Chinese people have two ‘Pings’ to thank for having enough to eat. One is Deng Xiaoping and the other is Yuan Longping,” remarked Xinhua recently.
The state newspaper was quoting a Chinese admirer of the two men, although you will have heard of the former, who is Yuan, the second ‘Ping’?
The 81 year-old agricultural scientist is lauded for developing the world’s first hybrid rice. Hybrid rice – rather than genetically-modified versions of the staple – is produced by crossing two parental lines with distinct genetic backgrounds. The result is a high-performance plant that promises higher yields. Yuan recently grabbed headlines for cultivating a new type of hybrid rice that broke the world record for rice output.
The strain, DH2525, produced a harvest of 13.9 tonnes a hectare from its trial planting in Longhui county in Hunan province. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s rice yield stands at 6.3 tonnes a hectare on average, about half of the new breed.
“This breakthrough means our hybrid rice [technology] is well ahead of other countries,” says Yuan.
More than 60% of China’s rice crop is now under hybrids, and its rice yield is now double that of India, which has less than 3% of its own crop under hybrids. China produces almost 200 million tonnes of rice from 29 million hectares, compared with India’s 150 million tonnes on 44 million hectares.
Born in 1930 to a poor family in Beijing, Yuan was accepted into Southwest Agriculture College in Chongqing when he was 23. There he studied agricultural education and research. After graduation, he began his teaching career at an agriculture school in Anjiang, Hunan Province, where he first developed an interest in hybrid rice. By 1975, Yuan had succeeded in developing the technique of hybrid rice seed production.
Yuan admits that the original quality of the hybrid rice was “terrible” and it was not until 1976 that hybrid seeds were improved enough to release to farmers, says the People’s Daily. In 1979, Yuan’s hybrid was transferred as China’s first agro-technology patent to the US and in 2004, his hybrid blend reached a top-performing yield of 12 tonnes per hectare.
But Yuan had bigger goals in mind. For the next seven years, he worked to raise yields further, targeting more than 13.5 tonnes per hectare.
“I finally made it. Honestly, last night I was too excited to sleep. I didn’t fall asleep until 2am,” the scientist told CCTV in an interview.
Yuan’s contribution to improved yields shouldn’t be overlooked. Reports indicate that rice supply in China may decline this year after both drought and then flood damaged crops. According to Bloomberg, areas of Hunan, a major rice-producing province, are among those worst affected by drought. Output may plunge as much as 40% from last year.
Officials also acknowledge that maintaining near self-sufficiency in rice will become harder as the population grows and arable land shrinks, a problem WiC highlighted in issue 40. “China has a large population but a relatively small area of farmland, using technology to boost productivity is a must for the country to remain self-sufficient in food supply,” says Fang Fuping, a researcher at the China National Rice Research Institute.
On September 20, the Ministry of Agriculture released a five-year plan for grain production. Under the plan, China is aiming for 100% self-sufficiency for rice, wheat and corn between 2011 and 2015, compared with 95% self-sufficiency in the 2006-2010 period.
Certainly, planners do not want to be overdependent on imports. “Unlike soybeans and corn, rice is not so widely planted in other countries. China’s rice demand is too huge to depend on imports from the international market,” Ma Wenfeng, a senior analyst at Beijing Orient Agribusiness, told the China Daily.
Higher-yielding harvests at home should take some of the pressure of prices in periods in which supply and demand fall out of sync. Bloomberg was reporting this week that the widespread flooding in Thailand – the largest rice shipper in the region – could lead to price increases of 19%, as the Thai government starts a state-purchasing programme. Other analysts say overall stock levels in China are comfortably higher than they have been in years. “Increases in the international price of food should have an only marginal impact on China’s domestic food prices,” writes Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economics for HSBC.
Yuan does have his critics, however. In April, Li Changping, a researcher on rural issues, wrote an open letter asking him to rethink his work on hybrid rice because it was dominating the seed market and farmers could no longer get regular seeds (Li thinks traditional rice tastes better). Experts also question how effective Yuan’s breakthroughs are in helping ordinary farmers achieve higher yields. Yuan admits that his experimental fields are in better condition than others and that average yields would be 20-25% lower if his seeds were planted on a larger scale. His methods for growing rice also have to be taught to farmers on a wider scale, not always an easy task. Many will be resistant. “It’s because they are underpaid, and [working] conditions are poor,” Yuan told CCTV. “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.”
News about Yuan’s latest achievement also led to speculation that the scientist could be worth Rmb100 billion, much of it through his company Longping High-Tech. Yuan claims not to measure science in terms of financial return. “That figure means nothing,” he told the state media. “I’m satisfied with my life. Too much money means a burden. My mind is on my research only.”
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