Dr. Evangelina Villegas & Dr. Surinder Vasal
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.
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.
Drs. Vasal and Villegas began their collaborative research in Mexico in the early 1970s while they were working at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, in Mexico, where World Food Prize founder Dr. Norman Borlaug had revolutionized wheat productivity some thirty years before. Dr. Villegas was in charge of the lab investigating protein quality and Dr. Vasal was a plant breeder newly assigned to work on developing QPM varieties that would gain widespread acceptance.
Integrating cereal chemistry and plant breeding techniques, Drs. Vasal and Villegas collaborated to combine the existing opaque-2 maize with genetic modifiers. Through 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 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.
Babies and adults consuming QPM are healthier and at lower risk for malnutrition disorders such as marasmus and kwashiorkor, and 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 a time when UNICEF reports that 1,000,000 infants and small children are starving each month, the inclusion of QPM in daily rations improves health and saves 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.
While Drs. Villegas and Vasal developed QPM through field and laboratory research in Mexico, their teaching helped spread its adoption and use across the globe. Hybrids were developed and tested for varying climatic and growing conditions; QPM varieties are grown on roughly 9 million acres worldwide. Meanwhile, QPM research and development have spread from Mexico to throughout Latin America and to Africa, Europe, and Asia. In Guizhou, the poorest province in China, QPM hybrid yields are 10 percent higher than those of other hybrids, and the crop has enabled new pig production enterprises, bringing increased food security and disposable income. In total, Drs. Villegas and Vasal’s germplasm has grown to contribute over $1 billion annually to the economies of developing countries.
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." Already, the fruit of their innovative teamwork, painstaking research, and dedication, despite sizeable obstacles, has saved millions from malnutrition and hunger.
The 2000 World Food Prize jointly honored Dr. Evangelina Villegas and her colleague Dr. Surinder Vasal for their combined efforts and achievements in breeding and advancing Quality Protein Maize to improve productivity and nutrition in malnourished and poverty-stricken areas worldwide.
Dr. Villegas was born in 1924 in Mexico City, Mexico, 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 at the Special Studies Office, which was co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock and later was converted into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). While at the Special Studies Office, she initiated the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory in 1957.
Dr. Villegas continued her education in the United States, earning a 1962 M.S. in cereal technology from Kansas State University and a 1967 Ph.D. in cereal chemistry and breeding from North Dakota State University.
In 1967, Dr. Villegas joined CIMMYT, where she worked until 1989 and conducted her most significant research. From 1972, Dr. 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.
Dr. Villegas also 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.
Dr. Villegas retired from CIMMYT in 1989. Since then, she has consulted on quality protein maize chemical evaluation for Sasakawa Global 2000, an international organization that works to improve farm technology in Africa.
The same year that she became the first woman awarded the World Food Prize, Former President Ernesto Zedillo presented Dr. Villegas with the 2000 Woman of the Year award of the Mexican Women’s Association. Dr. 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 Dr. 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. Since 2001, Dr. Villegas has been a member of the distinguished Mexican Polytechnic Group, a civil association focused on promoting and supporting science and technology in Mexico.
Dr. Villegas’s contributions and interests extend beyond science. After winning the World Food Prize, Dr. Villegas 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.” Dr. Villegas also oversaw an education fund established to support CIMMYT’s "Bird Boys" – local youth hired to chase away birds in CIMMYT's fields, thus keeping the birds from destroying the center's valuable stock for crop breeding and improvement. The efforts of Dr. Villegas helped many “Bird Boys” pay for schooling and go on to accomplish great things.
The 2000 World Food Prize jointly honored Dr. Surinder Vasal and his colleague Dr. Evangelina Villegas for their combined efforts and achievements in breeding and advancing Quality Protein Maize to improve productivity and nutrition in malnourished and poverty-stricken areas worldwide.
Dr. Vasal was born April 12, 1938, in Amritsar, India, where he grew up. He completed his university education at various institutions in India and earned a Ph.D. in genetics and plant breeding from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. In 1959, Dr. 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, Dr. Vasal took up 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. From there he moved to a position at CIMMYT in 1970, working with and later supervising the high lysine maize project. From 1985 to 1996 he was responsible for coordinating CIMMYT’s germplasm program and Lowland Tropical Maize Program to lead both population and hybrid research. Dr. 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.
In 1997, Dr. Vasal took on a new role, leading CIMMYT’s Asian Regional Maize Program in Thailand. He has strengthened regional hybrid research activities and coordinates the Tropical Asian Maize Network (TAMNET).
Dr. Vasal has been deeply involved in CIMMYT training and regional programs. In the past three decades, Dr. Vasal has trained numerous postdoctoral fellows and collaborated with visiting scientists. He has also conducted courses on hybrid maize technology and seed production, training more than 400 researchers in India, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Nepal.
Dr. 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 has 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.