IN THE 1950s and early 1960s, there was serious concern that Asia could not feed itself, particularly China, afflicted by the famine induced by Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
That is a distant memory thanks largely to the agronomist Yuan Longping, ‘the Father of Hybrid Rice’, seen above in a 1981 photograph. Yuan died in hospital on May 21 following a fall in March. He was 91.
Yuan was a pioneer in developing the higher-yield hybrid rice varieties that fed China and the region’s growing population. An estimated one-fifth of all rice now comes from hybrid species resulting from his breakthrough discoveries.
He started work on these while teaching at Hunan Agricultural University in Anjiang in Hunan province in the 1950s, publishing his first research paper in 1964. His first cross-breeding successes came in the early 1970s; he developed his breakthrough hybrid, Nan-you No. 2, which yielded 20% more than existing rice varieties, in 1973, by when he had become a research professor at the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Yuan and his colleagues had refined their seed production technologies by 1975, allowing the large-scale production of hybrid rice to begin. Nan-you No. 2 was put into commercial production the following year.
According to obituaries in state media, the difference in yield was sufficiently great to feed an additional 70 million people a year. With higher yields, farmers could grow more rice and switch hectarage to other crops to provide greater food security.
Yuan presented his work to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (IRRI) in 1979, setting off an avalanche of regional hybrid rice research. Our man wet to the calves from standing in paddy says he recalls the stir that Yuan’s presentation caused.
In 1984, Yuan was appointed the inaugural director-general of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha and took on a growing national profile in advancing agricultural research inside China and promoting hybrid rice and China’s scientific standing internationally. He received the highest state honour, the Medal of the Republic, in 2019.
Yuan continued to develop hybrid rice strains that could adapt to different growing environments, working most recently on rice that could grow in saline-alkali water, until shortly before his death.
Recognised internationally for his work, if not the household name outside his field that he was in China, Yuan shared the prestigious World Food Prize in 2004. His citation said he had ‘discovered a genetic phenomenon in rice and then developed the technologies essential for breeding the first hybrid rice variety ever created’.
It also said that Yuan had ‘helped create a more abundant food supply and more stable world’. A finer epitaph no man could hope for.