Starving kids in China spurred a hybrid rice evolution

Vicky BoydGrowing up, our parents would scold us if we were picking at the food on our plate during dinner. “You better clean your plate. Think of the poor starving kids in China.”

Back then, I just thought it was one of those sayings from the “Mother’s Handbook.”

It wasn’t until I heard Mike Gumina’s presentation during a recent University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture webinar that I learned the famine was real and was the impetus behind China’s drive to develop hybrid rice.

Between 15 million and 45 million people died of starvation in China between 1959-1961, says Gumina, global CEO of RiceTec Inc. China’s Professor Yuan Longping, who has been compared to this country’s Norm Borlaug as a humanitarian, led the effort to find different strains of rice that when combined could produce heterosis. A fancy term for hybrid vigor, heterosis occurs when two individuals are crossbred, and the offspring are superior to either parent.

China launched the first hybrid rice in 1974, with the first commercial-scale production in 1976. By 1991, 50 percent of Chinese rice was planted to hybrids. The evolution spilled into the Philippines and Vietnam in the late 1990s.

What began with average yields of about 3.5 metric tons per hectare (3,117 pounds or 69 bushels per acre) in the early 1970s jumped to 15 metric tons per hectare (13,360 pounds or 297 bushels per acre) in 2015.

Recently, Longping began selecting for salinity tolerance. “They can add to food security and bring acreage into production that previously wasn’t able to grow rice,” Gumina says. “He’s a bit of a super hero in China. Rice is so fundamental to the Chinese culture and was such a big part of that country’s recovery from the famine.”

If this sounds similar to the hybrid rice evolution in the United States, it is, although our movement wasn’t prompted by widespread starvation. Instead, farmers needed higher yields to offset rising input costs and stagnant commodity prices.

RiceTec’s first releases — XL6 and XL8 — had genetic backgrounds from China, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and local lines. Although RiceTec’s early hybrids yielded well, the grain quality just wasn’t there, and the Houston-based company has continued to work on that. XL753 has set the standard for hybrids in the United States, and Gumina says RiceTec has some in the works that yield 10 percent more.

Researchers at Texas A&M, the University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University’s AgCenter also are working to develop hybrid long-grain rice.

Wonder if parents today still use the same admonishment to try to get their kids to eat?