Planting The Seeds Of Food Security In Asia

In Asia, the humble rice grain has far-reaching impacts on lives and economies. Dr. Bruce Tolentino of the International Rice Research Institute shares his insights.

Bruce Tolentino
Deputy Director General (Communication and Partnerships)
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
Los Baños, the Philippines


AsianScientist (Nov. 29, 2017) – As global populations rise, food security—the supply of and access to nutrition that fulfils dietary needs—becomes an increasingly pressing issue. In Asia, where population growth is most rapid, rice is a staple food, thus the supply of rice needs to be carefully managed to avoid feast and famine situations. This means that rice seeds, irrigation practices and farmer welfare are among the many factors that need to come together synergistically to enable stable rice production, reduce hunger and poverty as well as buffer against the effects of climate change.

Dr. Bruce Tolentino, Deputy Director General (Communication and Partnerships) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) headquartered in Los Baños, Philippines, has spent a large part of his career developing deep insights into the dynamics of rice production and food security in Asia and around the world. He shared with Asian Scientist Magazine his experience managing large scale governance, rural, agricultural and agro-enterprise development programs across the globe.

  1. What got you interested in socioeconomic reform and food security?
  2. My academic background is economics–an area that I entered into coming from a background in rural and agricultural development work in Southern Philippines. While working with NGOs in poverty-stricken rural communities, I saw how powerful government policy and public investment can be in either improving the lives and welfare of communities, or even worsening poverty.

    The daily lives of poor communities are dominated by their need for adequate food and basic nutrition, and any additional income that impoverished families earn often goes immediately into buying more food staples—rice—especially across Asia.

  3. What are some commonalities you have observed that determine the success of of large-scale agricultural and agro-enterprise development programs? What are some common pitfalls?
  4. The key success factors are clarity of mission and stable donor support. Through most of modern history, these types of development programs are largely supported and financed by donors and governments–often from the West.

    Such support is often unstable and inconsistent, prone to ebbs and flows caused by politics and fashionable development notions among policymakers in the donor countries, which are far removed from the realities on the ground in the beneficiary nations and communities. Unstable funding environments cause development organizations to behave erratically and chase money instead of focusing on their core missions of enabling poor communities to rise out of poverty.

  5. You have written extensively about how food security is a regional, even international effort. How do you think countries can better collaborate to eliminate hunger and malnutrition?
  6. Agriculture—which produces food—cannot be confined to the artificial borders of countries. Food is a product of human ingenuity applied to natural resources—land, water, sunlight, rainfall—that also spill across borders. Some countries, especially the large countries like the US, China, India, have more than enough food. Many other, smaller countries—such as Singapore, Malaysia, Korea—are largely dependent on food produced by others.

    With worsening climate change and resource degradation, as populations continue to grow, open international trade and global cooperation is becoming even more imperative to ensure that all populations of all nations share in the bounty of the earth as a whole.

  7. What is your role in the IRRI?
  8. I serve as Deputy Director General, responsible for fundraising, communication, partnerships, and legal affairs. These are necessary support tasks to IRRI’s overall mission to ensure adequate, high-quality rice for the world, while improving the welfare of farmers and protecting the environment.

  9. Why is rice research important in Asia?
  10. Rice is important not only in Asia, but across the world. Ninety percent of the world’s rice is produced in Asia. China produces 30 percent, India 26 percent, ASEAN 27 percent. Rice is also produced in Australia, the US, Latin America and, increasingly, in Africa. As African economies grow, and their populations’ incomes increase, their staple foods are shifting away from root crops and plantains to rice.

    Rice research is very important to enable all rice-growing nations to meet the challenges of growing populations, more discerning and quality-conscious consumers, and to raise the incomes and welfare of rice farmers. Rice is very much a public good, and thus public investment in research is necessary to produce the germplasm and scientific technology that enables continuous growth and improvement of the global rice industry.

  11. In your opinion, what is the most urgent problem that needs to be solved regarding food security in Asia?
  12. To develop rice varieties and planting technologies that can withstand the impacts of climate change—increased temperatures, serious droughts, flooding and salinity.

  13. How do you think organizations such as the IRRI can help solve these problems?
  14. IRRI is one of the world’s most important international agricultural research centers—producing public good science useful for all countries and all populations—without worrying about commercial objectives. The one and only focus of IRRI is to ensure that consumers have the rice they need for nourishment, and for farmers to derive decent incomes from their labor.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bruce Tolentino
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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