Can We Feed the World's Poor?

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute. (Asia Society Washington Center)

WASHINGTON, DC, November 3, 2008 - The world may not produce enough rice to feed its growing population by 2015. Such was the alarming scenario presented by Dr. Robert S. Zeigler, Director General of the Philippines-based nonprofit International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in a program at the Asia Society Washington Center.

Zeigler began his talk by explaining how rice is not only the primary food for billions of human beings, it is also the primary food source for most of the world's poor. The IRRI has calculated that of the 1.1 billion people around the world who live on less than a dollar a day, 700 million live in the rice-growing nations of Asia—and those people spend up to 50 percent of their earnings on rice.

Although rice production has been increasing since 1960, Zeigler continued, the yield of growth began to slow in 2005, while worldwide demand has only continued to rise. That shortfall effectively makes rice a strategic commodity for most Asian countries, who might take actions to prevent it from being exported. Citing statistics to back up his predictions, Zeigler suggested that by 2015 the world will need to produce an additional 50 metric tons of paddy rice. "Without some breakthrough, we will not be able to feed Asia," he concluded, emphasizing the importance of better funding for rice research that might one day result in higher-yielding strains.

Zeigler then pointed out several additional steps that need to be taken immediately in order to prevent a worsening of a global food crisis, in particular policy reforms and increased public investment in agricultural infrastructure.

Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 27 min.)