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 lettuce crops farming 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Produce lettuce crops farming 370
(photo credit: 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.
Earlier that 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.
While 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 Boker.
“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 explained.
“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 settlement.”
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 independence.
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 crisis.”
“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,” Clinton said.
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.
Hillel’s 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 added.
As food demands continue to rise – the expected increase is approximately 60 percent by 2050 – water demands will also escalate.
“We 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.”