Yuan Longping, an agronomist who developed strains of high-yield rice that made significant progress against famine, died in a hospital on May 22 at age 90. People’s Daily, a state-run media outlet in China, reports that Yuan was hospitalized after a fall in March and ultimately succumbed to multiple organ failure.
Born in Beijing in 1930, Yuan’s love of learning was fostered at an early age by his parents, who were both teachers, according to The New York Times. Although various political tensions and conflicts caused his family to move around, his education was a constant. He attended Southwest Agricultural College in Chongqing, China, starting in 1949, just as Communist rule began in China. Yuan was interested in agricultural genetics, which was considered highly controversial at the time, due to concerns of how the environment would be affected by altered plants. After graduation, he taught agriculture courses at the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, where he would remain until the 1980s.
After Mao Zedong, who then led the Communist Party of China, enacted the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and prioritized industry over agriculture, and food supplies from perceived political opponents were destroyed, the country soon found itself dealing with famine. Estimated deaths from starvation range from 36–45 million by 1962, according to NPR. In his memoir, Yuan recalls seeing multiple dead bodies on the street daily and wanting to develop a way for farms to be more productive, the Times reports.
Yuan compared domesticated rice to wild varieties and in the early 1970s, he developed the first hybrid rice strain ever created, which produced a 20 percent yield increase using the same amount of land. It was adopted by farmers in China, providing food security for tens of millions more people. The rice was used to address food shortages in Asia and Africa, saving countless lives from starvation. According to the Associated Press, one-fifth of current global rice production stems from Yuan’s innovation.
Yuan was quickly regarded as a national hero in China. He received numerous accolades, including the Medal of the Republic (China’s highest honor), and carried the Olympic torch during the 2008 games in Beijing. Following the news of Yuan’s death, the Times reports, many people openly mourned and gathered outside his hospital.
“We will inherit your legacy and complete your unfinished business! The brightest star in the night sky will guide us forward,” Hu Zhongxiao, an assistant professor at the Engineering Technology Research Center where Yuan served as director, tells the Daily.
Yuan is survived by his wife and three sons.