Yuan Longping, a Chinese agronomist known for developing the first hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s and staving off hunger for millions, died at the age of 91 in China’s central province of Hunan on Saturday, May 22, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
He died of organ failure in hospital in central Changsha city, local media reported.
Yuan helped China cultivate the high-yielding hybrid rice needed to feed nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than 9% of its arable land. The Philippines is one of the countries that benefited from Yuan’s research.
In 1973, according to Nikkei, Yuan “successfully developed a hybrid rice that can generate a stable high yield by crossing wild rice from China’s Hainan Province with another variety from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.” Yuan “was able to mass-produce the rice in the following year.”
It was also in the Philippines, where he was attending an international seminar in 1979, where he first presented to the world his research on hybrid rice, according to Xinhua.
“The Philippine farmers who plant hybrid rice all know the name of Chinese scientist Yuan Longping,” said Filipino-Chinese businessman Henry Lim Bon Liong in an interview with Xinhua.
Yuan was highly respected in China, whose vast population was ravaged by food shortages in the mid-20th century.
Shortly after a nationwide famine in the 1960s, Yuan devoted himself to researching how to boost harvests, cultivating the world’s first high-yielding hybrid rice strain.
His comment that “Chairman Mao didn’t study crop science” on Mao Zedong’s 1958 agriculture policy put him under political pressure but he survived as officials wanted to protect his research, Yuan told a Chinese magazine in 2016.
Feeding over 1.4 billion people in the world’s second-largest economy is still a huge task for Chinese policymakers as consumers demand a wider variety of food and global tensions impact grain trade.
In 2020, China’s president Xi Jinping urged the country to maintain a sense of crisis about food security, prompting many local governments to launch related campaigns and restaurants to raise penalties on buffet wastage.
Yuan worked in the fields until early this year. One of his most recent projects was to develop saline-alkaline tolerant rice. His working team was invited to undertake a trial plantation of that strain in Dubai in 2018, Xinhua reported.
Changsha residents gathered near the rice research institute where Yuan worked to pay their respects to the scientist, local media reported.
In a commentary, Xinhua said Chinese flags may be flown at half mast to honor Yuan’s contribution to Chinese agriculture. – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com