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Pushing the boundaries to aid the world

By Zhang Zhihao and Zhang Yangfei | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-21 09:04
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Yuan Longping: Achieving the dream of feeding the world

Members of the agricultural science community often humorously comment, "Two Pings fed the Chinese people", according to People's Daily.

The first "Ping" is Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's reform and opening-up policy which greatly improved people's livelihoods, while the second is Yuan Longping, who created the world's first hybrid rice in 1974.

Yuan, who was born in Beijing but has lived mostly in Hunan province, has devoted his life to breaking yield records and safeguarding food security for the people of China and the world.

Hybrid rice is created by crossbreeding two genetically distinct rice "parents", whose "offspring" occasionally embody stronger characteristics - such as better resistance to disease and insects, and higher yields - than either parent, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

This makes hybrid rice fundamentally different from genetically engineered rice (also known as transgenic rice) because no foreign genes are introduced using genetic engineering. However, it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to produce hybrid rice with the right characteristics, the institute said.

"Among high-tech scientific research, hybrid rice is one of the fields in which China has consistently led the world for decades," Yuan told Xinhua News Agency this year. On his 88th birthday in September, he said he still has three dreams to fulfill before he retires.

"The first is to create rice straws so big and yielding so many grains that people can take shade under the stems," he said. "The second is seeing hybrid rice planted across the globe to eliminate world hunger."

His third dream is to turn China's 100 million hectares of saline wasteland into a breadbasket. Yuan estimated if 10 percent of China's saline soil were to yield rice at around 4.5 metric tons per hectare, at least an extra 80 million people could be fed.

Despite the monumental task, Yuan's dreams are slowly becoming realities.

On Oct 29, Xiangliangyou 900, a super-hybrid rice strain developed by Yuan and his team, yielded about 18 tons per hectare, surpassing Yuan's world record of 17.25 tons per hectare set last year, according to Xinhua.

Yuan also made headlines this year by growing rice in the most unconventional places - China's saline soils and the deserts of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

In May, the fields in Dubai, which were irrigated with sea water, yielded more than 7.5 tons per hectare, making China the only country capable of growing rice in a tropical desert.

Next year, researchers and entrepreneurs from China and the UAE will launch a 100-hectare standard farm planted with desert rice, and help to accelerate the process of building a green, ecological Dubai in 2020, Xinhua said.

On Oct 10, Yuan's saline hybrid rice reached a yield of around 3.9 tons per hectare in his test fields in Qingdao, Shandong province, proving the hybrid's feasibility and potential.

Mass planting of hybrid rice was approved in 1996. In 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture estimated that approximately 50 percent of China's rice-growing land had been sown with the strains developed by Yuan.

Hybrid rice has also increased yields in key rice-producing countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Brazil, the United States and the Philippines, the ministry added.

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