The World Food Prize Foundation

2000: Vasal and Villegas

Dr. Evangelina Villegas & Dr. Surinder Vasal

MEXICO, INDIA

THE MILLENNIUM WORLD FOOD PRIZE was jointly awarded in 2000 to Dr. Surinder Vasal and Dr. Evangelina Villegas, two scientists whose decades of research and leadership in improving the productivity and nutritional content of maize have improved the diets of millions of the world’s most underfed and poorly nourished citizens. Their development of Quality Protein Maize (QPM) and advancement of its cultivation around the world have contributed enormously to lives around the globe.


Dr. Evangelina Villegas

Evangelina Villegas was born in 1924 in Mexico City, Mexico, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology at the National Polytechnic Institute. She began her career in 1950 as a chemist and researcher at Mexico’s National Institute of Nutrition and at the Special Studies Office, which was co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock. While at the Special Studies Office, she initiated the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory in 1957.

Villegas continued her education in the United States in the 1960s, earning a master’s degree in cereal technology from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in cereal chemistry and breeding from North Dakota State University.

In 1967, Villegas joined the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), where she worked until 1989 and conducted her most significant research. During the early 1970s, Villegas and Dr. Surinder K. Vasal began their collaborative research in Mexico, where World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug had revolutionized wheat production some 30 years earlier. Villegas was in charge of the lab investigating protein quality and Vasal was a plant breeder assigned to work on developing QPM varieties that would gain widespread acceptance.

In Central and South America, Africa and Asia, several hundred million people rely on maize as their principal daily food, for weaning babies, and for feeding livestock. However, conventional maize lacks quality protein content as well as lysine and tryptophan, essential amino acids which the human body cannot synthesize and, therefore, must obtain from food. Thus, normal protein-deficient maize is a poor-quality food staple; unless consumed as part of a varied diet – which is beyond the means of most people in the developing world – it typically causes malnutrition. Babies weaned on it are frequently underweight, prone to disease, and at high risk for starvation.

Modified maize with higher protein content dated back to the 1920s, and the “opaque-2” variety had been developed in 1963.  While its lysine and tryptophan levels were better than those of conventional maize, opaque-2 had lower yields and a soft, chalky kernel, which made it more susceptible to ear rot and insect damage. Moreover, the taste and kernel appearance dissatisfied consumers, who ultimately rejected the enhanced-protein varieties in the market.

Integrating cereal chemistry and plant breeding techniques, Villegas and Vasal collaborated to combine the existing “opaque-2” maize variety using molecular biology techniques. They produced and analyzed germplasm at an astonishing rate, sometimes processing up to 25,000 samples a year. Throughout the 1970s, Villegas was responsible for the evaluation, development, and adaptation of a chemical methodology to screen large numbers of small samples for industrial wheat quality and maize nutritional and protein quality.

By the mid-1980s, they had produced a QPM germplasm with hard kernel characteristics and good taste, similar to the traditional grain and with much higher quality levels of lysine and tryptophan. However, their discovery remained unexploited for years because many nutritionists felt that protein could be added to the diets of the most poor in other ways.

In the early 1990s, CIMMYT gained the international support and funding to begin promoting QPM in Ghana and several other African countries. Since then, QPM has also yielded very positive results in China, Mexico and parts of Central America. Hybrids were bred and tested for varying climatic and growing conditions and QPM varieties were grown on roughly nine million acres worldwide, as of 1999.

The teaching and training conducted by Villegas and Vasal helped spread QPM research, development, and cultivation from Mexico throughout Latin America and to Africa, Europe, and Asia. In Guizhou, the poorest province in China, QPM hybrid yields became 10 percent higher than those of other hybrids, and the crop enabled new pig production enterprises, bringing increased food security and disposable income.

In total, Villegas and Vasal’s germplasm contributed over $1 billion annually to the economies of developing countries in the 1990s. Babies and adults consuming QPM grew healthier and were at lower risk for malnutrition disorders such as marasmus and kwashiorkor. Data from Latin America and Africa show the grain’s role in reversing the effects of malnutrition in those already affected. QPM offers 90 percent of the nutritional value of skim milk, the standard for adequate nutrition value at that time. At a time when UNICEF reports stated that one million infants and small children were starving each month, the inclusion of QPM in daily rations improved health and saved lives. Additionally, pigs fed QPM experience rapid weight gain and are ready for market sooner or can provide an additional quality protein source for small farm families.

Villegas served as a maize and wheat quality consultant for national research programs throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia – mentoring and training young scientists across the developing world until her retirement from CIMMYT in 1989. She continued consulting on quality protein maize chemical evaluation for Sasakawa Global 2000, an international organization that works to improve farm technology in Africa.

For their research at CIMMYT that led to the development of QPM, Villegas and Vasal were awarded the Millennium World Food Prize in 2000. Their combined work improved the diets of millions of the world’s most underfed and poorly nourished citizens, especially very young children.

The same year that she became the first woman awarded The World Food Prize, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo presented Villegas with the 2000 Woman of the Year award from the Mexican Women’s Association. Villegas has also been recognized by several scientific and academic organizations. Mexico’s National Institute for Agricultural Research honored her in 1966, the National Polytechnic Institute named her a Distinguished Former Student in 1972, and she was honored by the National Polytechnic Institute’s School of Biological Sciences in 1978.

In 2001 Villegas was named to Alpha Delta Kappa’s prestigious list of International Women of Distinction and received the prestigious Lazaro Cardenas Medal from the National Polytechnic Institute. She also received an honorary doctorate from the Chapingo Agricultural Autonomous University in Mexico in 2002.

Villegas’s contributions and interests extend beyond science. After winning The World Food Prize, she said in an interview, “What I would like to do with this prize is make the world more aware of what we have developed. Because for me, the greatest honor, as a Mexican, would be to see the fields of Mexico overflowing with QPM maize.”

Former CIMMYT Director General Timothy Reeves stated, “the efforts of Drs. Villegas and Vasal have laid the foundation for what will be one of the most important contributions to food security in human history.”

Dr. Surinder Vasal

Surinder K.Vasal was born in 1938 in Amritsar, India, where he grew up. He completed his university education in India and earned a Ph.D. in genetics and plant breeding from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. In 1959, Vasal launched his career as a researcher for the Department of Agriculture in Himachal Pradesh and later worked as a maize breeder at Himachal Agricultural College.

In 1967, Vasal took his first assignment outside India, working with the Rockefeller Foundation in Thailand to conduct research on maize in close collaboration with the National Corn and Sorghum Research Center of Kasetsart University.

In 1970, he moved to a position at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug had revolutionized wheat production some 30 years earlier. There, Vasal worked with and later supervised the high lysine maize project. It was then that Vasal and Dr. Evangelina Villegas began their collaborative research. Villegas was in charge of the lab investigating protein quality and Vasal was a plant breeder assigned to work on developing a new, more nutritious variety of corn known as Quality Protein Maize – or QPM –  that would gain widespread acceptance.

In Central and South America, Africa and Asia, several hundred million people rely on maize as their principal daily food, for weaning babies, and for feeding livestock. However, conventional maize lacks quality protein content as well as lysine and tryptophan, essential amino acids which the human body cannot synthesize and, therefore, must obtain from food. Thus, normal protein-deficient maize is a poor-quality food staple; unless consumed as part of a varied diet – which is beyond the means of most people in the developing world – it typically causes malnutrition. Babies weaned on it are frequently underweight, prone to disease, and at high risk for starvation.

Modified maize with higher protein content dated back to the 1920s, and the “opaque-2” variety had been developed in 1963.  While its lysine and tryptophan levels were better than those of conventional maize, opaque-2 had lower yields and a soft, chalky kernel, which made it more susceptible to ear rot and insect damage. Moreover, the taste and kernel appearance dissatisfied consumers, who ultimately rejected the enhanced-protein varieties in the market.

Integrating cereal chemistry and plant breeding techniques, Vasal and Villegas collaborated to combine the existing “opaque-2” maize variety using molecular biology techniques. Throughout the 1970s, they produced and analyzed germplasms at an astonishing rate, sometimes processing up to 25,000 samples a year. By the mid-1980s, they had produced a QPM germplasm with hard kernel characteristics and palatable taste similar to the traditional grain, but with much higher quality levels of lysine and tryptophan, thus enhancing the nutrition value.

From 1985 to 1996, Vasal was responsible for coordinating CIMMYT’s germplasm program and Lowland Tropical Maize Program. The development of QPM remained unexploited for years because many nutritionists felt that protein could be added to the diets of the poor in other ways.

In the early 1990s, CIMMYT gained the international support and funding to begin promoting QPM in Ghana and several other African countries. Since then, QPM has also yielded very positive results in China, Mexico and parts of Central America. Vasal and his team members introduced the first set of 58 tropical and 42 subtropical lines in 1991. In 1994, an additional 62 tropical white and yellow lines were announced. By the year 2014, CIMMYT officials reported that 70 percent of all maize grown in Ghana is QPM, with significant impact in enhancing human nutrition.

Babies and adults consuming QPM are now healthier and at lower risk for malnutrition disorders such as marasmus and kwashiorkor. Data from Latin America and Africa show the grain’s role in reversing the effects of malnutrition in those already affected. QPM offers 90 percent the nutritional value of skim milk, the standard for adequate nutrition value at that time. At a time when UNICEF reports stated that one million infants and small children were starving each month, the inclusion of QPM in daily rations improved health and saved lives. Additionally, pigs fed QPM experience rapid weight gain and are ready for market sooner or can provide an additional quality protein source for small farm families.

QPM varieties were grown on roughly nine million acres worldwide as of 1999. QPM research and development has spread from Mexico throughout Latin America and to Africa, Europe and Asia. In Guizhou, the poorest province in China, QPM hybrid yields became 10 percent higher than those of other hybrids, which has enabled new pig production enterprises, bringing increased food security and disposable income. In total, the germplasm developed by Vasal and Villegas contributed over $1 billion annually to the economies of developing countries during the 1990s.

Starting in 1997, Vasal took on a new role, leading CIMMYT’s Asian Regional Maize Program in Thailand. He also strengthened regional hybrid research activities by coordinating the Tropical Asian Maize Network. Vasal was deeply involved in CIMMYT training and regional programs. From 1970 to 2000, he trained numerous postdoctoral fellows, collaborated with visiting scientists, and conducted courses on hybrid maize technology and seed production, training more than 400 researchers in India, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Nepal.

For their decades of research at CIMMYT that led to the development of QPM, Vasal and Villegas were awarded the Millennium World Food Prize in 2000. Their combined work improved the diets of millions of the world’s most underfed and poorly nourished citizens, especially very young children.

Vasal is a member of the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America (whose Presidential Award he won in 2000), and India’s National Academy of Sciences. He received the 1996 International Service in Crop Science Award and the 1999 International Agronomy Award, in addition to accolades from governments of or institutions in Honduras, Peru, Panama and India.

Former CIMMYT Director General Timothy Reeves stated, “The efforts of Drs. Villegas and Vasal have laid the foundation for what will be one of the most important contributions to food security in human history.”

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