Rice king sets his sights even higher

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2011, 12:00am


World renowned scientist Yuan Longping, a thin and tanned 81-year-old, has likened himself to a seed.

After five decades of researching hybrid rice in the field, the former Hunan provincial teacher once told state media that 'one should be a good seed; be physically, spiritually and emotionally healthy' because only a healthy seed can grow into a plant with deep roots, thick leaves and big fruit.

The career of the 'father of hybrid rice' bore new fruit recently when a team from the Ministry of Agriculture announced on Monday that the average yield from a seven-hectare plot at his experimental base in Longhui county, Hunan, hit another world record - 13.9 tonnes per hectare.

The world's average rice yield was 4.3 tonnes per hectare in 2009, according to the latest statistics from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

'I finally made it. Honestly, last night I was too excited to sleep. I didn't fall asleep until after 2am,' Yuan told state television.

He and his research team achieved a yield of 700kg per mu (666 square metres) in 2000, before raising that to 800kg per mu in 2004. It took another seven years to increase the yield to 900kg per mu, or 13.5 tonnes per hectare. 'Technically, it's very hard. I spent seven years [in pursuit of this]. It was like a dwarf climbing up stairs,' he told state television.

Yuan's research on hybrid rice was first driven by the serious famine that gripped China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although most Chinese now have adequate food, his research is a way to solve mounting challenges caused by an expanding population and a shrinking area of arable land.

He told an interviewer in 2006, 'by using the technology of 'super hybrid rice', three mu of land can create as much grain as what originally grew on four mu of land'.

'I have been dealing with rice my whole life,' Yuan said. 'I like it very much, especially when it bears a lot of plump grains and turns a nice yellow.'

Yuan said he would continue working to boost the yield to 15 tonnes per hectare, something he hoped to realise in 10 years.

But doubts remain over how effective his breakthroughs are in helping ordinary farmers achieve higher yields.

Yuan admits that experimental fields are in better condition than others and average yields would be 20 per cent to 25 per cent lower if his seeds were planted on a larger scale.

His own methods for growing rice were also difficult to teach to farmers because many grass-roots stations responsible for extending agricultural knowledge and skills were reluctant to put in the effort required, he told state television.

'It's because they're underpaid, and [working] conditions are poor,' he said. 'I'm calling upon the government to provide more preferential policies to cadres in these stations so that they can concentrate on promoting new technologies and new species.'

In April, Li Changping, an outspoken researcher on rural issues, wrote an open letter to Yuan asking him to stop researching hybrid rice because it was dominating the seed market and farmers could no longer get regular seeds, which produced better-tasting grains.

'I think he was asking me to go backwards,' Yuan responded on state television.

Hybrid vigour was a universal phenomenon and he would never give up, he said.

In 2000, an agricultural company started by the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences and named after Yuan launched its initial public offering. Yuan now owns 1.61 per cent of Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture, which translates into a net worth of 135 million yuan, according to the company's market value of 30.2 yuan per share.

'I never ask about it,' he said when asked during a visit to his former school in Wuhan, Hubei, two years ago if he kept an eye on the company's stock price.

He said his annual income was more than 300,000 yuan, including 6,000 yuan of salary and extra income from stock dividends, writing articles, counselling and so on.

He wears many hats including being director of the Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Centre and a professor at Hunan Agricultural University.

'Money is necessary because you need to live life,' he said. 'But a man of honour makes money in a lawful way ... don't waste it but never be stingy.'

One of his daughters-in-law, Duan Meijuan, who earned her doctorate at Hunan Agricultural University, told Xinhua that she wanted to be tutored by Yuan for her doctorate, but he turned her down 'because he didn't want others to gossip [about me using connections to get ahead]'.

The names Yuan gave to his two granddaughters show how he sees the world - one means 'having sun' and the other means 'having water'.

'With both sun and water, everything will thrive,' he said.

Yuan won the prestigious World Food Prize in 2004 for helping establish the hybrid rice seed production industry in China and 'being responsible for feeding 60 million people'.

The World Food Prize was created in 1987 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Norman Borlaug, to recognise individuals who contributed landmark achievements in increasing the quality, quantity, or availability, of food in the world.