China’s ‘father of hybrid rice’, who revolutionised agriculture, dies at 91

Yuan Longping, center, stands in a field of hybrid rice in Handan in northern China's Hebei Province. File Photo

Yuan Longping, center, stands in a field of hybrid rice in Handan in northern China's Hebei Province. File Photo

Yuan Longping, a Chinese agricultural scientist whose breakthroughs in hybrid rice brought food security to China and transformed agriculture worldwide, died on Saturday aged 91.

Mr. Yuan, who is celebrated in China as the “father of hybrid rice” for his contributions to agriculture and beloved for his simple demeanour that endured despite the many honours that came his way, was still conducting research at the Sanya Hybrid Rice Research Base until he suffered a fall in March this year.

In 2004, he was honoured with the World Food Prize “for his breakthrough achievement in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high-yielding hybrid rice varieties”.

His "new hybrid rice technology not only benefited China, but was also enthusiastically adopted in other countries,” read the citation from the World Food Prize Foundation, noting that “he and his research associates traveled to India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the United States to provide advice and consultation to rice research personnel” and trained over 3,000 scientists from more than 50 countries.

"Farmers around the world have benefitted from his techniques as hybrid rice spread throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas,” the foundation said, adding that “the impact of Yuan’s ingenuity has been felt beyond China’s rice industry” as producers of other crops "successfully used the two-line breeding system for rice to explore similar systems for hybrid sorghum and rapeseed with increased yields.”

Discovery borne out of hardship

Mr. Yuan’s desire to experiment with rice was borne out of hardship. In 1960, when he was 30 years old, China was in the midst of a famine unleashed by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” policy in 1958 that devastated the agriculture sector and led to mass starvation and the deaths of millions.

"On a day in 1960, Yuan went outside of the school and came across two scrawny corpses lying on the side of the street,” he once told State broadcaster CCTV . "The frames were so thin that they looked like skin being wrapped on skeletons. The scene deeply stirred Yuan, who felt that he must do something.”

Mr. Yuan told the channel, "Something as small as a grain can save a country, while it can also make a country fall."

His experiments with rice went against conventional wisdom, as the World Food Prize Foundation noted, at a time when "classical genetics concluded that heterosis - a phenomenon in which the progeny of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more, and resist stress better than either parent – was not possible in self-pollinated crops such as rice.” He believed it was possible with rice, and published his first findings in 1964. Nine years later, he developed "the first hybrid rice combination called Nan-you No. 2 which, due to heterosis, boasted yields 20% higher than previous varieties,” the foundation said.

China’s rice production "rose by 47.5% by the 1990s, even as some five million hectares of erstwhile paddy land was shifted to cash crops such as vegetables, fruits, cotton, and rapeseed,” said the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, which honoured him with a prize in 2001, adding that "as much as half of China’s rice land is planted to Yuan’s hybrids."

By 1976, China began producing Nan-you No.2. The country’s total rice output surged from 5.69 billion tonnes in 1950 to 19.47 billion tonnes in 2000, for the first time transforming China into a grain surplus country.

Mr. Yuan worked until his last. Until earlier this year, he was researching in the island province of Hainan the cultivation of salt-alkali tolerant rice that could be grown in diluted seawater, Chinese State media reported.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 9:07:37 am |