Super Rice Man Yuan Longping
By staff reporter ZHAO YAYUAN
CHINA is no stranger to starvation. The latest famine in its long history occurred from 1959 to 1961 when natural disasters swept most of the country. Anticipating and mitigating any food shortages is imperative for the nation. In the 1970s, Yuan Longping developed a high-yield hybrid rice. "I dreamed of rice plants as high as sorghum, with spikes as long as broom bristles and grains the size of peanuts, and my assistants and I sitting in their shade."
Yuan, a scientist in his late 70s, is still chasing his dream and working like a farmer. When we contacted him by phone, he chuckled and said if he is not in the field, he must be on his way there. His bio-technology feat has laid a solid foundation for China to feed its growing population. Statistics show that in China the output of rice was increased by 100 million tons between 1976 and 1987. This meant millions of people were spared the struggle of trying to feed themselves. It went on to benefit many others in the world. Hybrid rice technology is one of key projects flagged for aid from the Chinese government to developing countries.
Feeding Ourselves on Technology
In 1995, Yuan made his breakthrough in two-line hybrid rice, a new breed that further increased the national output. Later he devoted himself to research in "super rice," a superb marriage of hybrid technology with the production-enhancing genes of wild rice. The "super" moniker refers to both superior yield and quality.
In 2000, Yuan completed Phase One of the super rice project sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture – the yield reached 700 kg per mu. When the second phase concluded in October 2004, a year ahead of schedule, the output per mu was as high as 847 kg. According to the ministry's plan, Phase Three should have been completed by 2015, meeting an output target of 900 kg. But Yuan is confident the target can be advanced to 2010.
Hybrid rice is mainly planted in South China, and its total acreage amounts to 250 million mu (16.7 million hectares), or 57 percent of the rice fields across the country. Weather permitting, North China grows japonica rice while South China plants hsien rice, which can't withstand the freezing winds of the North. "We are researching the japonica rice," Yuan betrays his high expectations for this other project, "and if we succeed, the total area of hybrid rice will account for as high as 80 percent."
Sun Zhengcai, Minister of Agriculture, pointed out on October 20 that science and technology had played a decisive role in propelling Chinese agriculture and rural development, and that their contribution rate to agricultural growth increased from 19.9 percent in the 1950s to the current 51 percent. He emphasized that the development and application of high quality strains have boosted China's supply capacity both in grain and other key agricultural products.
Incomplete statistics indicate that since 1949, more than 10,000 new hybridizations have been developed. China has realized five to six large-scale strain updates, which allowed the yield of grain per mu to increase to 330 kilograms, and the total output to reach 528.5 million tons. In 1949, these two measures were only 69 kilograms and 115 million tons.
Now, per capita arable land area for 1.3 billion Chinese people is 1.3 mu. When the population grows to 1.6 billion in 2030, it will reduce to one mu. Referring to food security, Yuan said assertively: "With the right policies that stimulate farmers to plant, and our advanced technology and high quality seeds, I myself see no problem."
Teaching the World That More Is More
As one of the world's main crops, rice is planted in over 120 countries and regions. Half the world's population depends on rice, but the yield per mu remains at about 200 kg. "China can solve its food shortages and also help others," Yuan says proudly. "The total area of rice paddies globally is 2.2 billion mu (147 million hectares), and at least half of that is applicable to hybrid species. If the hybrid rice area were expanded by 100 million mu, 15 million more tons of rice could reach the world's tables, feeding 10 billion people – assuming every one needs 150 kg every year."
As early as the 1990s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) listed hybrid rice as the prime solution for developing countries grappling with food shortages. Over the past few years around 240 million mu of the paddies worldwide have been converted to hybrid species each year, with an annual extra output that can feed 70 million people.
Since 1996, the Chinese government has dispatched more than 700 agricultural experts and technicians to Mauritania, Ghana and five other countries under the framework of the South-South Cooperation – a program for developing countries to work together on solutions to their common development challenges. This cooperation is jointly implemented by the Chinese government, the FAO and beneficiary governments.
According to Chen Deming, Minister of Commerce, the Chinese government has trained about 2,000 new specialists in hybrid rice for over 50 countries. He announced this human resource contribution in his keynote speech at the Ministerial Forum of International Cooperation on Chinese Hybrid Rice Technology in September 11, and the creation of agricultural technology demonstration centers in the Philippines and Liberia. In the Philippines, hybrid rice has been cultivated in large fields, producing three or more tons per hectare than a regular rice paddy. India also learned from China's experience, increasing its production by 30 percent.
Since 2007, China has exported 50,000 tons of hybrid rice seeds. Yuan regarded Vietnam as a big hybrid rice success story. As early as the 1980s, farmers in northern Vietnam on the border with Guangxi started to import hybrid seeds and plant them in their paddies. Chen Deming also mentioned that Vietnam imported and planted Chinese hybrid rice in 1993, which produced yields 20 percent higher than their local strain. Now the country grows 10 million mu of hybrid species, with an average yield of 400 kg per mu. This application has enabled Vietnam, previously a food importer, to become the second largest rice exporter in the world, following Thailand.
Transferring Skills to Foreign Technicians
On September 12, Yuanlongping High-tech Agriculture Co,. Ltd. was granted by the Ministry of Commerce the title of Chinese Foreign Aid Hybrid Rice Technology Training Bace. Since 1999, the company, named after the outstanding scientist, has been commissioned by the ministry to train nearly 1,000 agricultural management officials and technicians from 50 countries and regions in Asia and Africa.
Apart from hybrid rice, the Chinese government has also increased its aid to foreign countries in the form of fishery and livestock technologies. Experts, farm machinery and fertilizers have all been shipped abroad. According to Chen Deming, China has helped implement 216 farming projects in 62 countries, and trained 20,000 officials and technicians from developing nations as part of skills transfer.
At the Beijing Summit of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in November 2006, President Hu Jintao committed to the construction of 10 agricultural demonstration centers and the dispatch of 100 senior agricultural experts for Africa. In September 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao announced a series of projects to assist developing countries at the UN High-Level Meeting on Millennium Development Goals, including that the number of agricultural technology demonstration centers would be bumped up to 30, the number of agricultural experts and technicians to 1,000, and agricultural training opportunities in China opened to 3,000 people from developing countries. Funding was also designated – US $30 million to the FAO to establish a trust fund to help developing countries enhance general agricultural productivity.
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