World Food Prize goes to researcher's work on irrigation
By Christopher Doering on June 12, 2012
© USA Today
For decades, scientist Daniel Hillel toiled on a radical new way to bring water to crops in dry regions throughout the Middle East and around the world. At first, Hillel garnered little public attention for his work that improved food yields and maximized water use by farmers, but that changed on Tuesday after he was announced as the 2012 recipient of the prestigious World Food Prize.
Each year the World Food Prize recognizes the work of an individual whose work has helped improve the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world. The award was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who gained awareness for developing wheat varieties with higher yields that could adapt to a diverse range of growing conditions. Winners of the Food Prize, which include former presidents, lawmakers and researchers from around the world, are awarded $250,000 for their work.
"I know that my work has not been in vain, to have it recognized at such a level internationally. One works mostly in the field or a community or in a far away country and the effect accumulates gradually until at last, if one is lucky, is recognized. So this award is very gratifying," Hillel said in an interview.
The World Food Prize will be presented to Hillel on Oct. 18 in Des Moines, Iowa. He did not attend the announcement in Washington on Tuesday.
Hillel, who has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was born as the youngest of five children in Los Angeles at the beginning of the Great Depression. His father died in 1931 when he was 1-year-old, and his mother moved the family to live with her parents in Palestine, a part of which became the State of Israel in 1948. He has since spent time in the United States, Israel, and two dozen other countries.
Global hunger remains a problem that researchers worldwide are struggling to overcome, bringing to light the importance of research from individuals such as Hillel. The number of people living with hunger has fallen slightly from its 2009 high of just over 1 billion, but 13 percent of the world's estimated 7 billion people still do not get enough food each day, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Hillel, now 81, was first drawn to the so-called concept of "micro-irrigation" while living in a small settlement in the highlands of the Negev Desert in Israel during the 1950s. At first, people viewed his idea as "ridiculous," he said.
For centuries the customary practice of irrigation in the Middle East and other parts of the world was to flood the land intermittently and then depend on the soil to store the moisture for the plants between infrequent irrigations. But Hillel and his colleagues found plants responded better with a continuous drip of water — avoiding extreme fluctuations of wet and dry conditions. The practice also was the best use of limited water resources because it minimized wasteful practices such as runoff or evaporation, which water-scarce areas could not afford.
While the technology is now used in more than 30 countries, Israel proved to be a perfect area to initiate the new idea. Some people who had arrived to the area were new to farming and more willing to embrace unconventional methods of watering crops. In addition, the timely advent of weather-resistant plastics helped spur the adoption of "micro-irrigation."
"All this came together to create the opportunity … to start afresh and overcome the preconceptions of many generations and centuries," said Hillel. "I was lucky enough to have been in on the ground floor," he said.
Hillel said he has lived comfortably most of his life. But for him it's never been about the money. He passed up the chance to commercialize his findings on "micro-irrigation" and despite its wide-spread use now, it's something he's never regretted. "My interest has been not in profiting, but innovating, teaching and serving," he said.
Hillel, who is now partially retired, will use the prize to travel, conduct more research, and write.