Washington — Growing up on pioneer settlements in the Jezreel and Jordan valleys of Israel, Daniel Hillel developed affinity for agriculture, water and the environment. Decades later his devotion to the interconnected areas of land and water use efficiency has earned him the 2012 World Food Prize.
Hillel will receive the honor October 18 in the Iowa capitol as part of the Borlaug Symposium in Des Moines. It will follow by two days World Food Day, founded in 1979 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to focus attention on ensuring that everyone has enough food.
The 2012 World Food Prize recognizes Hillel’s groundbreaking work in micro- or drip-irrigation, in which farmers apply small but continuous amounts of water directly to plant roots, cutting the amount of water needed to nourish crops and resulting in increased crop and orchard yields in some of the world’s driest climates.
“Water has been a very big topic of concern," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in June when Hillel’s selection for the honor was announced. "We have tried to focus the government's attention and the world's attention on the importance of getting ahead of what will be a devastating crisis if we are not smarter and more purposeful in addressing the problems now.”
Clinton said it is fitting to honor “someone who understood the critical role water plays in agriculture and the importance of using every last drop efficiently."
Born in California, Hillel and his family moved when he was a year old to what was then Palestine. From age 8 to 15, he lived on a kibbutz. Then his family moved back to the United States, and Hillel lived with an uncle in Charleston, South Carolina, where he began secondary school. He transferred to South Carolina’s Culver Military Academy to complete secondary school, then earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in soil science from Rutgers University in New Jersey. By then, he was just 20 years old.
Hillel returned to the newly established Israel and helped map the country’s soils for the country’s agricultural development. He gained his doctorate degree in soil physics from Hebrew University.
Following that achievement, in 1952 he and 11 others ventured to the highlands of the Negev Desert and established the area’s first modern farm. While there, he studied desert ecology and hydrology.
The village was visited unexpectedly by Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. After Ben-Gurion resigned from government, he joined the young farmers. Hillel was asked to put him to work, and “we struck up a close friendship,” the soil scientist said.
Hillel then went to Burma for a couple of years of work. He has worked in about 40 countries since, he said.
“Confronting hunger can bring diverse people together across even the broadest political, ethnic, religious or diplomatic differences," said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. “Dr. Hillel's work and motivation has been to bridge such divisions and to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East by advancing a breakthrough achievement addressing a problem that so many countries share in common: water scarcity.”
Hillel returned to the United States and taught at universities in Texas and Massachusetts, which was followed by stints at the Food and Agricultural Organization, World Bank and other research groups. He now does environmental research at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University in New York.
Hillel encourages young people to take up agriculture as a career. He said agriculture is vital as a profession and “as a component of the environment.”
The World Food Prize was established in 1987 by agronomist Norman Borlaug as the world’s foremost international award recognizing individuals who have advanced the quality, quantity or availability of food. It has been awarded to people working in such areas as soil science, plant breeding, child nutrition, livestock health, famine relief and establishing government policies that favor agricultural development.
More information about the World Food Prize is available on the World Food Prize Foundation’s website.