The World Food Prize Foundation

The World Food Prize Foundation Pays Tribute to 2000 Laureate Dr. Evangelina Villegas

04/26/2017

Statement of Foundation President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, The World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to the family, CIMMYT colleagues, and friends of Dr. Evangelina Villegas, the first woman to receive the Prize, who passed away on April 24.

The 2000 World Food Prize jointly honored Dr. Villegas and her colleague Dr. Surinder Vasal for their combined achievements in breeding and advancing Quality Protein Maize (QPM) to improve productivity and nutrition in malnourished and poverty-stricken areas worldwide, which have saved millions from malnutrition and hunger.

When QPM was fed to babies after weaning, they were healthier and at much lower risk for malnutrition disorders such as marasmus and kwashiorkor that often resulted in death. QPM offered 90 percent of the nutritional value of skim milk, the standard for adequate nutrition value. The inclusion of QPM in daily rations greatly improved health, reduced incidence of disease, and saved lives.

Evangelina Villegas was born in 1924 in Mexico City, where she obtained a B.Sc. 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 in 1957 she initiated the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory.

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

In 1967, she joined CIMMYT (the Spanish acronym for Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico where she conducted her most significant research. During the early 1970s, together with Dr. Vasal she began collaborative research that led to the development of QPM.  Dr. Villegas conducted laboratory studies investigating the protein quality of corn and Dr. Vasal did the plant breeding work on developing QPM varieties that would gain widespread acceptance.

Integrating cereal chemistry and plant breeding techniques, Villegas and Vasal 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 for maize nutritional and protein quality.

By the mid-1980s, they had produced a QPM germplasm with much higher quality levels of lysine and tryptophan that also had the consistency and taste preferred by farmers and their families. It was not until the early 1990s that CIMMYT gained the international support and funding to begin promoting QPM in Ghana and several other African countries. Reflecting these very positive results, QPM then spread to China, Mexico, and Central America. Today, over 75 percent of all corn grown in Ghana is QPM.

She was also an effective teacher, and in that role conducted training programs that helped spread QPM research, development, and cultivation from Mexico throughout Latin America and to Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Dr. 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. After that, she consulted on quality protein maize chemical evaluation for Sasakawa Global 2000, an international organization that Dr. Norman Borlaug was instrumental in founding and which works to improve farm technology in Africa.

Villegas’s contributions and interests extended 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.” Villegas also oversaw an education fund established to support CIMMYT’s “Bird Boys” – local youth hired to chase away birds in the research center’s fields, thus keeping the birds from destroying valuable stock for crop breeding and improvement.

She was also recognized by several scientific and academic organizations for her exceptional contributions and, in 2000, by Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who presented Villegas with the 2000 Woman of the Year award of the Mexican Women’s Association.  

Former CIMMYT Director General Timothy Reeves stated that “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.”

As a special recognition of Dr. Villegas as the first woman World Food Prize Laureate, the Foundation commissioned a large glass mosaic portrait of her that is displayed in the Ruan Laureates Room on the first floor of the Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates in Des Moines -- for the enjoyment of all who visit this magnificently restored historic edifice.

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