Global food security: food, famine and fungi


Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Professor Sarah Gurr, University of Exeter


Thursday, 22 March, 2018 - 18:00

The global movement of plant pests and pathogens: implications for food security

Over the past centuries, crop diseases have led to the starvation of the people, the ruination of economies and the downfall of governments.

Of the various challenges, the threat to plants of fungal (and oomycete) infection outstrips that posed by bacterial and viral diseases combined. Indeed, fungal and oomycete diseases have been increasing in severity and scale since the mid 20th Century and now pose a serious threat to global food security and ecosystem health. We face a future blighted by known adversaries, by new variants of old foes and by new diseases. Modern agricultural intensification practices have heightened the challenge - the planting of vast swathes of genetically uniform crops, guarded by one or two inbred resistance genes, and use of single target site antifungals has hastened emergence of new virulent and fungicide-resistant strains. Climate change compounds the saga as we see altered disease demographics - pathogens are on the move poleward in a warming world. This presentation will highlight some current notable and persistent fungal diseases. It will consider the evolutionary “drivers” which underpin emergence of new diseases and manmade “accelerators” of spread. I will set these points in the context of four different recent disease modelling meta-analyses, which show the global distributions of crop pathogens; their predicted movement and crop disease saturation. The talk will include a Scotland-centric look at agriculture and forestry and its future under a changing climate, both with regards to crop demography and new pests and pathogens. I shall conclude with some thoughts on future threats and challenges, on fungal disease mitigation and of ways of enhancing global food security.

Professor Sarah Gurr studied at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (BSc ARCS DIC and PhD), where she was awarded The Huxley Medal for her outstanding record of achievement. She was a post-doctoral Fellow in Fungal Biology at St Andrews University and then held an independent Royal Society University Research Fellowship in Molecular Plant Pathology. She was appointed, firstly as Lecturer, then Reader and Professor at Oxford (and Fellow of Somerville College), where she held a Leverhulme Trust Royal Society Senior Research and a NESTA Fellowship. She was one of several curators of the Oxford Botanic Gardens for over 20 years. Sarah was appointed to the Chair in Food Security at Exeter University in 2013. She recently stepped down from her role as Head of Department. She was formerly President of The British Society of Plant Pathology and currently sits on the Council of the BBSRC Council. Her interests are in crop diseases, with particular emphasis on fungal infestations and in their global movement and control, as well as mechanisms of fungal pathogenicity . She has authored or co-authored over 125 publications, including a contribution to the recent Government Foresight report on “Biological Hazards”: a MOOC (massive online open course) on Climate Change. She spoke with Melvyn Bragg on “In Our Time” about fungi in February of this year (podcast available on Radio 4). Sarah has held the Donder's Chair (Honorary) at Utrecht University, 2016-2017 and the Erskine Fellowship at Canterbury University, Christchurch, NZ, 2017.

BSS lectures are held jointly with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in their lecture theatre. Tea is a available from 17:30, and the lecture will commence at 18:00h. All welcome.


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