On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, the World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Professor Yuan Longping, 2004 World Food Prize Laureate, who passed away on May 22, 2021.
Barbara L. Stinson, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, paid tribute to Professor Yuan, stating, “Professor Yuan contributed enormously to ending world hunger around the globe, and as such was one of our most laudable leaders. Professor Yuan generously made his technology available to the world through an open platform, which greatly contributed to ending hunger. At the time, he was credited not only for the first varieties of hybrid rice, but also for the ability to then shift land out of rice production and into other kinds of food production, including fish ponds, fruits and vegetables, increasing the variety of nutritious food in China.”
Professor Yuan was honored as the 2004 World Food Prize Laureate, with co-Laureate Monty P. Jones, for developing the research and technology that he used to breed the first hybrid rice varieties ever created. As the “Father of Hybrid Rice”, Professor Yuan helped transform China from food deficiency to greater food security.
At the ceremony announcing the 2004 co-Laureates, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “[Yuan and Jones] have done great honor to their countries and great service to humankind.” Then Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, said that it was “only fitting” that the Prize in 2004, the UN International Year of Rice, “would honor two distinguished individuals known for their contributions to helping farmers produce more rice to achieve food security.”
In 1973, Professor Yuan developed the first hybrid rice variety, which yielded 20 percent more than previous rice varieties. In the following decades, planting of hybrid rice varieties pioneered by Professor Yuan spread across the nation so that by the early 21st century, almost half of China’s rice production area was planted in hybrid rice. This higher-yielding crop produced food to nourish approximately 70 million more people per year in China alone.
Professor Yuan is considered by many to be a Chinese national hero. A popular saying in China went, “If you want money, ask Deng Xiaoping; if you want a belly full of rice, ask Yuan Longping.” An asteroid and a planet have been named after him, and he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for a segment of its relay route in 2008. In 2019, he was awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest honor.
Dr. Ren Wang, Director of China National GeneBank, said, “The whole country of China is mourning the loss of a world hero in fighting poverty and hunger. Professor Yuan had dedicated his life to improving rice productivity and eradicating world hunger. We are deeply sorry for the loss of our long time friend, a hunger fighter and World Food Prize Laureate, Professor Yuan Longping.”
In 1984, Professor Yuan founded the China National Hybrid Research and Development Center (CNHRRDC), which he led as Director General until his death. At CNHRRDC, he took breeding rice beyond yield to focus on introducing saltwater tolerance and higher levels of nutrients, such as Vitamin A and protein, into rice.
Starting in 2004, Professor Yuan began hosting World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan International Interns at CNHRRDC in Changsha. He hosted 16 high school interns over the years, taking a personal interest in each of the students. He provided close mentoring and guidance on their research projects and invited them to participate in leisure activities with him such as mahjong, swimming and badminton. In this way, Professor Yuan supported the cross-cultural learning of young future leaders in the field of agriculture, which the Borlaug-Ruan Internship program seeks to foster.
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President Emeritus of the World Food Prize Foundation, said, “With the passing of Professor Yuan Longping, China and the world have lost one the greatest agricultural scientists on our planet, and I have lost a great friend. I think, 100 years from now, people will still be talking about Yuan Longping in China and in the world. That's how significant his achievements were. Like Dr. Norman Borlaug, Professor Yuan was incredibly humble, never seeking fame or adulation, rather focused only on hard work and results that could help eradicate poverty and uplift people out of hunger. He always seemed more at home in a farm field than an office, and was most comfortable in his working clothes, just as Dr. Borlaug was.”
Professor Yuan built a global legacy of combating food shortages and hunger. He and his research associates traveled to countries all over the world to provide advice and consultation to rice researchers. CNHRRDC has trained thousands of scientists from more than 50 countries. Farmers around the world have benefited from his techniques as hybrid rice spread throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas.
In nominating Professor Yuan for the World Food Prize, then President of the Philippines Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said, “Professor Yuan Longping is one of the most extolled foreign scientists in the Philippines. We are very grateful to him for his remarkable contribution to our people through the sharing of knowledge and technology in hybrid rice. He has generously shared his knowledge and experience with other nations, for the sake of fighting hunger worldwide.”
The impact of Professor Yuan’s ingenuity reached far beyond China, and even beyond the rice industry. Researchers and producers of other crops successfully used Professor Yuan’s two-line breeding system for rice to explore similar systems for hybrid sorghum and rapeseed with increased yields.
Dr. Gebisa Ejeta received the 2009 World Food Prize for his work breeding the first high-yielding hybrid sorghum for Africa, and is currently Chair of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee. In reflecting on Professor Yuan’s life, he said, “We all mourn with the whole nation of China in the passing of your national hero and a global giant in the field of rice genetics who pushed the envelope in making the commercial production of hybrid seeds in a highly self-pollinated crop, rice, a remarkable discovery as well as a highly feasible enterprise that has improved livelihoods and fed millions of people in China and beyond.”
Born in Beijing in 1930, Yuan Longping graduated from Southwest Agricultural College in Chongqing, China, in 1953 with a major in agronomy. Upon graduation, he accepted a teaching job at the Hunan Agricultural University in Anjiang, China. In 1971, he became a research professor at Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, geneticists concluded that heterosis - a phenomenon in which the progeny of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more, and resist stress better than either parent – was not possible in self-pollinated crops such as rice. Thus, it did not seem possible to produce high-yielding hybrid seeds in rice as had been done in other crops.
Nevertheless, Yuan believed that heterosis is a universal phenomenon and rice is no exception. In his off hours, he conducted scientific experiments involving asexual crosses between crops.
After nine years of research, Yuan published his findings in 1964, outlining unique genetic tools, which were essential for developing the first-ever hybrid rice. In 1973, Yuan successfully developed the first hybrid rice combination called Nan-you No. 2, which boasted yields 20 percent higher than previous varieties. By 1975, Yuan and his colleagues had summarized a complete set of seed production technologies, and the large-scale production of hybrid rice began. The following year, in 1976, Nan-you No. 2 was put into commercial production. With this new rice variety and improved techniques, food availability in China began to improve.
In the following three decades, planting of hybrid rice spread so widely that by the early 21st century, almost half of China’s rice production area was planted in hybrid rice. This higher-yielding crop produced food to nourish approximately 70 million more people per year in China alone. With higher yields, farmers increased rice production while simultaneously shifting millions of hectares out of rice and into alternatives such as fishponds, vegetables, fruits and other food and fiber crops to provide a more balanced diet and higher standard of living to rural Chinese families.
Yuan introduced Chinese hybrid rice to the world in 1979 at an international conference sponsored by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. 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 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made hybrid rice the first choice of its program to increase grain production outside China, and appointed Professor Yuan as the chief consultant.
In addition to the 2004 World Food Prize, Yuan’s honors and awards include China’s State Supreme Science and Technology Award, the 2001 Magsaysay Award, the UN FAO Medal of Honor for Food Security, and the 2004 Wolf Prize in Agriculture. In 2007, he was named a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, one of the highest honors in American science and engineering. Yuan became the first non-American NAS member from the Chinese agricultural science circle.