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Amritsar-born scientist wins World Food Prize

By Vasantha Arora

Surinder K. VasalWashington: Indian plant geneticist Surinder K. Vasal has been awarded the prestigious Millennium World Food Prize along with Mexican biochemist Evangelina Villegas for lifetime work to develop a higher-yielding, protein-rich corn that could help prevent malnutrition in millions of people.

The World Bank made an announcement that the two awardees, Amritsar-born Vasal, 62, and Villegas, 76, will receive the $250,000 prize at a ceremony Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Both scientists belong to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT. It is one of the 16 research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world's largest agricultural research network with more than 10,000 scientists and scientific support staff in more than 100 countries. The World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) serve as co-sponsors.

Thirty-five years in the making, the new corn known as quality protein maize (QPM) looks and tastes like normal maize with one vital difference - it contains twice the amount of lysine and tryptophan, amino acids essential for human health and nutrition. QPM's nutritive value approaches that of protein from skimmed milk.

"QPM is helping make a real difference in the lives of millions of people who are living on the edge of survival," Ian Johnson, CGIAR chairman and World Bank vice president, said. "It is an example of people-centered science at its very best," he added.

"The work was difficult and time consuming. We had to develop very large quantities of germplasm and concurrently develop our capacity to do rapid grain assays. When we started out, we never anticipated that it would take 30 years to achieve this breakthrough. We just believed that a combination of plant breeding, quality biochemistry, patience and persistence could yield a new plant that would help wipe malnutrition and hunger," Vasal said.

Vasal joins two noted Indian farm scientists - M.S. Swaminathan (1987) and Gurdev S. Khush (1996) - to have won the World Food Prize award. Other winners include Henry M. Beachell (1996), Robert F. Chandler (1988), Hans Herren (1995) and John Niederhauser (1990).

Vasal earned his university education and academic degrees from various institutions in India, including a bachelor of science (B.Sc.) from Khalsa College, Amritsar. Beginning his career as a research assistant in the department of agriculture, Himachal Pradesh, he became assistant professor of botany in Himachal Agricultural College, Solan, in 1964.

In 1967, Vasal took up his first assignment outside India as a research associate in the Rockefeller Foundation Agricultural Program in Bangkok. In 1970, he became a post-doctoral fellow at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Mexico, supervising the high lysine maize project.

He remained deeply involved in the program for almost two decades and made significant contributions to the development of ergonomically acceptable Quality Protein Maize (QPM) for varied climates.

In the mid-eighties, Vasal was assigned a more challenging responsibility at CIMMYT, launching hybrid maize development and serving as maize program germplasm coordinator. For nearly six years, he managed hybrid research activities for important ecologies to which maize is adapted.

In 1991, Vasal was named head and coordinator of CIMMYT's Lowland Tropical Maize Program to lead both population and hybrid research. New breeding initiatives and schemes were introduced and old ones modified to increase their suitability for hybrid research and related activities.

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. The increased availability of maize inbreds from CIMMYT has greatly helped in accelerating hybrid research activities in developing countries.

In 1997, Vasal was promoted to the rank of distinguished scientist and a new role as team leader of the Asian Regional Maize Program of CIMMYT in Thailand. He has strengthened regional hybrid research activities and coordinates the Tropical Asian Maize Network (TAMNET).

In the last two years, he has conducted courses on hybrid maize technology and seed production, training more than 300 researchers in India, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Nepal.

Vasal and his group have published more than 115 papers including journal articles, book chapters, technical bulletins, abstracts and conducted scientific meeting presentations. Vasal is a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), recipient of 1996 International Service in Crop Science Award and 1999 International Agronomy Award.

Source: India Abroad News Service

Oct 12, 2000