Yuan Longping, the man who helped feed China, dies at 91

Yuan cultivated the world's first high-yielding hybrid rice strain in 1973. PHOTO: YUAN LONGPING/FACEBOOK

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Yuan Longping, a Chinese agronomist known for developing the first hybrid rice varieties in the 1970s and staving off hunger for millions died at the age of 91 in the central province of Hunan on Saturday (May 22), the official Xinhua News Agency said.

He died of organ failure in hospital in Changsha city, local media reported.

Yuan helped China cultivate the high-yielding hybrid rice needed to feed nearly one-fifth of the world's population with less than 9 per cent of its arable land.

Yuan was highly respected in China, whose vast population was ravaged by food shortages in the mid-20th century.

Shortly after a nationwide famine in the 1960s, Yuan devoted himself to researching how to boost harvests, cultivating the world's first high-yielding hybrid rice strain in 1973.

His comment that "Chairman Mao didn't study crop science" on Mao Zedong's 1958 agriculture policy put him under political pressure, but he survived as officials wanted to protect his research, Yuan told a Chinese magazine in 2016.

Feeding over 1.4 billion people in the world's second-largest economy is still a huge task for Chinese policymakers as consumers demand a wider variety of food and global tensions impact grain trade.

Last year, China's President Xi Jinping urged the country to maintain a sense of crisis about food security, prompting many local governments to launch related campaigns and restaurants to raise penalties on buffet wastage.

Yuan worked in the fields until early this year. One of his most recent projects was to develop saline-alkaline tolerant rice. His working team was invited to undertake a trial plantation of that strain in Dubai in 2018, Xinhua reported.

Changsha residents gathered near the rice research institute where Yuan worked to pay their respects to the scientist, local media reported.

In a commentary, Xinhua said Chinese flags may be flown at half mast to honour Yuan's contribution to Chinese agriculture.

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