CALS Alumni Win World Food Prize

Young child with sweet potato in farm field

Two NC State alumni are among the four winners of the 2016 World Food Prize, one of the most important and coveted international awards given in agriculture.

Maria Andrade and Robert Mwanga, who received Ph.D.s in horticultural science from NC State in 1995 and 2001, respectively, joined Jan Low and Howarth Bouis as the 2016 World Food Prize laureates during an announcement and ceremony at the U.S. State Department today. Andrade and Mwanga breed orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties resistant to pests, drought and heat for sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Food Prize is the most prominent global award for individuals whose breakthrough achievements alleviate hunger and promote global food security. This year’s $250,000 prize will be divided equally between the four recipients.

The prize rewards work in countering world hunger and malnutrition through biofortification, the process of breeding critical vitamins and micronutrients into staple crops. The prize was established 30 years ago by Norman Bourlag, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the so-called Green Revolution who is credited for saving one billion lives by his development of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

NC State alumna Maria Andrade kneeling in a field of sweet potato.
Maria Andrade ’95

Andrade, Mwanga and Low work for the International Potato Center; they are specifically being honored for their work developing the single most successful example of biofortification – the orange-fleshed sweet potato. Andrade and Mwanga, plant scientists in Mozambique and Uganda, respectively, bred the vitamin A-enriched orange-fleshed sweet potato using genetic material from the International Potato Center and other sources, including NC State.

Craig Yencho, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Horticultural Science and program leader of NC State’s sweet potato and potato breeding and genetics programs, has worked alongside Andrade, Mwanga and Low for years, serving as Mwanga’s faculty advisor.

“I am ‘tickled orange’ and just so proud that Maria, Robert and Jan have won this prestigious honor,” Yencho said. “I have worked with Robert for close to 20 years – he was my first Ph.D. student at NC State – and I have worked with Maria for many years and know her very well, although she received her Ph.D. before I arrived at NC State.

“Robert and I have worked together under funding from the McKnight Foundation first and now with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a close friend and a valued colleague who has developed some 14 sweet potato varieties in the last 15 years, with around 30 percent of Ugandan farmers using these varieties, while Jan leads a Gates Foundation funded sweet potato project that collaborates closely with NC State’s Genomic Tools for Sweet Potato (GT4SP) Improvement Project also funded by the foundation.”

Yencho wrote a letter of support to the World Food Prize in support of the nomination of Andrade, Mwanga and Low. In it, he credits the three for “significantly reduced levels of vitamin A deficiency, poverty, hunger and malnutrition for millions of households in sub-Saharan Africa …”

Yencho considers both Andrade and Mwanga “family.”

“I am ‘uncle’ to Robert’s sons and his wife’s niece, and Maria just named a sweet potato variety after my daughter,” Yencho said. “They are both passionate and absolutely dedicated to sweet potato development to help feed people. They couldn’t be more deserving of this award.”

Robert Mwanga stands among a crowd of sweet potato growers.
Robert Mwanga ’01

Low, meanwhile, structured the nutrition studies and programs that convinced almost two million households in 10 separate African countries to plant, purchase and consume this nutritionally fortified food.

Bouis, the founder of HarvestPlus at theInternational Food Policy Research Institute, pioneered the implementation of a multi-institutional approach to biofortification as a global plant breeding strategy. As a result of his leadership, crops such as iron and zinc fortified beans, rice, wheat and pearl millet, along with vitamin A-enriched cassava, maize and orange-fleshed sweet potato, are being tested or released in over 40 countries.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the four laureates, it is estimated that more than 10 million people are now positively impacted by biofortified crops, with a potential of several hundred million more in the coming decades.

In announcing the 2016 laureates, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, noted “they are truly worthy to be named as the recipients of the award that Dr. Norman E. Borlaug created to be seen as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.”

Andrade, Mwanga, Low and Bouis will receive the World Food Prize at a ceremony in the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Oct. 13, 2016. The event is the centerpiece of a three-day international symposium – the Borlaug Dialogue – which regularly draws over 1,200 people from 60 countries to discuss cutting-edge issues in global food security.