Nature, one of the leading multidisciplinary science journals, describes him as a “crop scientist whose high-yield hybrid rice fed billions.” True enough, for his contributions in agriculture and as a key player in the Green Revolution, Yuan Longping was named as the “Father of Hybrid Rice” after developing the first hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s.
He has also been regarded as a national hero in mainland China and a prominent scientist on top of his field. The celebrated Chinese agronomist died on 22 May 2021 at the age of 90 due to multiple organ failure. Nevertheless, despite his demise, his accomplishments in the field of rice production have left a lasting legacy to global food security.
The Contributions and Legacy of Yuan Longping
Scientific Stance and Ideologies
Yuan acknowledged and embraced the need to improve rice production in China and elsewhere in the world. Fulfilling this personal mission was challenging from the onset. Note that there were two schools of thought in heredity that prevailed in the Chinese scientific community during the 1950s that politicized agricultural development in the country.
The first one was based on the separate theories of Austrian mathematician and biologist Gregor Mendel and American evolutionary biologist and geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Based on their experiments and the resulting theories they have formulated, understanding the role of genes and alleles is essential to understanding heredity.
On the other hand, the flawed theory of Soviet agronomists Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin and Trofim Lysenko provided the theoretical basis for the second school of thought. They argued that organisms adapt to environmental changes throughout their lives and their offspring would inherit these supposed adaptations.
The Chinese government and a number of Chinese scientists adopted the Soviet school of thought. China maintained an official stance that favored scientific theories from the Soviet Union. Ideologies outside the Soviet would be seen as invalid. Some officials and citizens went as far as persecuting those who followed and explored other theories.
Yuan received his education from biologists such as Guan Xianghuan and Bao Wenkui who followed the ideas of Mendel and Morgan. However, he remained skeptical of both schools of thought and decided to pursue his own research to confirm either one of them. His discoveries led him to favor the ideologies of Mendel and Morgan.
Research and Experiments on Hybrid Rice
The emerging agronomist focused on food production. He saw the negative impacts of The Great Leap Forward that resulted in a nationwide famine and left tens of millions dead due to hunger. Yuan had a strong desire to prevent this from happening again. He directed his attention toward researching and discovering techniques and tools needed to improve crop yields.
Heterosis is a phenomenon that has been critical in modernizing agriculture. It demonstrates that the offspring of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more, and resist stress better than either parent. Hybrid varieties of maize, sweet potato, and wheat have shown better production yields than non-hybrid varieties.
Yuan initially considered improving the hybrid yields of sweet potato and wheat because these crops naturally grow faster. He deemed them ideal for improving food security. In fact, he ran a series of grafting experiments on sweet potatoes and arrived at a conclusion that the theories of Mendel and Morgan have real agricultural applications.
But sweet potatoes were never part of the daily diet in Southern China and wheat did not grow well in this region. Rice remains the most important staple crop in China. Agronomists in China and other parts of the world tried to improved rice production yields through cross-breeding. However, because it is a self-pollinating plant, crossbreeding would be difficult.
Yuan turned his attention toward rice production. He believed that heterosis is a universal phenomenon and refused to accept the conclusion from classical geneticists that it is impossible to produce hybrid variants from self-pollinating plants. Furthermore, his studies led him to conclude that there were problems in accepted breeding approaches.
While on a field research in the Summer of 1961, he discovered a stalk of hybrid rice in the wild. He further looked for naturally occurring male-sterile rice plants together with a student in 1964. During this year, he also published his findings that outlined that outline genetic tools that could be used to produce hybrid rice varieties.
He also reported his discovery of numerous male-sterile rice plants in the April 1966 issue of the Chinese Science Bulletin. It was in 1973 when he successfully developed the first hybrid rice called “Nan-you No. 2.” This variety demonstrated a 20 percent higher yield than existing non-hybrid varieties due to heterosis.
Yuan and his colleagues also came up with a complete set of seed production technologies by 1975. The large-scale production of the hybrid Nan-you No. 2 rice variant also began this year. It was commercialized further in 1976 alongside the utilization of improved farming techniques. China saw improvements in food security in the following years.
Appreciating Further the Legacy of Yuan Longping
Struggles During Early Communist China
The discoveries and accomplishments of Yuan were remarkable for several reasons. For starters, he ventured into researching hybrid rice during the early days of Chinese communism when the government had an unwavering pro-Soviet stance. While initially open to the two schools of thought in heredity, he later acknowledged the ideologies of Mendel and Morgan.
Note that his mentors, Guan Xianghuan and Bao Wenkui, were labeled enemies of the Communist Party because of their strong rejection of the government-endorsed school of thought from the Soviet Union. Guan later committed suicide in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, and Bao served and endured prison time for long periods.
Yuan had his fair share of political persecution. Several propaganda posters were disseminated on Chinese university campuses declaring him as a counter-revolutionary. There was even a spot reserved for him within a prison dedicated for intellectuals like him. His name did not appear on research papers he supervised aside from his 1966 article and until the 1970s.
The strong communist and socialist social and political inclination of the Chinese government were limiting to scientists and individuals who wanted to explore novel or contradicting ideologies. Undeniably, as exemplified by the experiences of Yuan and his mentors, this inclination can also be unforgiving and life-threatening.
Nevertheless, he managed to mentor students on the importance of fieldwork. Many of these individuals went on to make critical contributions in the field of agriculture. His introduction of the first known hybrid rice plant later earned him respect from the Chinese government and society. His accomplishments catapulted him to public prominence.
Rise to National and International Prominence
The collective discoveries on hybrid rice production remain the main legacy of Yuan Longping. For the next three decades since 1970, planting hybrid rice became prevalent. By the early 21st century, almost half of rice production in China was based on hybrid rice. The crop fed 70 million people more annually, thus promoting food security in the country.
Yuan and his colleagues spent the next years developing more hybrid varieties. Their “super hybrid” variants produced almost 10 tons of rice per hectare. Higher yields also meant more income for farmers while reducing land use for rice farming and opening more land resources for vegetables, fruits, other crops, and aquaculture.
He also became the Director-General of the National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center of China in 1984 while also becoming a member of different government committees and nongovernment organizations dedicated to supporting and advancing agriculture, science, and technology in his country.
The contributions of Yuan Longping spread beyond China. Note that he introduced the Chinese hybrid rice to the world in 1979 during an international conference headed by the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI in the Philippines. The IRRI pursued once revamped its own research in hybrid rice beginning in 1980. Other countries and institutions followed suit.
He and his colleagues traveled to different countries to include Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Vietnam, among others, to provide consultation and training to agronomists and agriculture-oriented institutions. His own research institute has trained over 3000 scientists from more than 50 countries.
Notable Honors, Awards, and Recognitions
The success and accomplishments of Yuan Longping undeniably made him one of the most important agronomists and scientists in the world. His legacy centered on combatting food shortages and hunger not only in China but also in other parts of the world. For his contributions, he received numerous recognitions. Take note of the following:
• World Food Prize: He received this award alongside fellow rice researcher Monty Jones in 2004 for his breakthrough discoveries in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high-yielding hybrid rice varieties.
• National Academy of Sciences: He was named a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. He was the first non-American member from the Chinese agricultural science circle. This is one of the highest honors in American science and engineering.
• Other Key Awards and Honors: China’s State Supreme Science and Technology Award, the 2001 Magsaysay Award, the UN FAO Medal of Honor for Food Security, and the 2004 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Andrew, R. 2017. Hybrid Rice—The Journey: From China to the USA Across Four Decades. Art Services of Charleston. ISBN: 978-1-387-18696-9
- Wang, L. 2015. “Yuan Longping: Hybrid Rice is on the Way to Fulfilling its Potential.” Science Bulletin. 60(6): 657-660. DOI: 1007/s11434-015-0755-6
- Wu, S. X. 2021. “Yuan Longping (1930-2021).” Nature. 595(26). DOI: 1038/d41586-021-01732-2