Yield of Dreams

Hunger can be banished from the world with smarter, more productive grains, says Yuan Longping, who pioneered hybrid rice technology

Yuan Longping is one of China's most renowned scientists. For 40 years, the pioneer in hybrid rice technology has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the productivity of Chinese farmers, which would help the world's largest country feed itself. Today, Yuan is the director-general of China's National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha, a sleepy provincial capital best known as the city where the young Mao Zedong first made his mark as a Communist Party radical.

Yuan, who runs an office of 55 scientists, collaborates with researchers such as Cornell University's Stephen D. Tanksley, with whom he shared Israel's Wolf Prize in 2003. This year he was co-winner of the World Food Prize. Seventy-four years old and a dedicated swimmer and volleyball player, Yuan believes in hands-on experience and spends about two hours a day among the experimental crops in the fields near his office. He recently spoke to BusinessWeek's Bruce Einhorn about innovative ways to feed the world's hungry. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: You've played a key role in efforts to address global food shortages. What still needs to be done?

A:

Food security in the whole world is still a very serious problem because of the growth of the world's population and the reduction of arable land, especially in China. Some experts estimate that in the year 2030, the world population will be 8 billion. Now it is about 7 billion. In China, the situation will be even worse. In 2030, our population will reach 1.6 billion. And the agricultural land, per capita, now averages about 0.1, less than 0.1 hectares. By 2030, it will be down to about 0.07 hectares. So we are facing a very serious food problem -- how to feed the world, how to feed China.

Q: What's the answer?

A:

The only way to solve the food-shortage problem is to increase the yield of the grain crop per land area through the advancement of science and technology. That's the only way. Rice still possesses huge yield potential yet to be tapped. According to some scholars' estimation....the yield potential for rice per hectare could be as high as 22 to 23 metric tons per hectare. The worldwide average yield of rice now is only 3.8 tons per hectare.

Q: How does China compare?

A:

The country with the No. 1 yield in the world is Australia -- 10 tons per hectare. China is 6.4 tons per hectare, the same as Japan. Sixty percent of the rice in China is hybrid, the other 40% is conventional rice. The average yield of hybrid rice in China is 7 tons per hectare. Last year, we released what we call the Pioneer Super Hybrid Rice for commercial production. The average yield is 9 tons per hectare.

Now we are focusing our efforts on developing the Phase 2 of Super Hybrid Rice, and very good progress has been made. The yield target is 12 tons. In 2002, in a trial, the yield was above 12 tons. Last year, there were five locations in our province with 6.7 hectares each, where the average yield was above 12 tons. So we have confidence.

Q: What new innovations must you put into practice in order to reach such targets?

A:

The big change, I think, is the use of biotechnology. We must incorporate this approach into our breeding program. In the materials we need to use in [hybrid] rice, their potential is almost tapped. So we must find a new source, other than rice, with new genes. But if you want to use new genes from another species, other than rice, you cannot use conventional methods. We must use biotechnology.

Q: For instance, what can you do?

A:

The first is utilization of favorable genes from wild rice. Wild rice has many, many disadvantageous genes. But there are many useful genes, favorable genes, hiding. We cannot see them by the naked gene. But through biotechnology, molecular genetics, we can find some. We have found two yield-enhancing genes in wild rice, through our cooperative research with Cornell University. We transferred these genes into a line, the Q611, and the hybrid's yield is much higher.

Another is the genetic DNA from barnyard grass. Barnyard grass is a very common weed in the field.... The yield is over 15 tons per hectare. Another way is to use the C4 genes from maize....These genes from maize have been transferred into rice. The yield potential can be increased by more than 30%. So yields of 13.5 tons per hectare will be fulfilled by 2010. I have confidence.

Q: A lot of people in the West are opposed to this sort of genetic engineering. Does this concern you?

A:

There are many kinds of genetically modified crops. In transgenic plants [which are plants that contain genes that have been introduced artificially into the plant's genetic makeup], the genes from microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungus, are poisonous. They help the plants to resist insects. People say if insects eat these plants, they'll be killed, how about human beings? They are very concerned about that. But taking genes from maize to rice, it's no problem! For some genes, from bacteria that are very poisonous, we should be very careful. But for genes from maize or barnyard grass or wild rice, it should be no problem.

Q: You've been doing this work for 40 years, and you still spend several hours a day out in the fields. Any thoughts of slowing down?

A:

I want to fulfill Phase 3 of super hybrid rice -- 13.5 tons! I have two wishes in my lifetime. The first is to fulfill Phase 3 super hybrid rice target by 2010. The second wish is to develop the hybrid rice outside China, especially to feed the people of developing countries. I feel very happy in this hard, hard, hard work, because the future is bright. That encourages me to do more. I thank God who gives me good health. This afternoon, we are having the swimming competition. Last year, I won a championship. This afternoon, I want to win a medal. Then after that, we're playing volleyball. I'm a major attacker.

Q: What do you think is the key to doing innovative rice research?

A:

If you want to have good achievements in plant breeding, the first [requirement] is an abundance of materials. The second is the technical approach. These are the two fundamentals. And there's financial support, equipment, and facilities. But most important is your idea and your experience. You cannot grow rice, wheat, and corn on the computer. You should -- you must -- go to the field. [Some people] devise plant types in the computer. But they have no practical experience, so no success.

Practical experience is very important. You can't blindly create. You must rely on some basics. Practical experience is the base. Then use your wise thinking to think about how to create new methods, new materials, new ways. That's important.

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