Yuan Longping, 'father of hybrid rice,' dies at 91
Updated 07:25, 23-May-2021
Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping at a demonstration field of hybrid rice in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, south China. /CFP

Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping at a demonstration field of hybrid rice in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, south China. /CFP

Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping, globally renowned for developing the first hybrid rice strains, died of an illness at 1:07 p.m. on Saturday at the age of 91, according to a hospital in Changsha, central China's Hunan Province.

Dubbed as the "father of hybrid rice," Yuan had devoted his life to the research and development of hybrid rice, which helped China feed nearly one-fifth of the world's population with only about 7 percent of the world's arable land.

On September 29, 2019, a day before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Yuan was awarded the "Medal of the Republic," the highest honor in the country, for his outstanding contribution to China's food security, agricultural scientific development and world food supply. 

A portrait of Yuan Longping after receiving the Medal of the Republic on September 28, 2019. /Xinhua

A portrait of Yuan Longping after receiving the Medal of the Republic on September 28, 2019. /Xinhua

Over five decades of excellence

Born in Beijing in 1930, Yuan graduated from Southwest Agricultural College in 1953.

Shortly after a serious nationwide famine in the 1960s, Yuan decided to devote himself to studying how to increase the yields of rice, a staple food for over 60 percent of Chinese people. He then began a special lifelong connection with rice.

Yuan succeeded in cultivating the world's first high-yielding hybrid rice strain in 1973, which could reach a yield of over 500 kg per mu (about 0.067 hectares), rising from the previous yield of only 300 kg per mu.

For the next four decades, he continued to work on research and development of hybrid rice, achieving increasingly higher outputs.

In 1996, the Chinese agriculture ministry formally established a super rice breeding program. Four years later, the first phase of the target of reaching 10.5 tonnes per hectare was achieved. The record was shattered three more times with jumps to 12 tonnes in 2004, 13.5 tonnes in 2011 and 15 tonnes in 2014.

In 2020, hybrid rice developed by Yuan's team achieved 1,500 kilograms per mu (about 22.5 tonnes per hectare) in two growing seasons, a new world record.

In China, where rice is the staple for the majority of the 1.4 billion population, the accumulated planting area of hybrid rice has exceeded 16 million hectares, or 57 percent of the total planting area of rice, helping feed an extra 80 million people a year.

It has also been grown extensively in over 40 countries, including the U.S., Brazil, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Madagascar. The total planting area of the hybrid rice has reached 8 million hectares overseas, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Even after a resounding success, Yuan never held himself back from making new breakthroughs.

In 2017, his team started to grow seawater rice, or salt-alkali-tolerant rice, in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province. The rice was designed to grow in tidal flats or saline-alkaline land and survive even after being immersed in seawater.

Yuan said growing seawater rice is vital to China's food security, as the country is home to one-tenth of the world's saline-alkaline land.

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 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 has been eyed as a way to combat the world's food insecurity, according to Xinhua.

In October 2020, a rice breed developed by Yuan's team achieved a yield of 802.9 kg per mu (12.04 tonnes per hectare) on average in three plots of saline soil in Rudong County, east China's 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.

Yuan once said he had two dreams – to "enjoy the cool under the rice crops taller than men" and that hybrid rice could be grown all over the world to help solve the global food scarcity.

Read more:A lifelong dedication to keep people fed: The life of Yuan Longping

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