How much of the solution to global hunger lies in the DNA of the food on our plates? That was the question on September 25th, when I had the opportunity to attend an event at the Brookings Institution entitled “Tackling the ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ by 2030: A Conversation with Robert Zeigler.” Dr. Zeigler, the Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), discussed how the institute’s scientific breakthroughs could influence hunger across the world.

IRRI’s mandate is to address issues of hunger and sustainability as they relate to rice. There is a strong geographical overlap between the world’s poorest communities and global rice demand.  IRRI’s research aims to meet this demand while addressing issues of change in climate, weather, and sea level.

One way to approach this challenge is through genetics: there are over 100,000 genetic variations of rice. ‘Genetic variation’ refers to the different forms of genes, which shape how the rice tastes as well as how well the plant survives in different conditions. With a better understanding of these variations, scientists can match the traits of certain genes to the conditions where they produce rice that performs best.

By exploring the genetic diversity of rice, the Institute’s scientists discovered a gene called Sub1, which allows rice to become flood resistant. Traditionally, a rice crop that is completely submerged in water has no chance of survival.  Yet rice crops that carry the Sub1 gene can survive even after being submerged for two weeks. Incidentally, Dr. Zeigler reported that rice carrying the Sub1 gene is tasty.

Though I found the discussion surrounding the science of rice fascinating, I wondered about the impact this innovation could have on poor communities living in flood-prone areas. Dr. Zeigler then shared a story about the positive change Sub1-infused rice can bring to communities in need. In 2009, an Indian farmer by the name of Nakanti Subbarao was one of the first to adopt Sub1-infused rice in his community. His region experienced three weeks of flooding, yet he was able to harvest 70 percent of his rice crop. Since then, several varieties of flood-resistant rice have been distributed across South and East Asia.

This story immediately brought the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in India (AKRSP) to mind. AKRSP has been working with poor communities in rural India to address four main criteria: economic development, social development, basic services (food, energy, water), and improved governance. The program aims to address the needs of rural people via community participation and decision-making. “One of the characteristics of ultra-poor communities” reports AKRSP, “has been a lack of organization.” In response, AKRSP empowers people to plan and implement their own development strategies. This way, the community is responsible for working together to build a sustainable, self-reliant future.

In India, flood-resistant rice helps a spectrum of beneficiary groups. One such group is the extremely poor descendants of lower caste members. These historically disadvantaged farmers are more likely to cultivate flood-prone lands for lack of better options. With the introduction of the Sub1 variety, scientists predict that this population will have the most to gain.

Rice can do so much more than feed people, if farmers work together to become self-reliant. Farmers who produce a high-crop yield can sell the surplus for a profit, allowing them to invest in their farms or their children’s education. Smaller rice farms that rely on human labor may have the opportunity to hire landless farmers as employees. There is also an educational component, where experienced farmers may teach others. By making these connections and taking an integrated approach to development, whole communities may have a stronger chance to move away from poverty.

Ultimately, the issue of hunger has many factors, but I left the event feeling inspired by all of the possibilities that exist in a single grain of rice.

Marriam Shah, Communications Fellow at Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A.