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China mourns death of rice scientist who solved world famine problems

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(© soupstock – stock.adobe.com)

On Saturday, May 22, 2021, China lost one of its national heroes, and cries were heard around the world. Yuan Longping was known as the “Father of Hybrid Rice” due to his developments of high-yielding rice crops. His discoveries of hybrid rice species helped feed millions around the world, and also saved many from hunger and famine.

A political disaster: The great Chinese famine

Born in Beijing, Yuan studied agriculture and graduated from the Southwest Agricultural College in China in the 1950’s. Towards the end of the 50’s, China entered an era of harmful economic policies that resulted in the Great Chinese Famine of 1959.

This was part of a movement to move China away from an agrarian economy to a communist government. This effort was known as the Great Leap Forward and it left farmers devastated, hungry, and unable to produce enough food even for themselves.

Yuan Longping saw the destructive effects of these policies and began experimenting to find ways of producing high-yielding crops. After failed attempts involving sweet potatoes and wheat, which were not main parts of the Chinese diet, he moved to rice. But there was one problem, and it had everything to do with genetics.

The making of a national hero

Up until that time, agronomists based their work on the accepted theories of genetics, mainly that inbreeding produced less resilient crops. For this reason it was known that to produce more resilient crops you had to create ‘hybrids’. These hybrids were created by cross-breeding different species of a crop, and the offspring maintained the best traits.

However, Yuan couldn’t apply this theory to rice because rice is self-pollinating. This meant that you couldn’t find another species to mix it with to produce a better offspring. But Yuang figured that there had to exist a sterilized species of rice that could be pollinated by another species. In the span of 2 years, Yuan found that species and used it to produce mass quantities of hybrid rice seeds.

These seeds make up roughly half of China’s rice production, in fact, 10 percent of China’s rice fields produce 20 percent of rice worldwide. The hybrid rice species developed by Longping also has a 30% higher yield than purebred rice varieties.

Silencing talk around Longping

When the news of Yuan Longping’s death reached the people of China, many rushed to say goodbye to the hero. Flowers flooded his statue in Chongqing, China, and people walked beside his hearse. However, there were some who took to social media to insult Longping.

Chinese officials detained at least three people for making ‘insulting remarks’ about the agronomist. The Chinese social media site Weibo also deleted 64 accounts that had published negative comments.

But the famous agronomist was all too well acquainted with the consequences of opposing China’s stances or opinions. While developing his theory of hybrid rice, he referenced two opposing beliefs in agricultural science. On one side was the Soviet theory which was based on anecdotal evidence. It said that eventually, organisms would eventually adapt to their environments, and their offspring would inherit those traits.

On the other hand was a theory developed by an American and an Austrian which was based on the concept of genes. This theory was backed by research and experiments, but the Chinese government only allowed research that followed the Soviet view.

Because of this Yuan Longping did much of his research in secret, working to help the world while evading political tension.

Freeing the world from famine

While Yuan Longping worked on his development of hybrid rice during the Great Chinese Famine, the problem is still not solved.

Currently, 8.9% of the world’s population are suffering from hunger. That is roughly 690 million people around the world. Among the bleakest examples is in Sub-Saharan Africa where approximately 22% of the population is undernourished.

Organizations around the world such as Feed the Children are working to alleviate that by distributing food to those most in need. Feed the Children (FTC) is a nonprofit that collects contributions from corporate warehouses and takes them to their distribution centers. From there they allocate food to communities and organizations around the world.

And while extreme poverty has fallen sharply from the 1990’s to 9.2% in 2017, a healthy diet is still out of reach for many. In fact, the cost of a healthy diet is still above $1.90 a day, which is where the international poverty line is drawn.

Yuan Longping will be remembered as a hero, not only of China, but of the world. With more organizations like Feed the Children working to alleviate hunger, there is hope that his work will live on to help many more people.


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