Our important food fight

Food security is a vital challenge for the future, and researchers at the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment are crossing new frontiers of discovery on sustainable food production.

SOS: Sustain our soil

John Crawford

Professor John Crawford is leading the search for more sustainable soil.

“Food and water are the basic human requirements yet upward trends in consumption are at odds with declining capacity for supply,” says Professor John Crawford. “There is good evidence that we have about 20 years to adopt more sustainable approaches or face an unprecedented global crisis.”

Professor Crawford joins other researchers at the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment in the quest to give crop farmers of the future a more sustainable soil beneath their feet. Professor Crawford’s work focuses on soil microbes and how they can alter the physical structure of soil in certain circumstances. These changes can affect water flow and retention, nutrient dynamics, and carbon capture, directly influencing the land’s fertility.

The discovery that soil productivity can be increased using sustainable methods has also revealed new ways to enhance resilience and productivity in degraded land, and keep nutrient-rich land in good condition.

Professor Crawford’s work has been widely recognised, and he has active research collaborations in Australia, Europe, China and the United States. In 2008 he was awarded the inaugural Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney.

This new position was established to support the development of new and sustainable crop-growing methods in Australia’s harsh climate, which is constantly under stress from drought or excessive rain. The Coffeys’ vision is already being realised through Professor Crawford’s discoveries – leading Australia towards a future of sustainable food production.

A positive food fight

Professor Robert Park is another academic helping to lead the fight to keep us fed. As Chair of Cereal Rust Research at the University of Sydney, Professor Park is searching for ways to protect wheat (one of our most vital crops) from fungal diseases like stem rust.

It’s clearly not enough to conduct research and apply new technologies in Australia alone. Stem rust pathogens have been known to travel from Africa to Australia on high-altitude winds and cause millions of dollars of damage to our wheat crops. Professor Park has worked with young researchers in wheat-producing African nations to increase expertise there, and establish better systems worldwide for the prevention and treatment of crop diseases.

Last year, Professor Park received a $478,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to aid in studying cereal rust pathology and breeding wheat crops with a resistance to disease. He also won a 2010 Fulbright Senior Scholarship and spent four months at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in the United States Department of Agriculture.

Infectious diseases and insects reduce yields of the eight most important food crops in the world by 42 percent. It’s therefore vitally important that experts such as Professor Park are able to monitor and decrease the global spread of cereal rusts. He is also acknowledged as a research leader in other areas of plant pathology and genetics. In recognition of his significant contributions to disease identification and control in eucalypts, researchers recently named a new species M. parkii in his honour.