By Emma Beyer
This article is a part of the University of Missouri's Ag Journalism program's coverage of the 2017 World Food Prize.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Under ornate chandeliers and portraits of Norman Borlaug, a crowd gathered to hear Dr. Zhenling Cui, the 2017 recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.
The award, endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation, is given to honor a person working hand-in-hand with rural farmers to eliminate poverty. The $10,000 award recognizes exceptional, science-based achievement in international agriculture and food production by an individual under the age of 40. Criteria for the award include: emulating intellectual courage, stamina, and determination in the fight to eliminate global hunger and poverty as was demonstrated by Norman Borlaug. Individuals are nominated from and selected by an anonymous jury.
Cui was recognized for his revolutionary research in Chinese agriculture as well as employing Borlaug’s “take it to the farmer” ideology. Cui is credited with improving soil health and increasing crop production through the implementation of innovative on-farm fertilizer management strategies. His work has led to improved nitrogen efficiency, resulting in higher maize and wheat yields throughout the North China Plain.
Cui’s research argued that Chinese farmers were over-applying fertilizer, assuming that more was better for crops. This caused decreased crop production and water pollution, according to his research.
In order to see how Chinese farmers operated, Cui lived and worked in rural communities for entire farming seasons, from initial planting to crop harvesting. He provided face-to-face training, gave lectures, performed demonstrations to local farmers and helped smallholder farmers get correct information. He also co-created machinery co-operatives giving rural villages access to more expensive and sophisticated technology.
Cui was committed to providing a connection between farmers, research, and the field. He created unique hands-on techniques by working with farmers and conducted thousands of interview surveys on farming methods. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, Cui refused to leave his work with rural farmers, instead choosing to stay in high-risk environments.
Cui’s methods helped increase farming production through partnerships with farmers and brought food to millions of China’s families.
Cui acknowledged his wife for her support. He also thanked his parents and the rural farmers he worked with for helping him achieve the award. Ciu credited his humble upbringings for his inspiration: “I grew up as a farm boy,” he said.
Ronnie Coffman, chair of the selection jury for the award, said, “Norm Borlaug would be proud.”