2004: Jones and Yuan
For his breakthrough achievements in creating a rice variety specifically bred for the ecological and agricultural conditions in Africa, Dr. Monty Jones won the World Food Prize in 2004 – the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization’s International Year of Rice.
Born in Sierra Leone, Dr. Jones was educated there, receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Sierra Leone, and at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, where he took a master’s degree in 1979, a doctorate in plant biology in 1983, and an honorary Doctor of Science in 2005. He began his career in 1975 with the West Africa Rice Development Agency, one of the international research centers sponsored by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, in its Mangrove Swamp Rice Research Project in his home country. He continued to work as a rice breeder and researcher through the 1980s.
In 1991, Dr. Jones was appointed head of the Upland Rice Breeding Program at WARDA, then located in Côte d’Ivoire. It was in this position in 1994 that he made his exceptional breakthrough achievement in combining Asian and African rice varieties to develop NERICA, a “New Rice for Africa” uniquely suited to poor African rice farmers.
Dr. Jones had, since the 1970s, seen that native African rice varieties grew most successfully in the continent’s alkaline soils and conditions of varying moisture; however, their yield potential was remarkably low, especially compared to the rice varieties that had been introduced from Asia some 500 years earlier. These more productive varieties, in contrast, were limited by low resistance to African pests and diseases and poor adaptation to the soil and climate. Combining the species had been attempted before, but never with success; early in the cross-breeding process, the progeny rice varieties always developed sterility.
Dr. Jones led his staff to organize and classify all available rice varieties – including 1,500 accessions of the native O. glaberrima species, which were in danger of extinction. From this collection, Dr. Jones and his team began the painstaking process of selecting parents for combination traits, crossing them to produce offspring, and backcrossing the offspring to fix varietal traits from the two species and overcome the genetic barrier. After three years of research and work, the first stable and fertile cross was produced.
With the ability to resist weeds, survive droughts, and thrive on poor soils gained from its African parent, and the trait of higher productivity from its Asian ancestor, NERICA is a crop capable of increasing farmers’ harvests by 25 to 250 percent. It has been especially valuable in the drier upland regions, where much of West Africa’s rice is grown and yields can now reach 4 to 6 tons per hectare. In addition, its three-month harvest time – as opposed to the six months required by its parent species – allows African farmers to harvest NERICA rice during the annual “hunger period” and double-crop it with nutritionally rich legumes and vegetables or high-value fiber crops in one growing season. For the consumer, especially poor or malnourished families, NERICA provides increased amounts of protein at a lower price. The nutritional, economic, and political impact of NERICA on countries that have been importing $1 billion of rice annually is difficult to overstate.
Dr. Jones continued to show leadership and innovation in the next phase of bringing NERICA rice to farmers in Africa’s villages. He built partnerships among WARDA and policy makers, non-governmental organizations, and research and extension services and outlined a plan for community-based, participatory, and gender-sensitive programs that would both rapidly disseminate the seeds and allow rice farmers – a majority of whom are women – an active role in planting and evaluating the hybrids and continuing outreach in rural areas. With the money he won as part of the 2004 World Food Prize, Dr. Jones has continued to support and invest in the extension of these programs in Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa.
This work has led to the rapid development of more than 3000 NERICA lines. As demonstrated in pilot projects undertaken in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo, NERICA stands to benefit 20 million rice farmers and 240 million consumers in West Africa alone, in addition to other parts of Africa and the world. In Nigeria, NERICA has resulted in over 30 percent expansion in upland rice cultivation. Guinea’s rice imports reduced by 50 percent in three years, and the country became a net exporter of the grain in 2005.
In 2002, Dr. Jones was appointed the executive secretary of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, based in Ghana. At FARA, he oversees advocacy and coordination efforts in support of regional research, with the goal of increasing agricultural growth by at least 6 percent annually by 2020 as well as fostering ongoing economic growth, alleviating poverty, and improving food security for Africa’s people. Because of his work, Time magazine, in 2007, named Dr. Jones as one of the world’s most influential people. According to WARDA Director General Papa Abdoulaye Seck, “Dr. Monty Jones has demonstrated by his remarkable contribution that is it possible to reshape the agricultural map of our continent through the African creative genius.”
For his breakthrough achievement in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high yielding hybrid rice varieties, Professor Yuan Longping was awarded the World Food Prize in 2004. He is considered the first scientist to successfully alter the self-pollinating characteristics of rice and facilitate the large-scale production of hybrid rice, which has 20% more yield than elite inbred varieties. He took the unknown path in achieving the rice hybrid miracle.
Professor Yuan, who became known as “Father of Hybrid Rice,” was born in Beijing in 1930. His education at the Southwestern Agricultural College in Chongqing, majoring in agronomy, marked the beginning of his lifelong work in agriculture. Upon his graduation in 1953, he took a teaching job at the Anjiang Agricultural School in Hunan Province. Along with teaching, he also conducted scientific experiments involving asexual crosses between crops. These experiments led him to the conclusion that there were faults in the accepted breeding approach, and he then began concentrating on experiments based on the genetic theories of Mendel & Morgan, which were different from traditional theories.
Professor Yuan began his research on developing hybrid rice in 1964 at a time when it was widely accepted that hybrid vigor—or heterosis—could not be bred in a self pollinated crop like rice, and no solutions for high-yielding hybrid seed production in self-pollinated crops were on the horizon. Nevertheless, Professor Yuan believed that heterosis is a universal phenomenon and rice is no exception. After nine years of research, he succeeded in breeding unique genetic tools, which consisted of a three-line system: Male sterile line; Maintaining line; and Restore line—or A, B, R line, essential for developing hybrid rice. His varieties were put into commercial production in China in 1976.
He has continued his scientific exploration to develop new approaches to enhance the heterosis level and to simplify the methodology for hybrid rice breeding. In the 21st Century, as the world’s rice production is called upon to meet the demand of increasing population and potential decreases in planting area, Professor Yuan has conducted a careful analysis of the yield-limiting factors and breeding technologies available. In that regard, he has led a project to develop a “super hybrid rice,” which has an additional yield increase potential of 20%.
The additional improvements in hybrid rice breeding and production techniques have contributed greatly to increasing China's total rice output. In 2012, the area under hybrid rice has expanded to 16 million hectares, reaching about 57% of paddy, which contributes 65% of total rice output. The average yield of hybrid rice is 7.2 t/ha, while other inbred varieties yield 5.9 t/ha. It is estimated that approximately 70 million more people annually in China can be fed by planting hybrid rice, thus it helps China solve food shortage challenges successfully and provides additional income to thousands of farmers.
Professor Yuan’s new hybrid rice technology not only benefits China, but also has been enthusiastically adopted in other countries. Professor Yuan introduced Chinese hybrid rice to the world in 1979 at an international conference sponsored by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (IRRI). The following year, IRRI restored its own hybrid rice research. In light of Chinese success, many countries, institutions and commercial companies started their own hybrid rice research. The United Nations’ FAO made hybrid rice the first choice of its program to increase grain production outside China, and appointed Professor Yuan as the chief consultant.
He and his research associates have traveled to India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the United States to provide advice and consultation to rice research personnel. Professor Yuan’s research institute has trained over 3000 scientists from more than 50 countries. Farmers around the world have benefitted from his techniques as hybrid rice spread throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Prof. Yuan has published more than 60 articles and 6 monographs including Hybrid Rice Breeding and Cultivation and Technology of Hybrid Rice Production (published by FAO). His work has greatly influenced other research fields, such as plant sciences, agriculture and applied biotechnology. In recognition of his work, he has been bestowed numerous awards and honors, which include the 1981 first Special-class National Invention Prize, the 2000 National Supreme Scientific and Technology Award, the 1987 UNESCO Science Prize, the 2004 World Food Prize and the 2004 Wolf Prize in agriculture, and also in 2007 he was named a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.