Tribute to a rice scientist


China’s ability to feed 20 percent of the world’s population, with just around 7 percent of the world’s arable land, was in large part due to Yuan Longping’s pioneering interventions.

On May 22, Chinese scientist Yuan Longping died of organ failure at the age of 91. Media footage showed thousands of Chinese people gathered on the streets to mourn his passing. For many outside China, news of his death may have been the first time they heard the man’s name.

For the uninitiated, Longping is known in China as the “Father of Hybrid Rice”. Longping invented the first hybrid rice seeds in 1973, based on samples from his home province of Hunan. More recently, he has helped develop rice that can tolerate high levels of saline and alkaline.

China’s ability to feed 20 percent of the world’s population, with just around 7 percent of the world’s arable land, is in large part due to Longping’s scientific achievements. Today, 57 percent of China’s paddy land is cultivated with hybrid seeds, producing enough to feed 80 million people – or about four times the population of Sri Lanka.

Yuan Longping’s team has trained 14,000 technicians in 80 developing countries since ethe 1980s. Longping once estimated that if hybrid rice were planted in half of the world’s 147 million hectares of paddy fields, the additional yields could feed 500 million people.

Longping was born in the 1930, amid the civil war between the Kuomintang-led Republic of China and the 9-year-old Communist Party of China. At the backdrop of this conflict was the search for a solution that would end a hundred years of humiliation, including the legacy of the Opium Wars, unequal treaties with colonial powers, and the tyranny of landlordism.

Duringhis long life, Longping witnessed the slow but steady process of the Chinese people standing up on their two feet again, through trial and error. He witnessed the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Reform and Opening-up, and probably contributed to each in his own way.

Longping’s story should be seen as beacon of hope and inspiration for a decolonizing country like Sri Lanka, which still struggles with food sovereignty due to the neglect of ancient irrigation systems, and soil erosion caused by plantations imposed by the colonial economy. Sri Lanka has only 0.063 hectares of arable land per person, compared to China’s 0.086.

Perhaps Sri Lanka had many Yuan Longpings who have been written out of history, or perhaps the suffocating grip of neocolonialism never allowed our own Yuan Longpings to be born. Yet the outpouring of grief over Longping’s death indicates that he was not just an individual, but the product of an ongoing revolution.

May there be many more like him.

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