Yuan Longping, Plant Scientist Who Helped Curb Famine, Dies at 90

SHANGHAI – Yuan Longping, a Chinese plant scientist whose breakthroughs in developing high-yielding hybrid rice varieties helped alleviate famine and poverty in much of Asia and Africa, died on Saturday in Changsha, China. He was 90 years old.

The cause was the failure of several organs, China’s top state newspaper, People’s Daily reported. An earlier report by an official intelligence service in Changsha Province, Hunan Province, said that Mr. Yuan has been increasingly unwell since falling in March while visiting a rice breeding research center.

Mr. Yuan’s research made him a national hero and a symbol of persistent scientific pursuit in China. His death sparked mourning messages across the country in which Mr. Yuan – light, elfin, and weakened with age – was a celebrity. Hundreds of flowers left flowers in the funeral home where his body was kept.

Mr. Yuan made two important discoveries in hybrid rice growing, said Jauhar Ali, senior researcher in hybrid rice growing at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines. These discoveries in the early 1970s – along with the breakthroughs in wheat growing in the 1950s and 1960s by American plant scientist Norman Borlaug – helped create the Green Revolution of soaring crops and an end to famine in most parts of the world .

By 1970, Mr. Yuan became frustrated with his sluggish progress in creating more productive rice crops. He encountered a change in strategy: searching for wild strains in remote areas of China for more promising genetic material.

A breakthrough came when Mr. Yuan’s team found a piece of wild rice near a railway line on Hainan Island in southernmost China. The following year, Mr. Yuan separately published a research paper in China that explained how genetic material from wild rice can be transferred into commercial strains.

Once the wild rice genetic material was added, the world’s heavily-bred commercial rice varieties could easily be hybridized to make big profits in crop production.

At that time, the rice scientist world was full of talk about hybrid strain development. Three similar articles on rice hybridization were published in 1971: by the International Rice Research Institute, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, and a team of California researchers.

But Mr. Yuan’s paper was the most practical and detailed of the four. “His paper was much better in terms of technology,” said Mr. Ali. “It was China that led the game after that.”

While teams in India, the Philippines, and the United States continued research after their work was published, Mr. Yuan immediately developed hybrid rice varieties over the next year. He used wild rice from Hainan to make the hybrids.

By 1978, Mr. Yuan had overseen the start of large-scale hybrid rice production in Hunan Province in southwest China. There he researched most of his life. He also oversaw research in Hainan, where he suffered his fall in March.

Hybrid rice varieties typically produce 20 to 30 percent more rice per acre than non-hybrid rice varieties when grown using the same transplant techniques, fertilizers, and water. When Mr. Yuan and his ever-growing teams of travel experts introduced hybrid varieties in Asia and Africa, they also taught farmers a wide range of advanced rice cultivation techniques, which resulted in further profits.

Soaring yields helped make famine a distant memory in most rice-growing countries. “He saved many – many – lives,” said Hu Yonghong, director of the 500-acre Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden.

Coincidentally, on Saturday night, a dozen of China’s top plant breeding experts gathered under a cloudy sky in the middle row of an outdoor symphony concert in the Botanical Garden. While the musicians tuned their instruments, the scientists took turns talking about Mr. Yuan.

Xu Zhihong, former president of Peking University and longtime professor of life sciences, said that Mr. Yuan’s underlying talent is always clear: he paid meticulous attention to rice plants and their growth.

“His personal interests were really very much about rice, so he spent a lot of time in the field every year,” said Professor Xu, who had worked with Mr. Yuan on various national agricultural committees since 1980.

Mr. Yuan also had a tremendous impact on Chinese agriculture, the botanists agreed, as he was a good mentor and team leader, and therefore played a far bigger role than if he had confined himself to laboratory work and writing on papers.

“I know some of his colleagues in Hunan – they have all done very well under his supervision,” said Chen Xiaoya, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and emeritus director of the academy’s Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology.

Beginning in the 1980s, after working in relative darkness for decades, Mr. Yuan was celebrated nationwide as a Chinese scientist who made world-class advances. His discoveries became a point of pride for China, whose leaders had become painfully aware that other countries had advanced in science.

“It has become a symbol of scientific innovation, not just for agriculture, but for all of science,” said Professor Chen.

Following his discoveries in the early 1970s, Mr. Yuan became a strong advocate for sharing his breakthroughs internationally rather than using them to achieve Chinese dominance in rice production.

He took the initiative to donate important rice varieties to the International Rice Research Institute in 1980, which they later used to develop hybrid varieties that could also grow in tropical countries. Mr. Yuan and his team taught farmers in India, Madagascar, Liberia and elsewhere how to grow hybrid rice.

Yuan Longping was born on September 7, 1930 in Beijing – or Beiping, as it was then called – into a family that was unusually well educated for the time. His mother, Hua Jing, taught English, and his father, Yuan Xinglie, was a school teacher who later became a railroad clerk. Mr. Yuan often cited his mother’s example.

“She was an educated woman at a time when they were unusual,” he said in a memoir published in 2010. “From the beginning I came under their uplifting influence.”

Mr. Yuan was the second of six siblings. His life and schooling were unsettled as a war, the Japanese invasion and economic upheaval forced the family to move into southern China. But he said his parents insisted that their children get a solid education.

He entered college in 1949 as the Chinese Communist Party consolidated its control of the country and chose to specialize in agronomy at a school in the southwest. His initial inspiration for agronomy choice – despite a lack of rural origins and despite his parents’ concerns – came partly from visiting a farm for a school trip and partly from an idyllic scene in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times in Little One Tramp grapes and fresh milk tastes good on the doorstep of his house.

“As I got older, the desire grew stronger and agronomy became my life’s work,” he wrote in his memoir.

Mr. Yuan specialized in plant genetics at a time when the subject was an ideological minefield in China. Mao Zedong had accepted the teachings of Soviet scientists who rejected modern genetics, claiming that by changing environmental conditions such as temperature, genes could be directly rewired. They claimed this would pave the way for dramatic increases in crop yields.

But outside of class, Yuan studied the findings of Gregor Mendel and other genetics pioneers, encouraged by Guan Xianghuan, a professor who opposed the Sovet dogma. Later, in the 1950s, Professor Guan was labeled a “right-wing” enemy of the Communist Party for rejecting Soviet ideas and committed suicide in 1966 after being persecuted by Mao again during the Cultural Revolution.

After graduating in 1953, Mr. Yuan took a position as a teacher at an agricultural college in Hunan Province and continued to be interested in plant genetics. His commitment to the field became more and more urgent from the late 1950s when Mao’s so-called great leap forward – his frenzied efforts to collectivize agriculture and boost steel production – plunged China into the worst famine of modern times, killing tens of millions of people. Mr. Yuan said he saw the bodies of at least five people who had starved to death by the roadside or in the fields.

“Starved, you would eat whatever there was to eat, even grass roots and tree bark,” Mr. Yuan recalled in his memoir. “At that time, I was even more determined to solve the problem of increasing food production so the common people wouldn’t starve.”

Mr. Yuan soon decided to research rice, the staple food for many Chinese in search of hybrid strains that could increase yields, and traveled to Beijing to delve into scientific journals that were not available at his small college. He continued his research when the Cultural Revolution plunged China into deadly political battles.

In recent decades, the Communist Party has come to celebrate Mr. Yuan as a model scientist: patriotic, committed to solving practical problems, tirelessly hardworking even in old age. At 77, he even carried the 2008 Olympic torch near Changsha for part of his route to the Beijing Olympics.

Unusually for such a prominent figure, however, Mr. Yuan never joined the Chinese Communist Party. “I don’t understand politics,” he told a Chinese magazine in 2013.

Even so, the state-run Xinhua News Agency honored him as a “comrade” that weekend, and his death brought a lot of public grief in China. In 2019, he was one of eight Chinese to be awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest official distinction, by the national leader, Xi Jinping.

Mr. Yuan is survived by his 57-year-old wife, Deng Zhe, and three sons. His funeral, scheduled for Monday morning in Changsha, is likely to spark new official condolences.

Later that year, Mr. Yuan was working on developing new varieties of rice, according to Xinhua.

“There is no secret; My experience can be summed up in four words: knowledge, sweat, inspiration and opportunity, ”Yuan said in a video message last year encouraging young Chinese to get into science. In English he quoted the scientist Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Keith Bradsher reported from Shanghai and Chris Buckley from Sydney, Australia.

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