April 1, 2020 | By Jacqueline Hughes

Field Notes - Shaping Future-Ready Food Systems, One Crop at a Time

The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Breaking Ground,” to explore how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world.A special subsection of our series, “Field Notes,” features voices from Feed the Future Innovation Labs and CGIAR centers.

“Have you eaten rice yet?” is not a literal yes/no question in China. Translated to “Chi fan le mei you?”, the question is synonymous to “How are you?” or “Hello!” and has been used as an everyday greeting for many centuries.  

One can hear different versions of the same traditional greeting in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. In Japan and Korea, rice is the subject of hundreds of time-honored wisdom proverbs, like “Others’ rice cakes always look bigger”, which is very much like the West’s “The grass is always greener on the other side.”  

These proverbs and greetings are a testament to the way rice and its cultivation have shaped cultures, norms, and languages in the region, as well as economic and geopolitical landscapes. The crop is front and center in national food security programs, and continues to be at the top of the list of most traded agricultural commodities worldwide. Even in Africa, where rice is not a traditional daily staple, it is the fastest-growing commodity crop and regional demand is expected to outstrip supply to the tune of about USD$6B per year. 

On a sprawling rural campus south of Manila lies the headquarters of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). For 60 years, IRRI’s work on rice has played a pivotal role in increasing agricultural productivity and providing technological and innovative solutions for governments and farmers across Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa and it continues in work with AfricaRice to adapt solutions across African landscapes. 

While IRRI has made significant headway in charting paths for scalable development impacts in both Asia and Africa, much remains to be done. Climate change, widening income gaps, and a rapidly growing population are challenges for the rice sector, which currently provides food for half the world’s people.  

The greater irony of the situation is this: the numbers of those who cultivate rice for a growing global population have been dwindling with time, growing older, and many of them are in some of the world’s poorest and most climate-affected locations. 

Increasing urbanization and the rising middle class have also led to stratification within most developing countries, resulting in hunger and food scarcity. In fact, in South Asia, there exists a “triple burden” where countries deal with the issues of undernutrition, malnutrition, and obesity all at the same time. 

Agriculture and Cities 

Structural transformations such as urbanization have resulted in a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges. By 2050 and despite steady decreases in the world’s arable land, demand for food is expected to increase anywhere from 59-98 percent. Much of the demand for rice will be shaped by Asia’s growing middle class, whose preferences for rice are rapidly changing along with their lifestyles and nutrition priorities. 

In a study entitled “Hidden linkages between urbanization and food systems,” authors Karen Seto and Navin Ramankutty highlight shifts in norms and attitudes about food and how these play into the conversation on cities and agriculture. They explore questions on how new urban spatial configurations affect food demand, and how changing preferences influence resource use and the environment. 

Supermarkets now have a wealth of highly-processed and high-calorie food items of low nutritional value, while agri-enterprises and small-scale producers of nutritious food still lack access to viable markets. Then there’s the issue of food safety, which has received newfound attention in the middle of the COVID-19 health crisis. 

In one example, Seto and Ramankutty highlight the faster pace of life in the city, necessitating reduced meal cooking times. While this may sound trivial, it actually requires researchers and scientists to come up with new or enhanced crop varieties and food and packaging innovations. Governments, on the other hand, are expected to do some heavy lifting. This will include revisiting existing policies, which, in their present state, may not address negative externalities on consumption, social welfare, and health. 

These call into question the sustainability of present food systems, many of which have been in place for decades and in some countries, for centuries. In Southeast Asia for instance, rice is closely interconnected with other food sectors, and evolving trade policies of major exporting countries like Thailand and Vietnam have made the region susceptible to market shocks and price instabilities.  

Governments must take a “food systems approach”, which basically means contextualizing food systems and broadening the framework beyond just value chains and markets. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu calls on leaders to consider the nutritional, environmental, cultural and social aspects involved in food systems, and underpin transformational change by political will and investments and innovation, including technology. 

Multi-Stakeholder, Interdisciplinary Linkages 

Transforming food systems in an increasingly urban setting will also require discussions on domestic and international trade, as well as the importance of strong working partnerships to support targeted research.  

Over the years, IRRI has built networks to prepare for food systems transformations. As early as 2014, we published a paper in partnership with the World Bank and FAO aptly entitled, “Rice in the Shadow of Skyscrapers: Policy Choices in a Dynamic East and Southeast Asian Setting.” The paper used foresight to revisit traditional policy instruments across countries, and laid out several policy options that are more in keeping with changing contexts. 

The paper is an exercise in partnerships. Economists, program managers, agricultural scientists, and other experts weighed in on challenges in the rice sector, and proposed policy directions informed by multi-disciplinary perspectives. 

In 2017, IRRI and UN Environment established the Sustainable Rice Platform, a global alliance that has developed standards and performance indicators for rice cultivation that takes into account social, economic, and environmental dimensions.  

As countries strive to improve performance and meet indicators both of the Platform and the SDGs, rice shall ideally be made more affordable, livelihoods of smallholders will be improved, and production will have reduced environmental impacts. Urbanization will no longer be a threat, but will play an important role in the stability and sustainability of local markets. 

In fact, IRRI’s decision to hold the 2018 International Rice Congress in Singapore was a strategic move. The city may not be a rice producer, but it is a significant logistics and shipping hub for rice trade, and is being eyed as an ideal location for a rice futures market to ensure the availability and affordability of rice worldwide. 

Finally, in April 2019, IRRI, WorldFish, and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) embarked on a project on the sustainable intensification and management of rice-fish production systems in irrigated landscapes and wetlands in South and Southeast Asia. This agreement is part of an overall “food systems revolution” under the CGIAR 2030 Plan, which leverages partnerships and integrates sustainability, genetics, socio-economics, and information to meet the SDGs. 

This agreement exemplifies a food systems approach to transforming the global rice sector. The combined global research expertise and influence of IRRI, WorldFish, and IWMI in the core elements of diets such as rice and fish, as well as land and water systems make this strategic collaboration essential to a food systems revolution. 


Most Asian countries continue to place rice at the center of food security imperatives, even as rural populations migrate and arable land dwindles along with the number of farmers. Africa, on the other hand, has yet to maximize its potential in rice production and position the crop as a strategic commodity for poverty reduction, economic self-sufficiency, and food security. 

Untangling complex food systems in these regions requires significant paradigm and policy shifts. For the rice sector, these shifts can be launched with a thorough and strategic stocktaking of the opportunities and challenges at hand. With only ten years left to achieve the SDGs, IRRI is focusing its efforts on helping governments achieve Goal 2: Zero Hunger and Goal 13: Climate Action. 

A new food system will rely on, among others, suitable metrics to aid decision-making along the transformation process. IRRI’s Asi@Connect RICESTATS Database, launched in late 2019, is intended to become a first-of-its-kind one-stop resource with a displayable dashboard for rice statistics. It will contain data from household surveys conducted by IRRI globally and will also feature data from national agencies and international organizations. 

As decision-making becomes more informed, policies at the local, national, and global levels will also require greater reconciliation and convergence. Leveraging its experience, IRRI has developed future scenarios, policies, and strategies for rice agri-food systems using impact assessments to develop forward-looking, market-driven, climate-resilient, and gender-responsive breeding product profiles and production standards. These insights feed into policy recommendations for interregional and international networks and consortia either initiated, or facilitated, by IRRI. 

Finally, IRRI continues to articulate the inevitable trade-offs between the four main goals of nutritional health, environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and food security. If food systems are to be truly transformed at all, they have to be transformed with the far future in mind. This means looking at projections for 2050 and beyond, from demographics and climate scenarios to consumer trends and the political economy. In this context, the work of IRRI and its partners has never been more relevant. 


Read our previous posts in the Breaking Ground series:

Guest Commentary - Reduce Food Loss & Waste, Feed Millions

Guest Commentary - The Plague You’ve Never Heard About Could be as Destructive as COVID-19: How the Threat from Desert Locusts Shows the Need for Innovations in how Organizations Scale

Guest Commentary - Reducing Food Loss and Waste by Improving Smallholder Storage

Field Notes - Replacement of fisheries-derived fishmeal with yeast-derived proteins for sustainable aquaculture in Zambia

Field Notes - Systems thinking at work in South Asia's food production

Field Notes - Resilience+: How & Why Risk Management Innovations Reduce Poverty and Spur Agricultural Growth

Field Notes - The Beauty of the Bottom Up: Making Crop Improvement Work for National Programs

Field Notes - Brokering Research Crucial for Climate-Proofing Drylands

Field Notes - Food Safety Research is Foundational to Food Security

Field Notes - Reducing Post-Harvest Losses in Nigeria's Aquaculture Sector Contributes to Sustainable Development

Guest Commentary - The Critical Role of Women in Transforming the Food System

Guest Commentary - Adopting Conserving Agricultural Practices: A Farmer's Perspective

Guest Commentary - Investing in Innovation: Food, Agriculture and Forestry in Southeast Asia

Field Notes - To Meat or Not to Meat: Balancing Global Viewpoints in Battles over Food

Field Notes - Boosting Nutrition and Sustainability through Superfoods in Local Food Systems

Guest Commentary - Envisioning the Future of Food in Times of Change

Field Notes: Biocontrol of the Fall Armyworm - Long-term Resilience for Small-scalle Farmers


    The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

    The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

    Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


    1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

    Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

    Agrilinks Blog

    Bread Blog, Bread for the World

    Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

    Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

    Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

    End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

    Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

    The Global Food Banking Network

    Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

    The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

    International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

    International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

    ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

    One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

    Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

    Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

    Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

    Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

    WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


    | By Roger Thurow

    Our New Gordian Knot

    Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 

    | By Janet Fierro

    Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

    When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.