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Opinion

Yuan Longping, the ‘father of hybrid rice’: A people’s scientist

Published on 1 June 2021

Image of Lidia Cabral

Lidia Cabral

Research Fellow

Image of Xiuli Xu

Xiuli Xu

China Agricultural University

Yuan Longping, internationally known as the ‘father of hybrid rice,’ passed away on May 22, at the age of 91. Tributes have been pouring in from across China, where Mr. Yuan is a national celebrity, and from across the canonical international scientific community who regard him as an accomplished rice scientist.

Mr Yuan’s contributions to the development of hybrid rice and super rice are well documented and revered among agricultural scientists. Less talked about are other aspects of Mr. Yuan’s persona and life trajectory that are equally important to understand what it takes to reach the status of a hero, even in science.

Hybrid rice legacy

Mr. Yuan’s work on hybrid rice started in the 1960 with the backdrop of an unprecedented famine. He reported findings on mutated male-sterile rice plants in the Chinese Science Bulletin in 1966. As these experiments did not show significant advantage over common rice, he started cross breeding with a wild rice species, known as ‘wild abortive’.

Subsequent experiments, involving a large team of scientists and farmers across the country, proved successful as the new hybrid rice performed better than conventional rice. By 1979, this technique for hybrid rice was being introduced in the United States. Mr. Yuan’s rice accomplishments continued over the years.

The late 1990s saw the launch of the Super Hybrid Rice Breeding Research Programme, under Mr. Yuan’s guidance, aiming to carry out national demonstration and promotion of the research results of super rice. In the next decade, China doubled rice production while reducing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Hybrid rice had become symbolic of China’s official green turn. Yuan Longping’s hybrid rice varieties eventually became dominant in China’s paddies and in overall rice production. And China has dominated world hybrid rice production since 2004.

International recognition – a ‘Green Revolution’ hero

In 2004, Yuan Longping was awarded the World Food Prize and was praised for his ‘pioneering research [that] has helped transform China from food deficiency to food security within three decades’.

This recognition placed him in the same league as other figureheads of agricultural science, including American plant breeder Norman Borlaug – a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the World Food Prize, globally known as the father of the Green Revolution – and Indian geneticist M.S. Swaminathan – first World Food Prize Laureate, known as father of the Indian Wheat Revolution.

Mr. Yuan hence became himself a character of the global Green Revolution epic narrative, the celebration of the feats of science in fighting hunger that emphasises the role played by passionate and industrious heroic figures – many of the tributes that have been channelled by the Western media repeat this celebration.

A people’s scientist

On a personal level, Mr. Yuan lived a life of dedication to science, which he believed would make a different to his country and the world. His personal traits made Mr. Yuan a popular and charismatic persona, able to project his work beyond the scientific community and reach out to the lay person. The mass mourning and pouring of flowers and boiled rice offerings across China testify to the widespread appeal of this agricultural scientist who, during his lifetime, gave his name to colleges and asteroids.

Hundreds of bunches of flowers outside Xiangya Hospital after the death of Yuan Longping. The Chinese flag flies at the front of the hospital and there is a large red sign with the name of the hospital.
Flowers outside Xiangya Hospital after the Death of Yuan Longping. Image credit: 維基小霸王 Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0

Mr. Yuan often described himself as a ‘intellectual peasant’, emphasising his connections with the grassroots. Despite his humble attitude, he was born into a family of intellectuals and received a high-quality education since childhood. This was not restricted to plant science.

Mr. Yuan played the violin and would sometime join in to play popular songs, telling takes about difficulties in professional life (Hard Pathway) or love for the country (My Country). He also looked after his physical condition, playing volleyball, and swimming until an advanced age.

Family was an important aspect of his life that was tightly connected to his work life – his wife and work partner, Deng Zhe, accompanied him alongside rice breeding experiments as well as musical performances.

This well-rounded individual lived by a strong work ethic that encapsulated what is known as the Qiyang or Quzhou spirit. This term describes the hardworking attitude of agricultural scientists and technicians who give up comfortable living conditions in the city for a harsh environment for scientific research, named after the Qiyang and Quzhou demonstration stations, run by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hunan, and China Agricultural University in Hebei, respectively.

Mr. Yuan’s encounter with famine at the start of his career made him determined to work to address the problem of food scarcity and hunger. He believed research on rice, the country’s staple, was the way forward. When he started working with hybrid rice, he soon realised he had found his life mission: ‘For me, hybridizing rice has been the correct pathway. In spite of difficulties and frustrations, I knew that success would knock on my door one day.’

Embodiment of China’s modern science to the world

Mr. Yuan voiced a lyrical version of modernity: ‘the ideal agriculture ecosystem will have five characteristics: It will be mechanized, electrified, intelligent and attractive with an educated and well-bred populace. […] future farmers in China will live a lifestyle as modern as their urban counterparts. Rural areas will be more prosperous and beautiful—like the setting of a poem.’

His vision and enacting of modernity through his rice science had global appeal and he joined high-level discussions on South-South cooperation, a channel for transferring Chinese rice technology across the global South.

In 2019, Mr Yuan won the Medal of the People’s Republic of China, the highest national honour. His personal attributes combined with widespread recognition (domestically and abroad) made him a heroic figure, and one that embodied China’s new stance as a contributor of modern agricultural science and technology to the world, no longer just a learner.

Today, Yuan Longping is both a global and a Chinese hero. A global hero who is part of international agricultural science canons, and a Chinese hero who personifies China’s embracement of modernity and the country’s increasing global contribution.

Xu Xiuli is the Dean of the College of International Development and Global Agriculture (CIDGA) and Professor at the College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD), at China Agricultural University. Lidia Cabral is an IDS Research Fellow in our Rural Futures cluster.

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