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September 6, 2000


"Nobel Prize for Food": World Food Prize to Maize



First woman Laureate was part of a team that overcame skepticism about
their research to produce protein enriched corn, known as Quality Protein
Maize or QPM.

DES MOINES, IOWA, USA (September 7, 2000) – Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn,
President of The World Food Prize Foundation, announced today that the
$250,000 Millennium World Food Prize has been awarded to biochemist Dr.
Evangelina Villegas of Mexico and plant geneticist Dr. Surinder K. Vasal
of India. Dr. Villegas is the first woman ever to receive The World Food

Quinn said that Dr. Villegas and Dr. Vasal will be honored first at a
special ceremony on October 12 in the historic Iowa State Capitol Building
in Des Moines and again at a luncheon in New York City on October 16 –
World Food Day – featuring remarks by
U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke and Secretary
of Agriculture Dan Glickman.

The World Food Prize, referred to informally as the "Nobel Prize for
Food," has been awarded to Drs. Villegas and Vasal for their success in
developing maize with both higher quality protein and desirable agronomic
characteristics. The two scientists collaborated on this problem for
almost three decades at the International Wheat and Maize Improvement
Center in Mexico. Their painstaking scientific detective work finally
achieved the breakthrough discovery of how significant amounts of
additional protein could be added to low nutrition corn, thus producing
enriched "miracle maize." However, even as their testing process was
finally producing results, such research lost support in some scientific

Despite a cut off in funding, Drs. Villegas and Vasal nonetheless
persistently continued to pursue their goal. Thanks to their tenacity,
today hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who depend on
maize as a primary food source, and as a livestock feed, have access to a
high nutrition food. Known as Quality Protein Maize, or QPM, this grain
has significantly improved the quality and quantity of food in the world,
underlying criteria for The World Food Prize. In a world where nearly one
seventh of the total population (well over 800 million people) is
chronically malnourished, the significance of QPM cannot be overstated.
(A detailed account of the work of these two scientists is attached to
this release).

The successful collaboration of Drs. Villegas and Vasal is hailed by
researchers as one of the most innovative team approaches to conventional
plant breeding ever carried out to achieve a common goal. Dr. Normal E.
Borlaug, Nobel Laureate and World Food Prize Founder, states: "I’m pleased
that the efforts of Drs. Vasal and Villegas are being recognized by the
World Food Prize. Their efforts in developing QPM, working through times
when QPM research was quite unpopular, has resulted in significant inroads
to alleviating malnourishment and poverty in developing countries. What
they have done has inspired other gut-fighting teams of scientists who
labor to serve human beings, not just as an academic exercise."

Former President Jimmy Carter, Member of the World Food Prize Council of
Advisors, adds: "Dr. Villegas and Dr. Vasal not only achieved a remarkable
breakthrough on maize quality, but their efforts to teach and train others
in furthering QPM adoption are exemplary."

John Ruan, chairman of The World Food Prize Foundation, commented: "Food
security brought about by QPM is a fundamental advance to help the poor
break the cycle of poverty and malnutrition. We salute Dr. Villegas and
Dr. Vasal for their contribution to humanity."


The World Food Prize was conceived by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of
the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1986, The World Food Prize has honored
outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the
quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world. Previous
laureates have been recognized from the United Kingdom, India,
Switzerland, Bangladesh and the United States.

In 1990, Des Moines businessman and philanthropist John Ruan assumed
sponsorship of The Prize and established The World Food Prize Foundation
located in Des Moines, Iowa.


Dr. Surindar Vasal and Dr. Evangelina Villegas were born half a world
apart: he in 1938 in India, she in 1924 in Mexico. Sam, as he is known to
his friends, developed an early love for maize and pursued his interest
after receiving his Ph.D. in Genetics and Plant Breeding from the India
Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. Eva credits a love of
chemistry and biology, an ongoing interest in maize as a vitally important
crop in Mexico and the support of her family and professors as key
ingredients leading to her Ph.D. in Cereal Chemistry and Plant Breeding
from North Dakota State University.

Drs. Villegas and Vasal began their collaborative maize research in Mexico
in the early 1970s while they were working at Centro International de
Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo also known as the International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, in Mexico.

The two met at CIMMYT when Eva was in charge of the lab and Sam was newly
assigned as the plant breeder to work on QPM. Through a unique show of
determined teamwork, they integrated cereal chemistry and plant breeding
techniques to develop QPM germplasm by combining the existing opaque-2
gene maize with genetic modifiers resulting in a maize with hard kernel
characteristics, good taste, and higher quality levels of lysine and

During the course of their research they overcame numerous setbacks and
obstacles to widespread acceptance of QPM varieties. Maize with the
opaque-2 gene was developed at Purdue University in 1963, although its
origins date back to the 1920s. The kernel was opaque, chalky in
appearance and soft instead of hard and transparent. While lysine and
tryptophan levels were better than in conventional maize, opaque-2 had
lower yields and was more susceptible to ear rot and insect damage. The
taste and kernel appearance weren’t acceptable to farmers.

And so the stage was set for the work to come. As Dr. Vasal states, "The
work was difficult in the beginning. We had to develop very large
quantities of germplasm and it was a time consuming process of
elimination. By mid 1975, we had some materials which yielded better
agronomic characteristics and by 1984 we made definite advance."

Dr. Villegas added, "We had a very good group of people and the support to
analyze thousands of samples a year. Sometimes 20,000-25,000 analyses per
year – with up to 500 a week."

Along the way, conflicting nutrition reports on the need for protein vs.
the need for calories in the diets of people in developing countries
diminished interest in QPM.

Early varieties even with their accompanying drawbacks were rushed to
market and were ultimately rejected. Villegas and Vasal realized that the
higher protein maize would not reach the stomachs of the malnourished
until they, the scientists, improved yields to compete with normal maize.

By the mid 1980s, their persistence paid off. They had developed maize
with both high quality amino acids and an almost completely normal grain
type. But, it was at this point that support for their approach to the
development of enhanced protein corn lost support and research funds were

Their discovery remained unexploited because many nutritionists felt that
protein could be added to the diets of the most poor in other ways.
However, in the early 1990s with support from the Nippon Foundation and
Sasakawa 2000, whose co-founders include former President Carter, CIMMYT
began to promote QPM in Ghana and several other African countries. QPM
has also been increasingly utilized with very positive results in China,
Mexico, and parts of Central America. Wherever it is integrated into the
diet, nutrition levels rise and children’s health improves dramatically.


In Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, several hundred million
people rely on maize as their principal daily food. Maize is widely used
as a weaning food for babies. Many small livestock farmers or
smallholders also use it to feed pigs. Conventional maize is lacking in
quality protein content, especially lysine and tryptophan, which are two
essential amino acids the human body cannot synthesize and therefore must
be obtained from food.

Normal protein deficient maize is not a quality food staple. People
relying on it heavily typically suffer from malnutrition. Babies weaned
on it are frequently underweight, prone to disease, and are at high risk
for starvation. At a time when UNICEF reports 1,000,000 infants and small
children alone are starving each month, the use of QPM in daily rations
can improve health and even save lives. QPM offers 90 percent the
nutritional value of skim milk, the standard for adequate nutrition value.

Babies and adults consuming QPM are healthier, and at lower risk for
malnutrition disorders such as Marasmus and Kwashiorkor – seen all too
commonly in photos of children with bone-thin limbs and distended bellies.
Pigs fed on QPM experience rapid weight gain and are ready for market
sooner or as 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 and that of others helped spread its
adoption and use across the globe. Hybrids were developed and tested for
widely varying climatic and growing conditions. The maize germplasm
developed at CIMMYT contributes over $1 billion annually to the economies
of developing countries.

Data from Mexico, Africa, and other countries repeatedly report better
utilizable protein levels in diets of the resource-poor, complete recovery
from malnutrition, and enhanced nutrition and growth in pigs. CIMMYT and
other initiatives such as Sasakawa – Global 2000 continue the research and
development of QPM. Quality Protein Maize has had positive impact on
millions of people. "It can remedy nutritional deficiencies from diets
heavy in maize," said Vasal. In studies in Columbia and Peru, malnourished
children were restored to health on controlled diets using QPM as a
protein source.

QPM research and development have spread from Mexico to Central and South
America to Africa, Europe, and Asia. Just one dramatic example of the
impact of QPM is the miraculous turnaround in lives of the poor in
Guizhou, the poorest province in China. QPM hybrid yields are 10 percent
higher than other hybrids. New pig production enterprises enabled by QPM
have brought increased food security and disposable income. As an elderly
woman farmer in a Guizhou village explained, "We have always worked hard
but barely kept alive until QPM arrived (in 1994). Now my family is
happy. I have a good house, good clothes and I can travel to the local

By 1999, the impact of Dr. Villegas’s and Dr. Vasal’s breakthrough
achievement could finally be seen in terms of improvement in the human
condition, and thus the World Food Prize was awarded to them.

Both scientists acknowledge that CIMMYT’s commitment, leadership and
funding was instrumental in facilitating the development of QPM. CIMMYT’s
current Director General Timothy Reeves stated: "The potential
contributions of QPM to the world population are enormous. 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."


DES MOINES, IOWA -- The World Food Prize International Symposium on "The
Safety of Genetically Modified Crops and Their Role in Feeding Developing
Countries in the 21st Century" will feature an exceptional gathering of
world experts on this controversial topic, according to World Food Prize
Foundation President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn. The Symposium will be
held in Des Moines on October 12-13.

Ambassador Quinn noted that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug
will participate in the Symposium, as will eleven World Food Prize
Laureates. Included in the latter group are Dr. Evangelina Villegas, the
first woman ever to be named a Laureate; Dr. Perry Adkisson, who recently
chaired a National Academy of Sciences study of GMOs; and Dr. Hans Herren,
who has raised serious questions regarding the role of biotechnology in
terms of development in Africa. This assemblage of world renowned
Laureates alone is one of the most impressive gatherings of distinguished
agricultural scientific talent ever held.

But the 2000 World Food Prize Symposium will have, as well, many of
today’s leading authorities on the science and policy of biotechnology.

* Dr. Karl Heinz-Funke, the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Forestry of
the Federal Republic of Germany, who will be the luncheon speaker on
October 13.

* Dr. Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss Research Scientist, whose photograph was
recently on the cover of TIME magazine for his role in developing
genetically engineered "Golden Rice."

* Ambassador Alan Larson, Under Secretary of State for Economics, Business
and Agriculture, Secretary of State Albright’s most senior advisor on bio-
technology and leader of the U.S. delegation that is in dialogue with the
European Union on this issue. Ambassador Larson will address the Symposium
luncheon on October 12.

* Dr. Chen Zhang-Liang, Vice President of Beijing University and the
Director of the Chinese National Laboratory on Genetic Engineering.

* Dr. Ismail Serageldin of Egypt, Outgoing Chairman of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research.

* Dr. Bernard Schwetz, the Acting Deputy Director of the U. S. Food and
Drug Administration.

* Drs. Usha Zehr of India and Florence Wambugu of Kenya, two women
scientists who are in the forefront of the discussions on biotechnology in
their countries.

* Dr. James Peacock, chief of the Australian CSIRO Plant Industry, one of
the world’s leading plant research institutes.

* Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen of Denmark is the Director General of the
International Food Policy Research Institute.

* Dr. C. S. Prakash of Tuskegee University, who authored a document
entitled "Declaration in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology" that was
signed last spring by nearly 2,000 scientists from more than 40 countries.

* Ms. Hope Shand of Rural Advancement Foundation International, a Canadian
organization dedicated to the development of technologies useful to rural

* Dr. Miguel Altieri, a Professor of Agroecology at the University of
California and the General Coordinator for the UN Development Program’s
Sustainable Agriculture Networking and Extension Program.

A special breakfast session on October 13 will feature former U.S. Senator
John Culver on the life of one of modern agriculture’s greatest champions,
Henry Wallace—with particular reference to Mr. Culver’s new book, American
Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace.

Mr. John Ruan, Chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation, noted that he
and Ambassador Quinn had worked closely with Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and
the leadership of the Iowa Legislature in putting together the Symposium
topic. Mr. Ruan and Ambassador Quinn both expressed their sincere
appreciation to the State of Iowa for its financial support of World Food
Prize activities, and to Iowa State University for its service as the
Secretariat of the Foundation for the past decade.

Ambassador Quinn affirmed that it is the Foundation’s goal to organize an
annual Symposium that is one of the top policy dialogues in the world. He
believes that this year’s program is an indication that significant steps
have been taken toward reaching the goal. Participation in the Symposium
is by invitation, and further information can be obtained on the web at
www.WorldFoodPrize.org or from the World Food Prize Foundation office at
(515) 245-3783.