For 100 years, scientists at the University of Sydney have helped keep farmers in Australia and around the world ahead of wheat rust, virulent fungal pathogens that have the potential to wipe out entire wheat harvests.
Building on the early work of pioneering agricultural scientist William Farrer, Walter Lawry Waterhouse identified the first wheat rust strain in Australia in May 1921. Since then, the University has continually worked to develop rust resistant varieties, helping to guarantee the safety of Australia’s successful wheat industry, worth $6 billion a year.
It is estimated that a wheat rust epidemic of the scale not seen since 1973 would cost Australian farmers $1.4 billion.
“As well as helping to prevent an epidemic of that scale, the genetic work we do on wheat rust research saves Australian agriculture at least $1 billion a year,” said Professor Robert Park, Judith & David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture and Director of the University of Sydney Cereal Rust Research program.
“Our scientists have played a central role in successfully breeding hundreds of rust resistant wheat varieties that help feed the world,” he said. More than two billion people rely on wheat for their main dietary needs and it is the most widely grown cereal, occupying 17 percent of the world’s cultivated land.
Professor Park this week spoke at the Centenary Celebrations of the Cereal Rust Research Program held at our rural Camden campus. It was attended by academic leaders and researchers from across the sector, alumni now working for industry and government, and guests from the Grain Research and Development Corporation and the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.
“Despite our successes, we aren’t complacent,” Professor Park said. “We need to increase our research effort using the new genomic tools available to us to feed a growing population in a world under stress from climate change.”
University Chancellor Belinda Hutchison AC paid tribute to Professor Park and his team, noting that strong agricultural science was vital for Australia’s economy with the sector producing $60 billion in value every year.
“Clearly, agriculture is important for more than its contribution to our trade balance,” Ms Hutchison said. “In a world facing climate change and population growth, where there are still great inequalities, the health and resilience of the agriculture sector is critical and innovation essential.”
She said that such an approach was central to the University’s mission and for this we have again been recognised by Times Higher Education as the second strongest university in the world for our research and stewardship towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Speaking for the Grain Research and Development Corporation, GRDC Director Richard Heath said that rust accounts for 27 percent of GRDC investment on disease amounting to a $90 million investment over three decades.
“This program is recognised for its international impact: its gene discovery role cannot be overstated,” said Mr Heath, a former cereals farmer and science alumni of the University.
“We currently invest $40 million in collaborative projects with the University of Sydney, underpinning the GRDC approach that strives to bring best and brightest together across the industry,” he said.
“We are especially pleased to continue our support for critical research in areas such as genetics, soil science and plant science. We applaud you for pursuing a bold program for agricultural research.”
Assistant Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Dr David Dall, said that Australia had set itself the ambitious target of increasing agriculture’s contribution to the national economy from $60 billion to $100 billion a year.
“In large part that will rest on protecting primary industries from diseases,” he said, pointing to the government’s Budget announcement committing $370 million to biosecurity over four years.
“The University of Sydney cereal rust program is of enormous importance and is an outstanding example of how research and development contribute to national productivity.”
Professor Duncan Ivison said: “One hundred years of rust research is an extraordinary legacy to build upon. It is made more significant given that it is a research program developed in in partnership with government, industry and increasingly with our First Nations people.”
For the future Professor Park said: “The genomic revolution is leading to convergence of research programs, allowing us to work across a wider academic terrain. That revolution will keep rolling on, surprising us with new discoveries even over the next five to 10 years,” he said.
In conclusion, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Garton, reaffirmed the central importance of agriculture to the University of Sydney.
“Making agriculture sustainable and resilient is part of our contribution to the nation. Our job is to take our science to industry to ensure it makes a difference to the Australian and global economy,” he said.
“With our partners in the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, wider industry and government, we are ready to take the next steps to lead transformative change.