An amazing fact: Farmers around the world produce nearly 1 trillion pounds of rice each year.

Impressed? You should be. A trillion pounds is a big pile of rice. If you were to eat a pound of it every second, your meal would take 31,546 years to complete. (So go ahead and skip the appetizer.)

Please don’t ask me how many individual rice kernels are grown each year. I can’t count that high, nor do I have the time.

Judging from this bounty, it would seem that the last thing the world needs is more rice. And yet, the truth is, we must continue discovering new ways to produce ever greater rice harvests, so that we may keep up with the planet’s growing population. Already, something like a billion people are actively involved in rice production–most of them small-scale farmers. The crop is such a fundamental part of the human diet that about half of the global rice output is eaten within eight miles of where it’s grown. And yet we must always press for more rice.

That’s been true for 5,000 years. Rice is one of the first crops farmers ever cultivated. And it remains true today, especially with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that 840 million people are undernourished. Rice can indeed go a long way toward alleviating this problem: In Asia alone, more than 2 billion people derive 60 to 70 percent of their calorie intake from this miracle plant.

It just so happens that the UN has decreed 2004 as the International Year of Rice–a celebration of the world’s most important crop as well as a call to renew our efforts at increasing its ability to feed people and provide income for farmers.

And so, appropriately enough, the co-recipients of this year’s World Food Prize are both active in the area of rice production. The winners, who will receive their awards in Des Moines on October 14, are Yuan Longping of China and Monty Jones of Sierra Leone.

For nearly 20 years, the World Food Prize has been bestowed upon exceptional people who have improved the quality, quantity, or availability of food. It was founded by my friend Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Green Revolution. I’m proud to serve on the prize’s advisory council.

And I’m thrilled about this year’s winners.

Professor Yuan is the director-general of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Hunan. His work on rice genetics made it possible to develop the first successful hybrid varieties that yield 20 percent above conventional kinds of rice. This achievement is credited with increasing food production in China–and feeding an extra 60 million people there each year. Today, he is known as the “Father of Hybrid Rice.”

Dr. Jones is executive secretary of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (based in Ghana) and was previously senior rice breeder at the West Africa Rice Development Center. He crossed two kinds of African rice to develop a high-yielding strain that resists drought and pests–and which holds the potential to benefit 20 million West African farmers.

The prizes were formally announced at the State Department in March. Secretary of State Colin Powell was among those who honored Yuan and Jones. “They have done great honor to their countries and great service to humankind,” he said. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman added her praise as well: “We deeply appreciate the work you have done to improve the quality of life for so many around the world.”

Now that’s a fine pair of admirers. And we should probably let them have the final word. After all, if everybody who has benefited from the work of Yuan and Jones sent them a thank-you card, can you imagine the stack of Hallmarks they’d have to read?