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The dream of China's "rice king"
Updated: 2004-10-01 14:53

Xie Hua'an, a 63-year-old rice cross-breeding expert, still dreams of surpassing himself, though in the eyes of many, that would be impossible.

The hybrid rice strain "Shanyou 63," created by Xie in 1981, has been planted in China for more than 20 years, and boasts the largest growing acreage every year.

"Shanyou 63" won Xie lots of awards, including the informal title of "rice king." But Xie didn't rest on those accolades. As the President of Fujian Agricultural Sciences Academy, Xie is still working in paddy fields, trying to breed new and better strains to replace the "Shanyou 63," some of which are of higher- quality, more disease-resistant and could yield higher output.

The most populous country in the world, China has throughout history considered food security as one of its top concerns. Rice remains the staple food of the Chinese people and a major contributor to China's food security.

Hybrid rice has been introduced to more than half of the rice acreage in China and has made up more than 60 percent of its total rice output since the 1970s. Partly thanks to the spread of hybrid rice strains, Chinese farmers are able to maintain rice production for food safety, while several million hectares of paddies have been released for growing other crops to raise farmers' incomes.

Xie's rice cross-breeding has been the epitome of China's history of hybrid rice development.

"I was born in a rural area and I knew the feel of hunger," said Xie. "When I was very young, I dreamed one day all Chinese could have enough to eat and farmers could have more money to spend."

In 1972, Xie got 15 grains of maternal sterility rice seeds from a colleague and started his cross-breeding work. But his first attempt, strain "Aiyou No.2," was a failure in the face of the rice blast disease. The failure also made him realize the importance of disease-resistant quality in rice cross-breeding.

In 1981, "Shanyou 63" came out. Because of its high disease- resistance, the strain won first prize in that year's state-level Scientific Progress Award. Judges said it "changed the destiny of hybrid rice."

The strain has now boasted the largest growing acreage in China for 15 years. It was also introduced to Southeast Asia, where it has been called "supernatural rice."

But as the living standards of Chinese people improve, the low- quality of the strain gets more and more significant.

"Food will always be a big problem in China," said Xie. " Chinese people now not only want to have enough to eat, but also want to eat better."

Xie believes advancing breeding technologies, together with such modern biological technologies as cell cultivation and gene engineering technology, will improve the quality of hybrid rice.

To improve the quality of hybrid rice and create higher-yield strains, Xie has joined a series of breeding projects, from super hybrid rice project to ratooning rice, from outer space breeding to genetically-modified breeding.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has dubbed 2004 "the year of rice." During the process of the current planting readjustment, China's central and local governments have given priority to the growing of quality rice.

Xie said this means he has a lot work to do.

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