Israeli wins World Food Prize for 1st time in history
Growing up in what was then Palestine, Prof. Daniel Hillel became fascinated with plants thriving in tough conditions.
Produce, agriculture [illustrative photo] Photo: Thinkstock/Imagebank
Growing up as a young boy on a Jezreel Valley kibbutz in what was then
Palestine, Prof. Daniel Hillel became fascinated with plants thriving in
less than favorable conditions.
“That’s where I discovered and became
enthralled by open spaces – and land and water and plants and sunshine,” Hillel,
now 81, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday evening.
afternoon, the World Food Prize Foundation, in the presence of US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, announced Hillel as this year’s winner of the World Food
Prize at a ceremony in Washington.
Established in 1987 by Nobel Peace Prize
winner Dr. Norman Borlaug, the $250,000 prize recognizes “individuals who have
contributed landmark achievements in increasing the quality, quantity or
availability of food in the world.”
Iowa businessman John Ruan III now
endows and serves as the chairman of the prize, which was originally endowed by
John Ruan, Sr.
Hillel is receiving the prize for his groundbreaking work
in micro-irrigation and his success in bridging cultural gaps to solve a global issue.
“Today we have a laureate from a region of the
world never before recognized, and a new area of scientific achievement,” said
World Food Prize Foundation president and former US ambassador Kenneth Quinn
over a live Web-stream from a State Department press conference.
Hillel was not present at Tuesday’s preliminary ceremony revealing him as the
winner, he will formally receive the prize at the 26th Annual Laureate Award
Ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on October 18, in conjunction with the
Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium.
Representing Israel at the
Washington ceremony was Baruch Binah, the deputy chief of mission at the
Washington embassy. He joined many other diplomats, including former president
of Ghana and 2011 World Food Prize winner John Kufuor, and former Mozambique
president Joaquim Chissano, an adviser to the prize.
After traveling to
the United States for high school and both his undergraduate and master’s
degrees – at the University of Georgia and Rutgers University respectively –
Hillel returned to Israel in 1951 to work for the Agriculture Ministry. Soon
afterward, he joined a group of 12 settlers who established the community of Sde
“About a year later, we were visited by a familiar man with frizzy
hair, who was driven in a Cadillac with a military convoy to see the region,” he
“Incidentally he saw our little encampment. He said, ‘What are
you doing here?’ We said, ‘We’re trying to make a go of life in the desert.’”
When then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion asked if they were accepting new
members, the kibbutz community figured he was joking.
“But he wasn’t,”
Hillel said. “He turned the convoy around and returned to Jerusalem. Within a
few weeks, he resigned from the government and joined the
Hillel was in charge of putting the elderly Ben-Gurion to
work, and the two soon became close – so close that the former prime minister
arranged a mission for him with Burma’s head of state at the time, to help
develop that country’s northeast region.
“After the ’56 war, I found
myself sent to a faraway country called Burma,” Hillel said. “That began an
international career for me.”
He earned his PhD in soil physics and
ecology at the Hebrew University in 1957, the same period in which he began to
develop the concept behind drip irrigation – a process in which, he emphasized,
he was by no means “alone.”
“I helped to develop the principle of
shifting from low-frequency, high-volume irrigation to high-frequency,
low-volume irrigation,” he said.
Until then, the common practice had been
to saturate the soil with large volumes of water through the inefficient process
of periodic flooding through portable pipes, he explained. But the invention of
plastic tubing in the early 1960s was a gamechanger – making it possible to
“deliver small volumes of water by perforating the tubes or attaching little
emitters into them,” he said.
This type of drip irrigation allows farmers
all over the world to adapt water distribution to the exact needs of their
plants, precisely gauging the appropriate amount of water and injecting
fertilizer into the system, Hillel explained.
Reiterating that he was
only one person involved in conceptualizing this method, and that many others
had since commercialized the idea, he said he had personally avoided going
commercial because he wanted to maintain his academic integrity and
He was, however, instrumental in disseminating these
techniques all over the world – to Asia, Africa, South America, working with
international agencies like the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization, the US Agency for International Development and the International
Atomic Energy Agency.
In his academic career, he has served as a
professor at the Hebrew University, the University of Massachusetts and Columbia
University, and he remains a parttime, senior research scientist at the Center
for Climate Systems Research, part of Columbia’s Earth Institute. There he is
working on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change in association with
NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
At the State Department
ceremony, Quinn praised Hillel for his long-time work helping countries facing
famine to transform scarce amounts of water into usable thirst-quenchers for
crops – stressing that he had shared technologies with agriculturalists in the
Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and Sudan.
“As he did so,
he built relationships, which promoted great agricultural development and
greater intercultural understanding,” Quinn said, noting that letters of support
for Hillel’s nomination had come from a wide range of countries, including
Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
In her keynote speech,
Clinton acknowledged the importance of focusing the US government’s and the
world’s attention on discovering ways of evading a “devastating water
“It’s especially fitting that we honor today someone who has
made such a contribution, because he understood the critical role water plays in
agriculture and the importance of getting every last drop used efficiently,”
It takes an enormous amount of water – the substance most
vital to human life – to create food, and producing just one calorie of food
requires an entire liter of water, she explained.
“Another reason for us
all to watch our calories, I guess,” she said with a laugh.
concept of bringing efficient water irrigation to arid lands helped some of the
most barren environments in the world flourish, according to Clinton. Using his
method, farmers now produce crops on more than 6 million hectares of land, she
As food demands continue to rise – the expected increase is
approximately 60 percent by 2050 – water demands will also escalate.
have to get the most out of each drop,” she said, stressing that the work did
not stop with the scientists.
“It takes political will and leadership at
every level,” she said.
“Now it’s our responsibility... to take
everything we’re learning from science and research and translate it into
results on the ground.”
In Israel, Hillel said he was proud to see such
successful results on the ground and to observe a country “leading the world in
many ways in terms of efficiency of water use,” but he said the country still
has to do further research.
As for his prize, he was both happy and
humble over receiving such recognition.
“I’m overwhelmed,” he told the
Post. “But I’m gratified at the recognition. However, no individual works alone.
It’s all a collective effort.”