"I saw rice plants as tall as Chinese sorghum,” said Yuan Longping of a dream he once had, “each ear of rice as big as a broom and each grain of rice as huge as a peanut. I could hide in the shadow of the rice crops with a friend." Yuan was just awarded 5-million-yuan State Supreme Science and Technology Prize for his high yield hybrid rice species. This award is viewed as "Chinese Nobel Prize".
Road to Super Hybrid Rice
Born into a poor farmer's family in 1931 and a graduate from the Southwest Agriculture Institute in 1953, Yuan began his teaching career at an agriculture school in Anjiang, Hunan Province.
He came up with an idea for hybridizing rice in the 1960s, when a series of natural disasters and inappropriate policies had plunged China into an unprecedented famine that caused many deaths.
Since then, he has devoted himself to the research and development of a better rice breed.
In 1964, he happened to find a natural hybrid rice plant that had obvious advantages over others. Greatly encouraged, he began to study the elements of this particular type.
In 1973, in cooperation with others, he was able to cultivate a type of hybrid rice species which had great advantages. It yielded 20 percent more per unit than that of common ones.
The next year their research made a breakthrough in seeding. They successfully developed a set of technologies for producing indica (long-grained non-glutinous) rice, putting China in the lead worldwide in rice production. For this achievement, he was dubbed the "Father of Hybrid Rice."
In 1979, their technique for hybrid rice was introduced into the United States, the first case of intellectual property rights transfer in the history of new China.
At present, as much as 50 percent of China's total rice fields grow Yuan Longping’s hybrid rice species, yield 60 percent of the rice production in China. Due to Yuan's hard work, China's total rice output rose from 5.69 billion tons in 1950 to 19.47 billion tons last year, about 300 billion kilograms more have been produced over the last twenty years. The annual yield is enough to feed 60 million people.
The "Super Rice" Yuan is now working on yields are 30 percent higher than those of common rice. A record yield of 17,055 kilograms per hectare was registered in Yongsheng County in Yunnan Province in 1999.
Quality or Quantity Oriented?
The debates among scientists about whether quality or quantity should take priority are frequently heard. In the under-developed world, the output increase is no doubt the primary concern, while people in developed countries prefer a high-quality rice.
Yuan had been asked to switch his major concern from increasing output to improving quality and taste, a task easier to accomplish for him. But Yuan was unswayed. He firmly believed, in developing countries, the output increase outweighs the urgency for a better taste, and that his foremost task was to increase the grain reserve in developing countries.
"First we must have enough food, then comes eating well," he said.
What's more, he explained, high yield does not necessarily mean a low quality. In the past, when the Chinese people were not sufficiently dressed and fed, they looked on high output as their only goal. So they used fertilizers and farm chemicals without limit. This surely led to quality degrading. At present, China has established nine indicators to evaluate the quality of rice, some of which are positively correlated with the output, while others are not. Last year, China planted over 3 million mu of hybrid rice, with an average yield of 650 kilograms per unit. The highest unit output has reached 1,139 kilograms. Due to improvement in quality, six indicators of the rice have met the First-grade level, and the other three the Second-grade. Some people, after trying this rice, said, "It is more tasty than the rice from Thailand."
Yuan is currently working on species meeting the second-grade standards set by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.
"The rice of this level is more affordable for urban and rural people," Yuan says.
Money and Fame
Longping High-tech, a seed company using his name, started business last May in Shenzhen. In return, Yuan got 5 percent stake or 2.5 million shares worth 2 million yuan.
Yuan's wealth is estimated more than 100 million yuan (US$12 million), making him one of the richest in China. But he cares for nothing more than his research.
"That figure means nothing," he says in a heavy local accent. "I’m satisfied with my life. Too much money means a burden. My mind is on my research only."
But he admits that the listing may help China's hybrid rice in international market and may bring more funds for future projects.
He has, with a donation of 2 million yuan, established Yuan Longping Foundation, which awards merited workers in agricultural research.
Four minor planets and a college in China were named after him, the first time a Chinese scientist's name has become intellectual asset.
"I am afraid of fame," said Yuan, his face lean, wrinkled and sun-burnt, "Too big a fame, too little freedom."
In late 1960s, rice output was just over 300 kilograms per mu (0.06 hectare), but Yuan had increased that to more than 500.
But Yuan didn’t slow down, working hard on another breed with bigger grains of rice, and a yield of over 800 kilograms per mu.
This project, he said, was on two stages. The first was to achieve 700 kilograms per mu on large scale, which was realized in 1997. That year, Yuan saw the highest 870 kilograms of rice per mu in his experimental field in Hunan. The result was similar in an even larger experiment conducted in 1998.
The second target is to reach an annual yield of over 800 kilograms per mu. He has set the year of 2005 as the deadline for this goal. However, Yuan is confident in hitting that target two years ahead. One reason is an output increase by 7 to 10 percent has been seen in experimental fields; the other being a new planting technique which should bring additional 10 percent increase.
Besides, Yuan has another dream -- introduce this breed to and benefit every nation.
The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) 1991 statistics show that 20 percent of the world's rice output came from 10 percent of the world's rice fields that grow hybrid rice.
A famous economist claimed the Yuan’s achievement as a victory over the threat of famine and that Yuan was ushering us into a world with ample food.
Now, over 20 countries have adopted the hybrid rice. The FAO has vowed to be actively involved in spreading the Yuan's high-yield hybrid rice worldwide.
"If the new strain is sown in the rest of the rice fields, the present grain output worldwide can be doubled, a significant solution to the grain shortage," said Yuan.
Yuan worked as the chief consultant for the FAO in 1991, to share his knowledge with workers from other countries. He has gone abroad every year to provide guidance. He also sent scientists to India, Viet Nam, Myanmar and Bangladesh to work as advisors. Between 1981 and 1998, the Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Center under Yuan Longping held 38 training classes with over 100 participants from 15 countries.
With the help of Chinese scientists, the acreage of hybrid rice in Viet Nam and India increased to 200,000 hectares and 150,000 hectares respectively in 1999.
In spite of a busy schedule for academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering, vice-chairman of the Provincial Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Yuan has managed to keep some interests other than working.
In his spare time, he loves reading books and listening to music. Half an hour of reading in bed before sleep is his habit. He is also a good swimmer.
Other hobbies of his include daily motor-cycling and playing violin. He’s an occasional mahjong player too.
From sowing to harvesting, Yuan goes to fields twice daily, covering about 8 kilometers in total distance. Thus his motorbike has become Yuan's essential transportation. "Riding a motorbike was one of my favorite sports in my youth," Yuan smiled. "But now, it’s more for work than for fun."
Yuan picked up the hobby of playing violin from a music lover at college. During the "cultural revolution," classical music was viewed decadent, so he stopped playing and sent his violin away. He now suffers from arthritis and can no longer play violin. However, he still adores violin music.
“When I lose a game in mahjong,” Yuan smiled, “ I never hesitate to pay the price-- creep through under the table.”
(CIIC by Li Jinhui 03/05/2001)