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Research Races to Fill Rice Bowls

Chinese scientist works to develop high-yield hybrids that promise to feed a hungry third world

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 1990



CHANGSHA, CHINA

THERE'S more than one word for rice in Chinese, but to Yuan Longping, who is known as ``the father of hybrid rice,'' they all have just one vital meaning: life. Millions of Chinese have full stomachs thanks to Mr. Yuan's work in breeding varieties of rice to make high-yielding hybrids.

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A stalk of rice from Yuan's Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Center bends with 30 percent more grains than conventional rice.

And, with pearly hybrid grains filling half of China's rice bowls, Yuan can claim some credit for the rise in grain output that has underpinned China's ascent to unprecedented prosperity. Using grain based on his achievements, China is the only country to grow hybrid rice on a large scale.

``Yuan and his institute have made China by far the most advanced country in hybrid rice research,'' says Alfonso Calub, senior rice breeder at Ring Around Research, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corporation in Los Angeles.

Yet even as he gazes at the exuberant green glow of a paddy of spring rice seedlings straining sunward, Yuan is not satisfied.

``Now we're facing a serious problem of stagnation; we've made almost all the gains from existing hybrids and the yields are increasing very little so we can't keep up with massive population growth,'' Yuan says.

China's leaders say that the country's 1.1 billion population will probably swell far beyond the 1.2 billion official target for 2000. Although peasants today plunk Yuan's productive sprouts into 40 percent of China's paddy acreage, the surge in population has undermined per capita grain production by about 10 percent since 1984.

Population officials say that at current rates, Chinese could reproduce themselves into a famine.

``I feel under very heavy pressure; many farmers and government officials are very concerned about keeping grain supplies stable,'' Yuan says.

``Their hopes are my inspiration,'' he says, watching farmers with legs splayed and backs bent rapidly pressing young rice shoots one-by-one into deep black paddy muck.

So Yuan, China's field marshall in the ``green revolution,'' plans to introduce a hybrid of rice subspecies nationwide by 1993. A breakthrough hybrid of the indica and japonica subspecies would raise yields by an additional 20 percent and affirm the widely held view that Yuan's institute in the No. 1 center of rice research. So far agronomists have bred hybrids from different race varieties, not from subspecies.

But even if the subspecies hybrid is widely cultivated, it still won't lift rice output enough to fully engage the chopsticks of the more than 20 million Chinese born each year.

Like China, most other Asian countries have seen the number of mouths increase faster than grain supplies. Yet, when it comes to hunger for rice, Beijing officials apparently could show more sympathy for their neighbors in the region.

Beijing has awarded two United States companies licenses to Yuan's know-how to and is withholding the technology from the rest of the world to defend the companies' monopoly on the hybrid. Although the rest of Asia has greatly benefited from conventional interbreeding of rice varieties, it has yet to enjoy the fruits of Yuan's research into rice heterosis - the phenomenon of creating hybrids stronger than their parent strains.

Yuan doesn't hide his resentment that socialist bureaucrats in Beijing are serving US capitalists and barring him from sharing his discoveries with foreign scientists.

In the early 1960s he led about 20 students into the mountainous areas of Hunan Province to analyze some of China's unusual varieties of rice. While finding exotic rice, he witnessed some of the worst ravages of the nationwide famine caused by the misguided economic policies of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward (1958-1960.)

Spurred on by the starvation that took millions of lives, Yuan interviewed local peasants and discovered a hearty rice that was the result of natural interbreeding between two varieties. His fieldwork helped him to formulate the ideas and techniques underlying his research today.

PERHAPS Yuan's greatest contribution has been to devise a large-scale system to hybridize rice.

Achieving heterosis in rice is tricky because the stamen, or male part, of the tiny rice flower is very close to the pistil, or female part. Rice plants stymie all but the most meticulous attempts at cross-pollination because they usually pollinate themselves within just 30 minutes after the flower opens.

Initially, agronomists bred hybrids by hand, cutting off the pollen sacs from the stamen of one variety and brushing the pollen onto the pistils of another variety. This technique is too painstaking and laborious for wide application. Also, the offspring of the resulting hybrid rice do not produce viable seeds.

But Yuan earned his reputation as the originator of hybrid rice by tracing a gene in rice varieties that causes the male part to be sterile. By deploying a male-sterile variety, he vastly expanded the range of hybridization.

Today, China grows tons of hybrid rice seed by putting a variety of male-sterile rice in the same paddy with another variety and letting them interbreed on a large scale.

As before, the offspring of the resulting hybrid do not sprout viable seeds, so each year China must devote paddies to growing hybrid seeds.