Labor of love pays off for rice breeder

NO PAIN, NO GRAIN::Despite spending nearly 12 hours a day for up to six months per year in rice paddies, Wu Yung-pei says he now has the means to fulfill his dreams

By Yu Hsueh-lan and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Sat, Dec 15, 2012 - Page 5

Despite having sworn to stay away from what he called the boring and repetitive field of rice breeding, Wu Yung-pei (吳永培), an associate research fellow at the Taiwan Agriculture Research Institute’s (TARI) Chiayi Experimental Agriculture Branch, has spearheaded the breeding of innovative rice strains, while adding value to rice cultivation through developing a variety of rice-based products.

Born into a farming family in Yunlin County’s Yuanchang Township (元長), Wu started dabbling in rice breeding research after earning a master’s degree at National Chung Hsing University’s Department of Agronomy in Taichung.

However, rice breeding techniques at the time were limited to improving quality and often involved monotonous research, while the future of the country’s agricultural sector did not appear promising.

Wu pondered how he could make a difference and what legacy could be left for future generations, which led him into decades of breeding experiments and research into the genetic diversity of rice.

Although Wu’s research efforts suffered several initial setbacks when he first started his work in 1998, he clung to his lofty ideals of bringing new life to the technologically stagnant sector and refused to give up.

In 2000, Wu reached his first milestone when he developed a new strain of rice, followed by his breeding of a number of varieties in 2004 that showed antioxidant activity, contained a low level of protein and had giant grains.

These rice mutations laid the foundations for Wu’s later development of distinctive strains, including Golden Rice (Tainung No. 76), Giant Embryo Rice (Tainung No. 78) and Meiwei Rice (Tainung No. 82, 美味米).

Wu’s research team has been granted the plant variety rights for their Golden Rice, the breeding techniques for which have also been licensed to farmers’ associations in Yunlin’s Siluo Township (西螺) and Chiayi County’s Taibao City (太保), generating an annual value of about NT$14 million (US$481,000).

Meiwei Rice is a low-protein variety whose taste measures up to that of Koshihikari, a high-quality strain of Japanese rice.

With a price as high as NT$100 per kilogram Meiwei Rice could yield an additional NT$400,000 profit per hectare of farmland. The Chiayi County Government is also mulling designating the rice as a variety endemic to the county and naming it Chiawei Rice (嘉味米).

Recalling his past difficulties, Wu said that when he first entered the field of induced mutation in crop breeding more than a decade ago, he had no money and no one to help him, taking care of everything himself, from research data analysis to field inspections

“I had doubts about whether I was doing the right thing, particularly when I saw civil servants in 9-to-5 jobs enjoying an easy life, while I had to go to work at 7am and came home covered in dirt at 6pm,” Wu said, adding he spent almost six months out of every year in rice paddies.

In 2005, Wu stepped up his efforts to diversify the agricultural industry by launching into the manufacture of organic soaps made of rice varieties he had bred.

In an attempt to promote his innovative products, Wu invested more than NT$100,000 on equipment to make the rice soaps at home, then distributing his home-made products for free to colleagues and acquaintances.

Wu’s rice soaps not only turned out to be a big hit among his friends, with many of them asking him if they were for sale, but also opening the door to more business opportunities.

This started when Wu sent several bars of his soaps to then-TARI director Lin Chun-yi (林俊義), who gave one to a female employee.

The employee spoke highly of Wu’s rice soaps to her colleagues after trying out the products, and the Council of Agriculture — the supervisory organization for the TARI — began to see the further business potential of rice, which could not only serve as a staple food, but also as the main ingredient in a variety of products.

Following a press conference held by the council to trumpet the country’s research efforts on rice soaps, Wu gained public attention that has helped attract funding and manpower to assist with his later developments of rice vinegars and rice-based cosmetics.

The techniques for the majority of Wu’s processed rice products have been transferred to the nation’s farmers’ associations and private corporations for mass production.

Setting his sights high, Wu said his next ambition is to breed multi-adversity-resistant cultivars to cope with a possible food crisis caused by global warming.

“So far, we have succeeded in breeding salt and drought-tolerant varieties of rice, with the former currently going through a test planting phase in Greater Tainan’s Beimen District (北門),” Wu said, adding he is trying to incorporate drought tolerance into the salt-resistant variety.

“Our lives would depend on these adversity-resistant rice mutations should a food crisis occur in the future,” he said.

To realize his aspirations, Wu said he has to spend one month each year carrying out pollination for varied rice mutants in a lightproof room with an average temperature of about 40°C.

“Conducting experiments may be rather painstaking, but I’m actually having fun in the process, because now I have the money and the manpower needed to fulfill my dreams,” Wu said.