MEXICO CITY (CIMMYT) – CIMMYT doctoral student and ETH Zürich graduate Stephanie Cheesman has won the 2017 Hans Vontobel-Preis.
This ETH prize awards 5,000 Swiss Francs ($4,988) annually to the student with the most outstanding thesis in Agricultural Science. The prize is financed by a private fund set up in 1994 by the late banking doyen Hans Vontobel.
Cheesman conducted her thesis project “Finding the truth in wishful thinking: an on-farm study on maize-based conservation agriculture systems in Southern Africa” while working with CIMMYT in Zimbabwe on a post financed by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC).
The thesis investigated the effects of conservation agriculture (CA) on maize yields and soil carbon stocks, as well as other plant nutrient stocks in the soil. It is based on data collected on 125 on-farm research sites CIMMYT had established between 2004 and 2009 in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The results showed that yields could quickly increase with CA, whereas soil carbon stocks showed – after up to only seven years of CA practice – limited response under the prevailing conditions of Zimbabwe. Farmers also generally adapt CA systems to their conditions rather than adopt the system, due to the fact that there are many more factors besides improved yields – such as preferences in crops grown, availability of inputs and access to other sources of income – that influence why a farmer adopts a technique.
The award panel consisted of Maja Baumann, granddaughter of Vontobel, Bruno Studer, professor and chair of the molecular plant breeding group at ETH Zürich and Sarah Springman, professor and rector of ETH Zürich.
Baumann cited Cheesman’s valuable hard data about conservation agriculture – a topic that has been strongly debated in recent years – and contribution to sustainable agriculture as main reasons for her selection. Further the jury appreciated that the thesis investigated both biophysical and socio-economic aspects, allowing for a better understanding of conservation agriculture’s impact.
Cheesman completed her thesis under the supervision of Emmanuel Frossard, professor at ETH Zürich, CIMMYT Senior Cropping Systems Agronomist Christian Thierfelder and Neal Eash, professor at the University of Tennessee. Professor Johan Six from ETH Zürich evaluated the work as external examiner.
“Stephanie Cheesman’s collaborative project between CIMMYT and the Swiss institutions funded by SDC highlights the strong interest of all organizations to extend sustainable agriculture intensification, with the aim of increasing food and nutrition security and eradicate poverty amongst smallholder farmers in southern Africa,” said Thierfelder.