Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist whose breakthroughs in developing high-yield hybrid rice helped to alleviate starvation and poverty not only in China but also across much of Asia and Africa, passed away over the weekend. He was 90.
Nearly 100,000 ordinary Chinese people went to pay tribute to Yuan, known as "the Father of Hybrid Rice," in front of the funeral home in Changsha on Sunday, placing flowers and leaving thank-you notes on site.
Yuan spent his life researching rice. The hybrid strain he developed in the 1970s boosted annual yield by 20% at the time, meaning it could feed an extra 70 million people a year.
Today, the hybrid rice is grown in more than half of China's rice paddies and its yield makes up for 60 percent of China’s total rice production. Worldwide, a fifth of all rice now comes from species created by hybrid rice following Yuan’s breakthrough discoveries, according to the website of the World Food Prize, which he won in 2004.
Born in Beijing in 1930, Yuan once said he had two dreams -- to "enjoy the cool under the rice crops taller than men" and that hybrid rice would be grown all over the world to help solve the global scarcity of food, according to Xinhua News Agency.
In order to create more productive rice crops in the early 1970s, Yuan travelled to Hainan, China’s southernmost island province, where he searched for wild varieties with promising genetic features. His team came across a stretch of wild rice near a rail line, which led to his discovery that yields of commercial strains could be greatly boosted by adding genetic materials from wild strains.
Over the next four decades, he continued to research and upgrade hybrid rice, which has now reached its third generation. In 2019, he was one of eight Chinese individuals awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest official honor.
While China’s total rice growing area declined after 2015, the hybrid varieties are grown in more rice paddies, according to the researcher Forward Intelligence. China has basically achieved self-sufficiency in grain supply, China's second white paper on food security in 2019 noted. In terms of rice, there's a surplus in production, the paper said.
Even in his later years, Yuan continued to lead China’s research into rice breeding. In 2017, working with a Hunan agricultural school, he helped create a strain of low-cadmium indica rice for areas suffering from heavy metal pollution, reducing the amount of cadmium in rice by more than 90%.
In 2019, his team unveiled further improvement in yields of the third generation of hybrid rice, which could bring the average yield to 800 kilograms per mu, compared with the average of 500 kg per mu in the country and about 600 kg to 700 kg per mu for hybrid rice.
A recent focus of his team has been on seawater rice, which Yuan said is vital to China's food security, as the country is home to one-tenth of the world's saline-alkaline land.
In 2017, his team started to grow salt-alkali tolerant rice in Qingdao in China's eastern Shandong Province. The rice was designed to grow in tidal flats or saline-alkaline land and survive even after being immersed in seawater, Xinhua reported.
His team planned to develop a type of seawater rice that could be planted in 6.67 million hectares of saline-alkaline land across China, which they estimated could boost the country's rice harvest by about 20 percent.
In October 2020, a rice breed developed by Yuan's team achieved a yield of 802.9 kg per mu on average in three plots of saline soil in Rudong County in Jiangsu Province, a record output for rice grown on saline soil in China.
In June 2020, his team started to grow seawater rice on a farm at an altitude of 2,800 meters in northwest China's Qinghai Province, the first such trial on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, a region long believed unsuitable for growing rice.
In 2018, Yuan's team was invited to make a trial plantation of the saline-alkaline tolerant rice in experimental fields in Dubai, which achieved huge success. China's export of saline-alkaline tolerant rice and the technique is seen as a way to combat global food insecurity, according to Xinhua.
China first exported hybrid rice to the US in 1979 and has forged agreements on the technology – sometimes dubbed “rice diplomacy” – with several developing countries, including the Philippines, Pakistan and Madagascar.
According to the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre where Yuan worked, about 8 million hectares overseas have been planted with the varieties. A member researcher on Yuan’s team said in 2019 that they plan to further increase the planting area of hybrid rice by 70 percent worldwide in the long run.