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The father of Tongil rice

Posted November. 26, 2010 10:17,   


Until the 1960s, Korea suffered farm hardship in spring and a “barley hump” under which people suffered from food shortages. Since the country had a large population with a small area of arable land, rice harvested in fall ran out after Lunar New Year’s Day. To reap barley, people had to wait until summer. Farmers who had no food in early spring had to go to the mountains and fields to survive by gathering plants and roots. Many people had swollen faces because of insufficient food in rural areas in that period.

President Park Chung-hee, who seized power via the 1961 military coup, decided to overcome the barley hump, saying, “Let’s increase food production without letting land stand idle.” Because domestic agriculture was solely dependent on rainfall for water, the government sought to develop agricultural water. Such efforts raised yearly rice production from 2.1 million tons between 1953 and 1955 to 3.5 million tons between 1961 and 1965. Self-sufficiency remained impossible, however, as rice consumption rose due to economic development and increased incomes. The solution came in the form of Tongil rice, a "miraculous rice seed."

Seoul National University professor emeritus Hur Mun-hoe, who died at age 83 Wednesday, was called the “father of Tongil rice.” He first learned of a new breed with large yields (IR breeding line) of Indica Rice created by International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines in the late 1960s. He started developing a new breeding line with a team of agricultural scientists, and in 1971, he created a new breed of rice with large yields that was a hybrid of the IR breeding line and Japonica. Major support from the president and his special economic adviser Park Jin-hwan was a great help. Disease-resistant and boasting a 40-percent higher yield, Tongil helped Korea’s rice output per hectare soar from 3.34 tons in 1972 to 4.94 tons in 1977. Korea’s skyrocketing rice production in the 1970s is a good example of Asia’s “green revolution.”

Korea developed a series of breeding lines with higher yields and better taste based on rice breeding technologies accumulated with the development of Tongil rice. The rice breed had large yields but was considered a bit poor in taste, so it disappeared in 1992. Yet its contribution to the country’s self-sufficiency in food will never be forgotten. Even the younger generation, who never endured the barley hump, need to learn such history.

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-hwal (shkwon@donga.com)