Saving cereals: Colin Wellings wins Farrer Medal for cereal rust research

15 November 2011

Many of us eat cereals for breakfast, bread in our lunch and foods such as pasta, rice, quinoa, breads, pastry and pizza bases for dinner. Imagine if our cereals were threatened with disease and we had to give them up? Associate Professor Colin Wellings, from the Plant Breeding Institute in the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, has spent over 30 years saving our cereals with his research on cereal stripe rust and will receive the Farrer Medal for his world-renowned research on 16 November 2011.

Awarded by the committee of the Farrer Memorial Trust, the annual Farrer Medal is a national award that recognises distinguished service in agricultural science in the areas of research, education, extension or administration.

Associate Professor Wellings will receive his medal at the Food Security and Biosecurity Symposium on 16 November at the University of Sydney.

"The Farrer Memorial Medal is a great honour - quite overwhelming really when I see the outstanding contributions of people who have held the award over the past 70 years. The award continues a long tradition in recognising the broad role of agricultural science in developing and sustaining the economic vitality of rural Australia," said Associate Professor Wellings.

2011 Farrer Medal recipient Associate Professor Colin Wellings
2011 Farrer Medal recipient Associate Professor Colin Wellings

"Our research has been very much a team effort, and so I view this award as recognition of the long term contributions of the Cereal Rust Laboratory within the University of Sydney's Plant Breeding Institute and its staff to the national grains industries.

"My role has been to provide plant pathology support to growers, advisors and cereal breeders to contain the worst effects of stripe rust. Our research has unravelled the nature and complexity of the pathogen's biology in order to lay an effective foundation for practical disease control," explained Associate Professor Wellings.

With the Australian grains industry contributing approximately $5 billion in export earnings to the national economy, saving our cereals is no small task.

"Our Australian cereal industry must maintain international competitiveness by producing grain that is consistent in quality and quantity, while maintaining economic viability. Cereal disease control is a key element that contributes to the sustained capacity of the grains industry to contribute significantly to our national economic well being," said Associate Professor Wellings.

"If left unchecked, stripe rust has the potential to inflict annual losses estimated to approach $1 billion in Australia. Stripe rust has been a principle disease constraint to Australian wheat growers over the past decade.

"Growers will always need to capture the best of seasonal growing opportunities - good rain and warm temperatures - but these great growing conditions for the plants are also great growing conditions for the disease pathogens, such as the fungi that cause stripe rusts. This then becomes the challenge of the cereal breeder and the pathology researchers that underpin the breeding effort," explained Associate Professor Wellings.

"When we're successful in maximising yields and economic returns in these rust liable seasons through effective resistance in varieties and using strategic chemical intervention as required, then all of us who work long and hard at developing solutions for farmers feel a great sense of accomplishment."

His research has not just impacted on the Australian cereal industry, but also cereal industries in many of the world's cereal producing regions.

"Our research has been driven by the need to find sustainable answers to containing regional rust epidemics, both in Australia and overseas. We developed and deployed a set of genetic stocks that help identify rust pathotypes in-field, rather than relying on specialist greenhouse studies, which makes it much quicker to work out which pathotype is causing the problem.

"With help from agencies such as the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, we've been able to roll out these materials and the accompanying principles of our discipline to developing agricultural countries in the Middle East, Asia and Central and South America."

Associate Professor Wellings has led training of scientists from numerous countries, both in their respective countries and at the Plant Breeding Institute.

"I have been in the unique position of being seconded from the NSW Department of Primary Industries to the University of Sydney for over 30 years, and I believe the Farrer Medal also recognises the corporate commitment of these agencies to work together in seeking solutions and outcomes for rural communities."

Presenting his Farrer Memorial Medal Oration at the Food Security and Biosecurity Symposium at the University of Sydney on 16 November, Associate Professor Wellings will speak about the situation of stripe rust and its control, setting both an Australian and international perspective in his talk 'The Stripe Rust Race: from state to nation to world'.

The Food Security and Biosecurity Symposium on 16 November will deal with broad issues in plant biosecurity, and is open to everyone with an interest in the future health of Australia's grain, fodder, horticultural and apiculture industries.

The Farrer Memorial Trust was established in 1911 to perpetuate the memory of William Farrer and to encourage and inspire agricultural scientists. William Farrer is the famous 'father' of the Australian wheat industry and is best remembered as the breeder of the variety Federation and for significant improvements in Australia's wheat harvest.

Learn more about the Food Security and Biosecurity Symposium and register to attend at:

Contact: Ms Kate Rudd

Phone: 02 9351 8800

Email: 535725285b2b1b0b5310364f5021072c1b0c355e461800