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Feeding The World With Hybrid Rice: Prof Yuan Longping

Prof Yuan Longping has invented a rice species that produces 50 percent more grains.

Prof Yuan Longping: “I believe our world stands a good chance of wiping out the chronic scourge of human starvation.”

There are 852 million people globally that live in a constant state of starvation and, each year, 50,000 children die of hunger or malnutrition. More appallingly, the absolute number of hunger-stricken people in three-quarters of Third World countries has risen over the past five years.

Despite efforts of governments and charities, the declarations made by the United Nations, the G7 and the G20, global hunger persists on a horrific scale. One only need look at the situation in the remote villages of South Sudan and Somalia this year to see that the status quo is not working.

Perhaps a more sustainable approach needs to be adopted — such as if poor rice-growing communities could continue to grow rice, but grow a species that withstood the elements and produced up to 50 percent more grains. This is the theory of Prof Yuan Longping, an 86-year-old agricultural scientist who is credited with inventing the first hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s. He has dedicated his life — often putting it in mortal danger — to its development. Last year he was honoured with the inaugural LUI Che Woo Prize for sustainability.

Prof Yuan Longping tells his remarkable story.

How could hybrid rice wipe out starvation?
There are 150 million rice-growing hectares in the world today. If we succeed in planting hybrid rice in half of the total rice-growing hectares, the increased yield each year will be able to feed 400-500 million people more globally. Therefore, I believe our world stands a good chance of wiping out the chronic scourge of human starvation.

Could hybrid rice be grown in areas of drought like Somalia, South Sudan and elsewhere in Africa?
As for the development of hybrid rice in Africa, in tropical areas such as South Sudan and Somalia, the climate is not an issue. One of the key requirements for carrying out hybrid rice technology tests is whether there are enough water resources. We have carried out hybrid rice drought tests under dry weather conditions before, and positive results have been made. Piracy and safety issues are amongst the main concerns in Somalia. And it would be difficult to provide teaching and instruction on hybrid rice technology if these problems can’t be addressed.

What was your experience of living through the famine? 
In the three-year-long period of extreme difficulties in the 1960s, China experienced a widespread famine. Witnessing people collapsing dead on the roadside at the ridge of the fields or under a bridge was very upsetting. As an intellectual specialising in farming research and trained by the state since the founding of the new China, I felt very guilty seeing a decrease in yield on a large scale and a nationwide famine. From that moment forth, I had a greater determination to try my utmost to increase the grain yield and never let our people suffer from hunger again.

What led you to imagine you could create hybrid rice?
It was a natural hybrid rice plant. In July 1961, I went to the paddy fields and I found a peculiarly strong rice plant. I planted its seeds but by the time the plants fully matured the following spring, I was disappointed to find that none of them showed anything resembling their parent plants in morphology: some tillered early, some late; some plantswere tall, some short. I felt low, but I had a sudden inspiration: the rice is a self-pollinated plant and so strains of a pure line cannot exhibit the behaviour of genetic segregation. Why did these show a variety of diverse and varied traits in morphology? At last, I had discovered that the segregation ratio between the tall phenotypes and the short phenotypes was 3:1, in perfect agreement with Mendel’s law of segregation. A plant that I had picked out from the farmland because of its superb morphology had turned out to be a natural hybrid rice plant!

So I reasoned: if nature breeds its own hybrid rice in a spontaneous way, this means rice has its own heterosis, and it must be possible for us to make use of the hybrid heterosis of rice in an artificial way. The idea of cultivating hybrid rice cultivars came into my mind.

It must have been very difficult to get resources for your research, or even enough food to feed yourself at the time?
In 1967, I drafted a plan for the selective breeding of the male sterile line of rice in school. In response, the provincial science and technology commission made a decision to list our research work into projects funded by the provincial authorities and granted us an annual fund of up to 400 yuanThe letter from the State Science and Technology Commission played the role of a protective shield, not only protecting me from political persecution, but also providing a certain shelter so that the initial stage of our research was immune from disturbances.

When did you publish your findings? 
There were a lot of hardships and setbacks during the early stage of our research. Hua Guofeng, chief of the Hunan Provincial Revolutionary Committee, fully affirmed the staged results scored by our tentative exploration, despite exceedingly difficult conditions, and instructed us to propagate our research work to the grassroots masses.

Afterwards, our research on hybrid rice was listed as an independent entry in the research projects whose enforcement was to be well coordinated by all research bodies throughout the province. We had proven that the ‘three-lines’ approach and the cooperation of the different research bodies were key to sustaining the progress of our research and in driving our breakthrough. After we made the discovery of wild abortive rice, we shared our findings with 18 research units across the nation. Thanks to the collective hard work and effort of the teams nationwide, we successfully established a complete set of the ‘three lines’ to develop hybrid rice cultivars in 1973. If we had kept it a secret, it would have taken us much longer to achieve such success.

How do you feel that your rice became the first case of intellectual property moving from China to the US?
During the 1980s, US agro-scientists explored the potential for heterosis in rice. Our success in studying hybrid rice attracted worldwide attention and, on 9 May 1980, Chen Yiwu, Du Shenyu and I flew to Los Angeles. Our US tour for propagating the know-how of hybrid rice and the resulting media coverage enabled more people to learn about the hybrid rice. So far, I have made five visits in succession to the US to popularise our research knowledge and findings. We have helped our US colleagues solve several tough problems and issues, and our work in the US was often praised by the late president Lyndon Johnson.

How many lives have you saved?
The total acreage planted with various hybrid rice in the world today has amounted to six million hectares. In the upcoming five to six years, the global acreage of croplands devoted to hybrid rice might be expected to go up to 15 million hectares worldwide, so the increased yield might reach some 30 million tons each year, which is capable of feeding an additional 100 million people. In the future, I will remain dedicated to promoting the hybrid rice cultivars, especially in developing countries. I believe the development of hybrid rice cultivars in the world is the solution to food shortages.