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Who will feed China? 87-year-old rice expert answers the call

Yuan Longping's superstrain raises hopes for averting a global food crisis

Yuan Longping of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, center, aimed to achieve a yield of 17 tons per hectare by age 90. He succeeded at 87.   © AP

TOKYO -- For decades, it has been one of the world's biggest questions. Lester Brown, a noted American environmental analyst, posed it succinctly in the title of his 1995 book: "Who Will Feed China?"

The answer might just be an 87-year-old researcher named Yuan Longping.

The concern was that, as China's economy took off and its billion-plus people consumed more, the country's appetite would throw the global food markets into chaos. The fear was not unfounded. Chinese import demand has indeed triggered turmoil in the markets for soybeans and corn.

But a team of scientists led by Yuan may have just ensured that China will remain self-sufficient, at least when it comes to one vital staple. 

The team developed a new hybrid strain that, last year, yielded 17.2 tons of unhulled rice per hectare. That is nearly triple the average yield for rice in Japan. It even beats the 10-ton average in Australia -- the world leader in rice productivity, thanks to its abundant sunshine and sophisticated irrigation technology.

The new superstrain, called Xiang Liangyou 900, has been grown in a field of the Hebei Silicon Valley Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Handan, a city in the northeastern province of Hebei. After the team topped the 17-ton mark, China's media hailed them for setting "a new world record" for rice yield.

Yuan, of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has been toiling for half a century to develop high-yield strains and solve the global food problem. Along the way, he was nicknamed the "father of hybrid rice."

In a 2015 interview with The Nikkei, Yuan said he wanted to raise the yield to 17 tons by his 90th birthday. He succeeded three years early.

The milestone follows major improvements in Chinese agricultural productivity in recent years. The average rice yield, by area, was lower than Japan's in the 1980s, but Chinese growers now outperform their Japanese counterparts, often producing nearly 7 tons per hectare.

A rice field in China's Anhui Province: The country has made major strides in terms of farm productivity.   © Reuters

Japan's average yield has hardly risen for years, largely because the government has prioritized reducing the amount of cultivated land to avoid a glut. Meanwhile, China's strides have come thanks to wider use of machinery, fertilizer and other aids. 

Chinese farmers were using 6.45 million large and midsize tractors in 2016, up from 870,000 in 1986. Chemical fertilizer use jumped to 59.84 million tons, from 19.31 million tons, over the same period.

The improvement is not limited to productivity. Aware that Chinese consumers are increasingly focusing on food safety, many farmers are actually restricting their use of chemicals and trying to develop trusted brands. The priority appears to be shifting gradually from sheer quantity to quality, and agricultural machinery makers, farm material suppliers and supermarkets are under pressure to respond to the trend. 

Might all of this, including Yuan's new rice, dispel the worries about China's food demand and the impact on global supplies?

After China gave up on remaining self-sufficient with soybeans for oil and livestock feed, its imports of the legume soared more than seventyfold in the 20 years to 2016. This caused severe turmoil in the market.  

China has been a source of instability in the corn business, too, since its imports fluctuate wildly from year to year.

Nevertheless, the government is determined to ensure sufficient supplies of two staples: rice and wheat. And Yuan's research is looking like a crucial part of the equation.

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