Evangelina Villegas | Nice Alumni Series

Cereal Chemist | Class of 1967

Born: Mexico City, Mexico

You may view fields of corn as a landscape to admire out the window on a Sunday drive. For others those rows amount to an investment in a commodity crop, a profit yield. But for millions of malnourished people around the world those rows are lifelines, specifically the Quality Protein Maize (QPM) developed by Dr. Evangelina Villegas in the 1990s.

After earning a PhD in cereal chemistry and plant breeding from NDSU in 1967, Villegas and her colleague, Dr. Surinder Vasal, worked tirelessly to produce and analyze germplasm (the tissue that contains a plant’s genetic information), processing up to 25,000 samples a year. Their research enabled them to breed critical amino acids into maize without sacrificing nutritional value or yield, a feat no other scientist before them had been able to achieve.

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 (quality protein maize) maize.

It wasn’t only the fields of Mexico that would flourish with QPM, but fields across Africa and Asia as well. And its impact on populations in those regions is most noteworthy. For example, a 2002 study in Ethiopia found that children fed a QPM diet had a 15 percent increase in the rate of weight growth over those who consumed conventional maize. Not only that, a 2005 study found that QPM consumption in children led to a growth rate in height 15 percent greater than children fed conventional maize. It is estimated that developing economies benefited from Villegas’ germplasm to the tune of $1 billion annually throughout the 1990s.

Dr. Villegas’ work has been recognized as one of the most important contributions to food security in human history.

She was honored with the World Food Prize in 2000, becoming the first woman ever nominated as a laureate.

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Credits: Story by Scott Meyer & Dane Johnson / Illustration by Izak Moleterno

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Posted on November 18th, 2020 by Dane Johnson in News and Stories