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The man who tried to feed the world

I had never met him personally, yet his recent death in May left me with much grief. I felt I knew him somewhat because I had read up on him for a children’s book series (“The Boy Who Would Feed the World,” illustrated by Quix P. Maiquez, Bookmark, 2007) focusing on great men and women of Asia, the Ramon Magsaysay Awardees.

Yuan Longping’s path to his revolutionary discovery was long and arduous; he achieved success only after over three thousand experiments, with his relentless persistence goading him on. Even as a child, he was said to have talked about unusual dream stories of tall rice plants, with stalks of rice as big as brooms and grains plump as peanuts. And best of all, farmers relaxing under the shade of the rice plants.

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He was a curious child fascinated with whatever grew from the soil. He decided to be an agronomist after a school trip to a botanical garden where he saw a peach tree heavy with fruit—it intrigued his imagination how a tree could feed many. He also drew inspiration from Charlie Chaplin’s film “Modern Times,” where grapes and fresh milk delivered at the front door were enjoyed by the Little Tramp. This life vocation became an obsession when famine in China killed millions and he himself saw at least five people by the roadside who had died of starvation.

My special interest in Yuan Longping comes from the references to the Philippines in the New York Times article announcing his death. Jauhar Ali, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, spoke of Yuan’s major discoveries which helped “create the Green Revolution of steeply rising harvests…”

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It was in 1970 when Yuan had his breakthrough discovery of wild rice on Hainan Island. He published a research paper on how the genetic material from wild rice could be used for commercial strains, thus producing 20-30 percent larger harvests on the same land area. The buzz among rice scientists then was on hybrid varieties. Three similar papers were published in 1971: by the IRRI, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, and a team of California researchers. Yuan’s paper was deemed the most practical and detailed of the four. “His (Mr. Yuan’s) paper was much better in terms of the technology,” said Ali. “It was China who led the game afterward.” Yuan immediately developed hybrid rice the next year, while the three other teams continued their research.

Yuan was known to be a strong advocate for sharing his discoveries internationally, rather than using them to get his country to achieve dominance in rice production. He generously shared his knowledge with the scientists he worked with and continued his work in the fields till his death at the age of 91. He had been ill after a fall in March during a visit to a rice-breeding research site.

It was moving to see photographs of a grateful citizenry in long queues mourning him in the rain, and to see his large portrait propped up against a wall of golden stalks of rice in the Hybrid Rice Science Museum. Public buses offered free rides to those paying their respects. Many adults came with a deep sense of gratitude, with one saying that years back, before the achievements of the celebrity scientist had turned things around, a good meal was not assured. A young bespectacled schoolboy said he woke up early because Grandpa Yuan had always been his idol.

Yuan Longping’s discoveries helped many rice-growing countries—but what happened to the Philippines? Were our farmers not taught the advanced rice-growing techniques that Yuan introduced in Asia and Africa? What happened to the rice strains donated to the IRRI in 1980? How might the “Father of Hybrid Rice” feel about the arguments of health advocates today against the varieties he created in a bid to feed the world?

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and was former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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TAGS: hybrid rice, International Rice Research Institute, Yuan Longping
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