A witness to famine, 'father of hybrid rice' helped feed a nation

Will Clem

In 1960, as famine swept the mainland at the height of the Great Leap Forward, a young agricultural researcher, Yuan Longping, hit upon an idea that had the potential to put an end to hunger.

A new kind of rice, Yuan hoped, could grow more quickly, produce a greater yield of grain and, importantly in a country with a shortage of arable land, survive in tougher, drier conditions. He began working on the problem in earnest four years later, but it took him until 1973 to make a breakthrough. Tests of his new indica hybrid strain led to its commercial introduction in 1976. Over the following decade it increased the country's annual rice yield by 100 million tonnes.

Today, about half of the rice grown on mainland fields is Yuan's hybrid strain, but it accounts for some 60 per cent of the total yield. The agricultural revolution brought about by his discovery turned Yuan into a national hero - earning him the title 'father of hybrid rice' - and the 79-year-old remains a revered figure.

When he returned to his alma mater, Chongqing's Southwest Agricultural University, in April, he was mobbed by thousands of adoring students.

Yuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering who has four minor planets named after him, comes from humble beginnings. He was born in Qianyang, Hunan province, in 1930, the second of five brothers in a poor farming family. He developed his thirst for learning early, and was fascinated by the natural world.

Earlier this year, he told a press conference how even in primary school he had been inspired to observe plants and flowers to learn about things that were not taught in his school textbooks.

After graduating in 1953, Yuan began teaching at an agricultural school in Anjiang, Hunan, studying rice production at the same time.

Still at the school in 1960, he witnessed the terrible effects of famine first hand and became determined to end starvation.

He told state media of his first dreams of how a new 'super-rice' might look.

'I saw rice plants as tall as Chinese sorghum,' he said. 'Each ear of rice was as big as a broom and each grain as huge as a peanut.

'I could hide in the shadow of the rice crops with a friend.'

He may never have quite turned this fantasy into reality, but his hybrid rice boosted harvests by as much as 30 per cent, and played a major role in reducing hunger on the mainland and across Southeast Asia.

As the threat of famine has become less immediate, there have been calls for the focus of research to move from increasing yield to producing higher-quality rice - redirecting efforts towards tweaking things like taste and texture.

Yuan, however, has resolutely maintained that ending hunger has to be the goal of research.

'First we must have enough food, then comes eating well,' he said.

It can't be denied that Yuan can afford to eat well, though. The patent for his hybrid rice - the first intellectual rights ever to be transferred from the mainland to the US, in 1979 - have made him one of the country's wealthiest scientists.

Yet he professes to care little for his personal fortune, estimated to be well in excess of 100 million yuan.

'That figure means nothing,' Yuan told an interviewer in 2001, shortly after being awarded the State Pre-eminent Science and Technology Award, the Chinese equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

'I'm satisfied with my life. Too much money means a burden. My mind is on my research only.'

In June, Yuan put his money where his mouth is. He established an international forum for the exchange of hybrid grain technology in collaboration with the Hunan city of Xiangtan and his own company, Yuan Longping Hi-Tech Agriculture.

The project's lofty aims of increasing harvests worldwide and reducing global hunger come with a price tag running into tens of billions of yuan - much of which is coming from Yuan's own pocket.