A World-Brand Name: Yuan Longping, The Father of Hybrid Rice
Laureate Spotlight: Yuan Longping
Laureate Spotlight: Yuan Longping 2004, China
Professor Yuan Longping received the 2004 World Food Prize for his breakthrough achievement in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high-yielding hybrid rice varieties. His pioneering research has helped transform China from food deficiency to food security within three decades.
Revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice,” Yuan, at the age of 78, continues his innovative scientific work as Director-General of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha, Hunan Province, China. He shared the 2004 World Food Prize with Dr. Monty Jones, an African rice breeder who conducted his research at the West African Rice Development Center.
Discoveries in Breeding Hybrid Rice
Professor Yuan is widely acknowledged as the first person to discover how to achieve heterosis in rice—a phenomenon in which the progeny of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more, and resist stress better than either parent. Rice is a self-pollinating plant. Because of this trait, it was long assumed that developing a hybrid variety was not possible. Yuan’s work reversed this assumption.
He began his research in 1964 and discovered a wild male sterile rice variety, which allowing researchers to fertilize these plants with pollen from other varieties. By 1974, Yuan had commercially released a hybrid rice variety with 20 percent higher yields than previous varieties, which was named Nan-you No. 2.
By 2003, half of China’s rice production area was planted with hybrid rice. Worldwide, 20 percent of rice comes from rice species created by hybrid rice following Yuan’s breakthrough discoveries. In 2007, China’s total rice yield was 500 million tons.
Production and Nutrition Goals
In 1997, Yuan’s yields were 10,606 kg/hectare and by 2004, 12,121 kg/hectare. His most recent goal is 13,636 kg/hectare, which he hopes will be grown nationwide by 2010. Planting trials have taken place in 20 Hunan counties, 18 of which have been successful. He believes further development must rely on biotechnology.
Increasing yields does not mean losing quality, according to Yuan, but he does believe that increasing total production outweighs a desire for preferred taste. The next mission of his research center is to make rice healthier and more nutritious to help solve the problem of malnutrition. Researchers are working to put vitamin A, protein, starch and other nutrients into hybrid rice, with the potential to reduce anemia and vision problems, especially in children. His continuing research offers even more promise for world food security and adequate nutrition for the world’s poor.
In his own country, Yuan enjoys a celebrity status and has received many national awards and honors—among them China’s State Supreme Science and Technology Award. In the summer of 2008, he carried the Olympic Torch in the Yueyang leg of the Olympic Torch Relay in China.
After the snowstorms which disrupted China’s economic, business, and agricultural activity in early 2008, Professor Yuan’s achievement in increasing the food supply was extremely important in getting the agricultural sector back on track. Hunan Province Governor Zhou Qiang noted, “We have a world-brand name in Yuan Longping, the father of hybrid rice, and we will maximize the area used to grow his hybrid rice strains.”
|Yuan Longping with 2007 Borlaug-Ruan Intern Hannah Cox|
Enduring Connections with the World Food Prize
The World Food Prize Youth Institute has placed young high school interns—known as Borlaug-Ruan Interns—at Professor Yuan’s center for the past five summers. He has taken a personal interest in each of these students, providing close mentoring and guidance on their projects, and inviting them to participate in leisure activities with him, such as mahjong, swimming, and badminton.
The 2005 Borlaug-Ruan Intern, Laura Snell, notes that “the internship provided an opportunity to live and learn side by side with Professor Yuan and his team of highly regarded international scientists.”