Washington — Ensuring efficient and sustainable management of land, water and biotic resources to produce more food while protecting the environment is a challenge to the current generation and to future generations, says 2012 World Food Prize laureate Daniel Hillel.
“To meet this challenge we must overcome sectarian barriers to promote international and interdisciplinary communication and cooperation,” Hillel said at an October 18 ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, at which he received the award for his pioneering work with micro-irrigation. His work revolutionized food production in some of the driest areas of the world in a way that saved water, increased crop yields and minimized environmental degradation, according to the foundation that awards the World Food Prize.
The ceremony was part of the Borlaug Symposium, an international forum of public and private leaders in agriculture, environmental science, health and education. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Hillel’s selection for the award at a June ceremony at the State Department.
"Today, farmers using micro-irrigation produce high-yield, nutritious crops on more than 6 million hectares worldwide. Dr. Hillel’s work will become even more important as we grapple with how to feed the world’s growing population," Clinton said at the June ceremony.
Hillel was born in Los Angeles in 1930 and was 1 year old when his family moved to Palestine. At an early age, he was sent to a kibbutz, where he learned to respect land.
He returned to the United States and earned a master’s degree at Rutgers University before age 20. He moved to the new state of Israel in 1951 and became involved in drawing up the first map of the country’s land and water resources for its Ministry of Agriculture.
With a small group of pioneers, Hillel moved to the Negev Highland, an area that had not been agriculturally productive for centuries. There he studied water and soil and gradually learned to understand the dry climate.
A chance meeting with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, led to Ben-Gurion’s sending Hillel to help establish agriculture programs in Burma as part of Israel’s earliest development assistance programs.
Returning to Israel, he earned a doctoral degree in soil physics and ecology at the Hebrew University and became an expert in soil, water and irrigation in a way that would transform how water is delivered to crops.
Addressing the award ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the world draws hope from contributions from people like Hillel. “Imagine trying to coax crops out of the dry ground of the Middle East. Imagine knowing that the only sources of water are a seasonal trickle or an occasional downpour,“ he said.
Hillel’s irrigation system, he noted, made the Negev desert a source of sustenance for Israel.
While the challenge of feeding a growing world population with limited land and water is great, “there are hopeful signs of progress we can build upon,” Hillel said.