Strategic Research for Food Security, Economic Growth and Environmental Protection: A Rice Case Study

The Office of International Programs welcomed Dr. Robert S. Zeigler as the guest for the spring 2013 ACES Distinguished International Lecture. As Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Zeigler spoke about “Strategic Research for Food Security, Economic Growth and Environmental Protection: A Rice Case Study.”

Zeigler began by discussing the basics of rice as a crop and food: “It is typically grown by small farmers on small plots of land, and relies on human labor. It grows in environments where most crops would drown. Fifty percent of the people in the world eat rice on a daily basis, and it is the most important food crop for the world’s poor.”

Therefore, Zeigler emphasized, that in any effort to address global food security, rice needs to be a major part of the undertaking.

He initially hinted at opportunities for improving rice, which he expanded on later: “Rice is one of the most genetically diverse of the crops we grow today. It was domesticated somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago and this work is continuing; rice has a huge treasure trove of genetic resources we are just beginning to tap.”

Zeigler emphasized the value of research and the unbelievable return on investment. He provided a short history on the “green revolution” in Asia during the 1960s, when science was used to increase rice yields. When research resulted in changing the rice plant to a stocky version, yields “went through the roof,” he said. Zeigler noted that this research of the 1960s “led to complete revolution in Asia, led to Asian economic miracle, and to the Asia we have today. “

After this revolution, the price of rice declined steadily, and this, he noted is “like a raise in pay” for the world’s poor.

However, he explained, in the late 1980s, the food security problem fell off the radar, and a decrease in agricultural investment resulted in an eventual plateaus for rice yields. He said, “The impact wasn’t immediate. We saw a plateau in Asian yields 10-15 years after funding declined for public-sector agricultural research. And then after 2000, the price of rice crept back up to a series of food price shocks that began in 2007 and continue today.”

Zeigler warned, “There are tremendous challenges before us. There will be increasing demand over the foreseeable future. Rice production and supplies will have to continue to grow to meet demand. However, the rice we need for the future will have to “come from less land, be farmed by fewer people, using less water. There will need to be major changes.”

Additionally, Zeigler notes, “We have to take into account global warming. We will have to meet increasing demands in a hostile environment.” He provided a shocking statistic from IRRI’s research: “With every degree increase in nighttime temperatures, resulting yields dropped by 1 percent.”

However, he believes that science can solve the major social problems. “Today’s challenges are even more serious but new technologies will help us face these challenges. Both plant breeding and crop management must come together to make any significant advances.”  He called for a “science-based, second green revolution” where we tap revolutions in genetics, molecular biology, and plant physiology.

Zeigler took the lecture attendees back to the age of the dinosaurs to explain the genetic history of rice. He explained, “After the mass extinction (of the dinosaurs) came an explosion of evolution, which is what happened with grasses. We are still living in the era of the grasses. Grasses eventually gave rise to Oryza. Domesticating rice was a random process so they left some good traits behind. What we are trying to do is take traits that have been isolated from domestic rice for 10 million years and bring those traits forward for today.” 

He noted that the IRRI has 110,000 different rice lines in its collection, but less than 5 percent have been used thus far in crop improvement. Right now, hundreds of labs are moving towards a better understanding of rice genotypes. He said, “The ability to sequence a genome allows us to understand the gene bank. The cost of sequencing is now very affordable. We will be able to sequence our entire gene bank in a few years. This will be a game changer.”

He gave an example of transferring  salt tolerance from Oryza coarctata, a wild species that grows well in brackish water, which is now growing in salt water, into cultivated rice, and said, “This is just a hint of what’s to come.”

He gave another example of a flood tolerant variety of rice. “In 2006, we took seed to India’s worst flooding area for testing. The field was subjected to two floods, and the farmer’s neighbors told him to plow the field, but we convinced him to keep field in.” Zeigler showed photos of this farmer’s successful crop that he harvested and sold, and said that by 2012, three million farmers were growing flood tolerant varieties. He said, “This has been one of the fastest adoptions of technology I’ve seen, and it may soon be recognized as the start of the second green revolution for these poorest areas which were bypassed by the first green revolution.”  

Zeigler said that IRRI is even combining flood and draught tolerance within the same variety, and working to supercharge photosynthesis in rice.

Noting that 40 percent of Asia’s water goes to grow rice, IRRI is also looking at ways to reduce rice’s use of water. Zeigler said, “We have been looking at different techniques, there are approaches we can use from decades of research, including alternate wetting and drying, as long as water stays around root system.”

Zeigler wants to offer farmers very simple tools to monitor their fields and make decisions. The IRRI has developed a suite of tools that allows farmers to use cellphone technology to enter answers to a series of questions that will tell them what fertilizer to add.

Zeigler expects to see “a digital revolution through agriculture, around the world, through the cell phone where farmers will connect to credit, crop insurance, and seed purchase.”

He also talked about new satellite technology. “When we look at meeting the food demand for the future, policy makers need a lot of information; the question is how do they get that information? We are working with remote technology that is becoming affordable and accessible. For example, the European Satellite Association is releasing a new satellite that can see images through clouds. Therefore, we can get a picture of rice anywhere in the world. We can see, from radar image, for example, different colors represent different planting dates, and that information will allow us to predict yield estimates for any particular area. And if there is catastrophe, like a flood or cyclone, we can see how much crop is affected.”

Zeigler, therefore, has much reason for optimism due to the surge of new technologies. He closed by encouraging the younger generation: “You grad students have an opportunity to have a career that is so exciting, stimulating, and satisfying. We have all kinds of new ways to use technologies to transform the world. There is a role for the public sector, an important role. And private sector is more and more engaged, and it is up to us to make sure the young scientists are excited.”

Further, he announced that IRRI has just received a grant that provides opportunities for Asian scientists to obtain graduate degrees from top U.S. institutions, such as the University of Illinois, and conduct research at IRRI.  

Following the lecture, attendees gathered for a reception where they were able to ask Zeigler some additional questions.

The Office of International programs thanks its co-sponsors of this important lecture: the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss, the Illinois Plant Breeding Center, and the Department of Crop Sciences. 


Robert S. Zeigler is an internationally respected plant pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in agricultural research in the developing world. He has served as Director General of the IRRI since 2005. He has a Ph.D. from Cornell in plant pathology, with a minor in plant breeding; a M.S. from Oregon State University in forest ecology with a minor in soils/statistics; and a B.S. from the University of Illinois (with High Honors) in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry and mathematics. Zeigler noted that his interest in international engagements was spurred through a study trip as a student. He also served in the Peace Corps and spent two years as a science teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) in Africa before completing his studies.

IRRI is a non-profit independent research and training organization and is a member of the CGIAR Consortium. IRRI develops new rice varieties and rice crop management techniques that help rice farmers improve the yield and quality of their rice in an environmentally sustainable way. IRRI works with public and private sector partners in national agricultural research and extension systems in major rice-growing countries to do research, training, and knowledge transfer. Through its research the organization assists governments in formulating policy to improve the equitable supply of rice. For more information, visit