Father of Hybrid Rice
Yuan Longping, widely known as “the Father of Hybrid Rice,” died of illness on May 22. Yuan, the pioneer of the research and development of hybrid rice in China, was the first scientist in the world to successfully utilize the heterosis of rice. Having spent over five decades in hybrid rice research, Yuan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has helped China work a great wonder — feeding nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than 9 percent of the world’s total land. Yuan, the pioneer of the research and development of hybrid rice in China, was the first scientist in the world to successfully utilize the heterosis of rice.
Born in Beijing on Sept. 7, 1930, Yuan Longping was the son of a railroad official and English teacher. His family moved frequently, uprooted by war between China and Japan, then between nationalists and communists. He said he became fascinated by flowers and trees after visiting a horticultural center as a student in Wuhan.
Mr Yuan studied agronomy at what was then Southwest Agricultural College in Chongqing. After graduating in 1953, he taught at an agricultural college in Changsha, where his focus shifted from sweet potatoes to rice. High-yield hybrid corn was already in production, and Mr Yuan sought to do something similar with rice, a self-pollinating crop that posed a far greater challenge for plant breeders. He taught agriculture courses at the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, where he would remain until the 1980s.
After Mao Zedong, who then led the Communist Party of China, enacted the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and prioritized industry over agriculture, and food supplies from perceived political opponents were destroyed, the country soon found itself dealing with famine. Estimated deaths from starvation range from 36–45 million by 1962.
In his memoir, Yuan recalls seeing multiple dead bodies on the street daily and wanting to develop a way for farms to be more productive.
Once targeted by Communist officials for daring to suggest a slight change to Mao Zedong’s agricultural program, he emerged as a national hero in recent decades, with thousands of mourners leaving chrysanthemums for him at a memorial service in Changsha.
Getting enough to eat, however, used to be a serious problem in China. “I saw heartbreaking scenes of people starving to death on the road before 1949,” recalled Yuan. It was in that year that Yuan applied for Southwest Agricultural College and began his special connection with rice — a staple food for many Chinese people — that would become the focus of his lifelong research career.
As early as 1964, Yuan theorised that a male-sterile grain could be crossed with other plants to boost yields. A discovery of a peculiar wild rice species by Yuan in the southern island of Hainan in 1970 became the prelude of China’s decades-long efforts of hybrid rice research. Three years later, he cultivated the world’s first high-yielding hybrid rice strain with three lines, namely, the male sterile, maintainer and restorer. In 1973, he cultivated the first hybrid rice, thanks to the discovery of a wild rice species that made the breakthrough possible. Mass cultivation of the crop began in 1976 and proved key to China being able to feed one-fifth of the world’s population with just 9 percent of its arable land. In his later years, he was also involved in research in China and Dubai into growing crops in diluted seawater.
Hybrid rice has since been grown across the country and farmers have reaped incredible output after switching to Yuan’s hybrid varieties.
Hybrid rice recorded an annual yield about 20 percent higher than that of conventional rice strains — meaning it could feed an extra 70 million people a year. Now its accumulated planting area in China has exceeded 16 million hectares, with the total grain output reaching 658 billion kilograms (kgs) in 2018, a nearly fivefold increase from that of 1949.
In 1986, Yuan brought up the hybrid rice breeding strategy from the three-line hybrid rice strain to a two-line, and later on to a one-line variety. The two-line technique means that the hybrid rice seeds are cultivated with the male sterile and restorer lines only, which will call for less complicated techniques, save labour and cut costs. Compared with its three-line predecessor, the two-line hybrid rice strain has higher yields and makes use of manpower and material resources more efficiently, according to rice experts.
Rather than limit his rice technology and growing techniques to China, Mr Yuan pushed to share them with the world. He ultimately partnered with the United Nations and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, in addition to teaching farmers in India, Vietnam and elsewhere how to grow hybrid rice. In 2004, he was awarded the World Food Prize with rice researcher Monty Jones of Sierra Leone, and credited with helping “create a more abundant food supply and more stable world.”
Along with American scientist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who developed high-yield varieties of wheat, Mr Yuan was frequently cited as a leader of the Green Revolution, in which mid-century agricultural advances helped feed a growing planet.
On September 29, 2019, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, Yuan was awarded the “Medal of the Republic”. The award speech stated that he had devoted his life to the research, application and promotion of hybrid rice technology, created a super hybrid rice technology system, and made outstanding contributions to China’s food security, agricultural scientific development and world food supply.