Friday, September 16, 2011

Rice, That's What's for Dinner: Columbia University Hosts Bob Zeigler to Discuss Global Food trends and the Importance of Rice and Agricultural Research in Addressing World Hunger

On Friday September 9th 2011, SIPA and the Earth Institute kicked off the beginning of the semester with an enlightening presentation by Dr. Bob Zeigler, Director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world’s leading center for the study of rice. The presentation marked this fall’s first of a series of weekly Development Practitioner Seminars organized by SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice program. Speakers from around the world come to Columbia University to share their work with the campus community.

The timing for Dr. Zeigler’s presentation couldn’t be better. Recent figures from the FAO estimate that 925 million people in the world are undernourished. With 50% of the world’s population eating rice as their main staple, ensuring that there are enough cereal stocks for everyone is a global priority. The images of the food riots of 2008 and the long lines of people waiting for food aid remind us that the world needs more food and better and more comprehensive development strategies.

But the challenges to feed a famished world are multiple and complex. According to Dr. Zeigler, the shrinking number of workers for the labor-intensive cultivation of rice, combined with declining water levels for a crop that needs swampy conditions to thrive, is making it difficult to keep production of this precious staple above global demand. Moreover, as Asian cities and industries continue to expand, land availability for rice fields is becoming scarcer.

As we enjoy our sushi and arroz con leche, it’s important to reflect on the progress made over the past 4 decades. IRRI is credited for saving the lives of millions of people in the 60s and 70s during the Asian Green Revolution. Due to the development of improved rice varieties and advances in fertilizers, irrigation, and pest control methods, Asian countries were able to nearly triple rice yields from 1.5 tons per hectare to 4 tons. The abundance of rice lowered consumer prices significantly, laying one of the foundations for robust economic growth in what later became known as the Asian Miracle. The impact was also felt in Latin America but to a lesser extent in Africa.

Today’s challenges are different from those in the 60’s. However, Dr. Zeigler stated that technology and innovation continue to play an important role. Under his leadership, the center is developing vanguard research with promising results. One example is golden rice, a variety of the staple that contains beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. With millions of children suffering from micro-nutrient deficiencies, golden rice holds enormous potential to bring Vitamin A into their diets. The center is also working hard to develop other creative solutions.  Such innovations include the cultivation of rice varieties that can be grown in Africa, the utilization of mobile technology to support poor farmers, and a reduction in the amount of water required for rice cultivation, among many other projects. One of the most exciting projects is the development of rice varieties that can withstand extended submergence, an increasing hazard in the river deltas of Asia, made worse by global warming.

After decades of neglect, funding for agricultural research is starting to come back to the donors’ agenda. Today, there is a strong scientific consensus about the central role that agricultural research must play in addressing issues of global food insecurity. But that scientific consensus must advance to a public policy debate. This seminar was an excellent platform to inspire the next generation of policy makers and development practitioners, and ensure that the legacy of Dr. Zeigler, the IRRI, and the many other organizations working on reducing poverty and hunger throughout the world, endures until every child gets a plate of rice and vegetables for every meal.