subject to approval) the Master of Agriculture and Environment is the degree for you. Students will gain important hands-on experience, which is highly valued by employers in both the public and private sectors. Within this articulated degree, students will complete a research project that provides the opportunity to identify and address critical and current problems and issues, and develop skills in project management, effective communication and cross-disciplinary thinking. A range of specialist streams is available to those wishing to target specific areas of interest.

Program: Master of Agriculture and Environment
Location: Camperdown Campus, Sydney, New South Wales
Duration: 1.5 years
Semester intakes: March 2015 and July 2015
Application deadline: January 31, 2015 for the March 2015 intake; however, it is recommended that you apply as early as possible in order to allow yourself time for the pre-departure process.

Admission requirements

A successful applicant for admission to this program will
  • (a) hold a relevant bachelor’s degree with a credit average or an equivalent qualification; or
  • (b) have completed the requirements for the award of the Graduate Certificate in Agriculture and Environment from the University of Sydney or equivalent qualification.
In exceptional circumstances the Dean may admit applicants without these qualifications who, in the opinion of the faculty, have qualifications and evidence of experience and achievement sufficient to successfully undertake the award.

Graduate opportunities

Opportunities for skilled graduates are in growing fields such as carbon, water and energy trading, food security, food futures, ecohydrology, and sustainability, complementing recent developments in catchment management, land rehabilitation and molecular science. Graduates are employed in agribusiness and marketing firms, merchant banks, commodity trading companies, environmental consultancies, and scientific research organisations around the world, government departments and the private sector.


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