Known in China as “the father of hybrid rice,” Mr. Yuan was one of his country’s most revered scientists, a self-described “intellectual peasant” who spent a few hours each day in the fields, sometimes taking a break from his research to play the violin among the stalks. Once targeted by Communist officials for daring to suggest a slight change to Mao Zedong’s agricultural program, he emerged as a national hero in recent decades, with thousands of mourners leaving chrysanthemums for him at a memorial service in Changsha.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Yuan and his team developed hybrid strains that typically yielded 20 percent more rice than conventional varieties, transforming Chinese agriculture after years of famine and scarcity. Some 10,000 years after Chinese farmers began cultivating rice near the Yangtze River, the country now produces more than 200 million tons of rice a year, more than any other nation.
Rather than limit his rice technology and growing techniques to China, Mr. Yuan pushed to share them with the world. He ultimately partnered with the United Nations and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, in addition to teaching farmers in India, Vietnam and elsewhere how to grow hybrid rice. In 2004, he was awarded the World Food Prize with rice researcher Monty Jones of Sierra Leone, and credited with helping “create a more abundant food supply and more stable world.”
Along with American scientist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who developed high-yield varieties of wheat, Mr. Yuan was frequently cited as a leader of the Green Revolution, in which mid-century agricultural advances helped feed a growing planet. If the term was somewhat ironic, suggesting an alternative to China’s “red” communist revolution, it nonetheless suggested the scope of Mr. Yuan’s research, which influenced the cultivation of a staple crop that nourishes half the world’s population.
“He wanted to reach as many people as possible, so the problem of food could be solved globally,” said Jauhar Ali, a senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute. In a phone interview, he added that hybrid strains account for about 15 percent of world rice production. “We have to attribute this to Yuan Longping,” he said. “Had he not been there, China would have starved.”
Born in Beijing on Sept. 7, 1930, Yuan Longping was the son of a railroad official and English teacher. His family moved frequently, uprooted by war between China and Japan, then between nationalists and communists. He said he became fascinated by flowers and trees after visiting a horticultural center as a student in Wuhan.
Mr. Yuan studied agronomy at what was then Southwest Agricultural College in Chongqing. After graduating in 1953, he taught at an agricultural college in Changsha, where his focus shifted from sweet potatoes to rice. High-yield hybrid corn was already in production, and Mr. Yuan sought to do something similar with rice, a self-pollinating crop that posed a far greater challenge for plant breeders.
Beginning in the late 1950s, his research was further stimulated by the Great Leap Forward, a government campaign to bring industry to the countryside, which resulted in catastrophic famine and tens of millions of deaths. “At that time, grain was even more precious than gold,” Mr. Yuan told China Daily in a 2011 interview. “I never had a full stomach during that period, and that bitter memory is unforgettable.”
Mr. Yuan said he saw at least five people who had collapsed on the side of the road, dead from starvation. In an autobiography, he recalled that some tried to fend off hunger by eating grass roots and bark or by double-steaming rice, which caused it to expand.
In the wake of the famine came the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of upheaval in which perceived foes of Mao were persecuted or killed. Mr. Yuan was targeted as an intellectual but saved by an official who “recognized the value of his research,” according to historian Sigrid Schmalzer’s book “Red Revolution, Green Revolution” (2016). He was later “sent to a coal mine to ‘temper’ himself and reform his thought,” Schmalzer wrote, and freed after a pair of students vouched for his character.
Mr. Yuan forged ahead with his research, concluding in the mid-1960s that male-sterile rice plants were key to producing a vigorous, high-yield hybrid strain. He later recalled looking through tens of thousands of ears of rice, often while walking barefoot through the paddy field, before he and his team located the right plant on Hainan Island in 1970.
Using the Hainan plant and a new technique for transferring genetic material into commercial strains, he and his team developed the high-yield hybrid in 1973. Large-scale cultivation began in 1976, the same year Mao died. Under the Communist leader’s successor, Hua Guofeng, Mr. Yuan rose to prominence in China for the first time.
In an email, Schmalzer said that during the Cultural Revolution, “the radical politics favored emphasizing the collective nature of the research, including the important contributions of peasant technicians.” By the mid-1970s, Chinese publications were celebrating the way in which Mr. Yuan’s research team had grown “from a small number of specialists’ experiments to a new phase of a thousand armies and ten thousand horses.”
Mr. Yuan later directed a national hybrid rice research and development center and lent his name to a Chinese seed company. He carried the Olympic Torch in 2008 as it passed through Hunan province en route to Beijing, and in 2019 he was awarded the Medal of the Republic, the country’s highest official honor, by President Xi Jinping.
Survivors include his wife, Deng Zhe; three sons; and several grandchildren.
In recent years, Mr. Yuan and his team developed new varieties of salt-tolerant rice. Amid suggestions that he engineer rice with improved taste or texture, he said he remained focused on ensuring there was enough food to go around. He dreamed of creating “rice crops taller than men,” he said, in which “each ear of rice was as big as a broom and each grain as huge as a peanut.”
In his dream, he told state media, he “could hide in the shadow of the rice crops with a friend.”