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'Miracle Maize' Creators Win World Food Prize

The $250,000 Millennium World Food Prize has been awarded to biochemist Evangelina Villegas of Mexico and plant geneticist Surinder Vasal of India. Villegas is the first woman ever to receive the World Food Prize.

The winners were honored today at a special ceremony at the historic Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. They will be the center of attention again on October 16 -- World Food Day -- at a luncheon in New York City. The New York event will feature remarks by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke.

The World Food Prize has been awarded to Villegas and Vasal for their achievements in developing maize (corn) with higher quality protein than conventional maize and desirable agronomic characteristics.

The successful collaboration of Villegas and Vasal is hailed by researchers as one of the most innovative team approaches to conventional, not genetically engineered, plant breeding ever carried out to achieve a common goal.

Known as Quality Protein Maize, or QPM, this grain has significantly improved the quality and quantity of food in the world, the underlying criteria for The World Food Prize.

The two scientists collaborated on this challenge for almost three decades at the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center in Mexico. Their scientific detective work achieved the breakthrough discovery of how significant amounts of protein could be added to low nutrition corn, producing an enriched grain often called miracle maize.

Even as their testing process was finally producing results, such research lost support in some scientific circles. Despite a cut-off in funding, Villegas and Vasal persistently pursued their goal.

Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize, said, "I’m pleased that the efforts of Villegas and Vasal 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.

The American agronomist whose Green Revolution in India earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, said, "What they have done has inspired other gut fighting teams of scientists who labor to serve human beings, not just as an academic exercise."

Nearly one in every seven people on Earth is chronically malnourished, about 800 million people. Due to the tenacity of these two scientists, 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.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, member of the World Food Prize Council of Advisors, said, "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."

Since 1986, The World Food Prize has honored people who have contributed to improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world. Previous winners 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.

Ruan said, "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."

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