By: CropLife International

The World Food Prize (WFP) is awarded for a specific, exceptionally significant, individual achievement that advances human development with a demonstrable increase in the quantity, quality, availability of, or access to food through creative interventions at any point within the full scope of the food system. All of the women recognized below have been bestowed this prestigious award for their contributions to feeding our planet.

Dr. Maria Andrade and Dr. Jan Low, Developed the biofortified orange-fleshed sweet potato at the CGIAR International Potato Center.

Dr. Maria Andrade and Dr. Jan Low were both awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for the development and application of biofortification, breeding vitamins and nutrients into crops. Their efforts have dramatically reduced ‘hidden’ hunger for millions around the world.

Born in 1958 in the Cape Verde Islands, Andrade secured a place at the University of Arizona, studying Agronomy with support from an African-American Institute scholarship. She received a masters in Plant Genetics before earning a Ph.D. in Plant Breeding from North Carolina state University in 1994. Andrade orientated her efforts towards improving food security in Africa and developed a profound interest in biofortified crops after conducting her Ph.D. research on the sweet potato.

Jan Low was born in 1995 in Colorado before attending Pomona College in California. She undertook a study abroad programme in Kenya which inspired her to build a career in Africa where she became committed to combating Vitamin A deficiency and improving nutrition.

To counter the tragic effects of Vitamin A deficiency, both Andrade and Low conducted a multi-year research project to develop disease-resistant, drought-tolerant and high-yielding varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato. This sweet potato variant is widely grown in the variable conditions of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Collaborating as a team with Robert Mwanga, Andrade and Low demonstrated that Vitamin A enriched crops provide immense benefits to human health and childhood development. After gaining financial backing from funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the team began breeding programs of orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties across Africa.

Andrade and Low’s efforts have forged a new alliance among agronomists, plant breeders,  and public health experts, altering the way the international community functions. Even more importantly, their development of a biofortified sweet potato has dramatically reduced levels of micronutrient deficiencies, hunger and disease for millions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, Developed science of modern plant biotechnology

Joint winner of the 2013 World Food Prize, Dr Mary-Dell Chilton was a pioneer in the plant biotechnology space and her research has greatly improved sustainability and global food security.

Chilton was born in Indianapolis in 1939. Chilton’s studies focused on the chemical basis of biological specificity and she soon became intrigued by the possibilities of genetics and plant biotechnology.

Chilton’s research at Washington University provided evidence that plant genomes could be manipulated in a far more sophisticated way than was possible using traditional plant breeding. In the next phase of her career at Syngenta Biotechnology, Chilton set up one of the world’s first agricultural biotechnology programs. The program utilised Chilton’s ground-breaking research in areas such as disease and insect resistance.

Upon receiving the World Food Prize in 2013, Chilton had already spent three decades overseeing and improving the implementation of the new technology she helped develop. The work of Chilton, and the other receivers of the 2013 World Food Prize, led to the creation of a new term, ’agricultural biotechnology’. Ag biotech allowed for engineered crops that improved yields, helped combat disease and displayed increased tolerance to a variety of environmental conditions.

The work of Chilton has improved the yields and incomes of farmers in over 30 countries. Today, corn, soyabeans, canola and cotton are biotech crops which are grown on a large scale and are an essential part of agricultural production. In 2018, up to 17 million farmers planted biotech crops, with 95% of those coming from developing countries. As a result of Chilton’s discoveries, millions of smallholder farmers and their families have seen increased incomes and greater food security.

Jo Luck, Building Heifer International into one of the world’s foremost grassroots organizations, leading the charge to end hunger and poverty around the globe

Jo Luck was the joint-winner of the 2010 World Food Prize for her valiant efforts in fighting hunger and providing income-producing animals to over 12 million families through her role at Heifer International.

Born in 1941 in Arkansas, Luck studied at Hendrix College and became a teacher before being hired as the first director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Following experience as Director of Parks and Tourism for Arkansas, Jo luck became director of global services at Heifer International. Here she travelled across the world, visiting remote sites and getting first-hand experience of the organization’s work in helping lift people out of poverty.

In 1992, Luck became CEO of Heifer and expanded the organisation’s efforts to combat hunger by teaching communities how to become self-sustaining. Financial support for the organisation grew exponentially throughout her leadership and Heifer soon enabled many to access nutritious food, with more than 34 million families helped as of 2021.

One of Luck’s innovative approaches as CEO included increasing the public’s knowledge of how life choices made in wealthier countries affect those living in deprived communities. She issued a call to action to supporters which collectively funded over 30 varieties of livestock and animals from water buffaloes to bees in addition to trees and seeds. This initiative grew capacity within malnourished communities and created a sustainable food supply to support livelihoods.

Luck is now one of the most inspirational speakers in the world on the issue of hunger and food security. She transformed Heifer International into a top-class organization fighting hunger across the planet and laying the groundwork for more sustainable food supplies.

Catherine Bertini, Transformed the World Food Programme

The winner of the 2003 World Food Prize was Catherine Bertini. As its leader, Bertini transformed the World Food Programme from a development assistance program into the world’s largest and most effective humanitarian relief organisation. Although plant science is important in increasing the quantity and quality of food, increasing accessibility to this food is equally critical.

Bertini was born in 1950 in New York where she attended school and university, earning a degree in political science from the State University of New York at Albany in 1971. Bertini worked in philanthropic and government affairs in Chicago before becoming the assistant Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture in 1989. Her experience overseeing 13 food assistance programmes prepared her to head the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

As executive director of the WFP, Bertini spent much of her time on the ground, observing the processes of food distribution. She pursued fundamental reforms, enhancing the programme’s effectiveness and turning the WFP into the most responsive humanitarian relief organization in the world. In 2003, the year after Bertini left her post, the WFP shipped 1,000 metric tons of food every hour of every day.

Bertini was also a strong believer in women taking an active role in channelling food aid as a means of ensuring equitable distribution. By the end of her term, over 60% of the WFP’s assistance was delivered through women. Bertini also prioritized the fight against childhood malnutrition during her tenure at the WFP. Under her leadership, 3.3 million North Korean children and millions of the country’s citizens were saved from severe malnutrition.

Bertini has undoubtedly transformed the lives of millions of people in some of the world’s most deprived areas. She was and still is a champion in the fight against malnutrition and her work transformed the WFP into an efficient, responsive and highly effective organisation.

Dr. Evangelina Villegas, Developing high quality protein maize (QPM)

Winner of the 2000 World Food Prize – the first woman to be recognized by this award – Dr. Evangelina Villegas’ years of research and work were focused on improving the nutritional content and productivity of maize. Thanks to the plant science innovations of Dr. Villegas, there was a dramatic improvement in food security and enhanced health that continues to reduce poverty and hunger.

Born in Mexico City, Dr. Villegas started her career in 1950 as a chemist and researcher at Mexico’s National Institute of Nutrition before continuing her education in the US in the 1960s, earning a Ph.D. in cereal chemistry from North Dakota State University.

Her most impactful work would be conducted at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which she joined in 1967. At CIMMYT, during the early 70s, her and Dr. Surinder K. Vasal began collaborating in Mexico on improving the protein quality of maize. This work would follow that of World Food Prize founder Dr. Norman Borlaug, who 30 years earlier had revolutionized wheat production in the country.

Maize is a staple food across much of the world, with 90 million hectares of it currently grown by farmers across Mexico, Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Following rice and wheat, maize’s position as the third most important cereal crop in the world meant that improving its nutritional content could have far-reaching impacts for the hundreds of millions of people who rely upon it.

The maize germplasm developed through Dr. Villegas’s research has added billions to the economies of developing countries and improved the diets of millions of previously undernourished people. This is one of the most significant contributions to improving food security in human history.

The work of these laureates is critical as they continue to be on the front lines of combatting global hunger. The UN World Food Programme in 2020 received the Nobel Peace Prize for their lifesaving food assistance to millions across the globe. Read more here about other World Food Prize winners and the work they are doing to end world hunger.

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