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Israeli water scientist wins 2012 World Food Prize

Daniel Hillel

Daniel Hillel

The World Food Prize Foundation announced today that Daniel Hillel, an American-born Israeli water scientist, has won the 2012 World Food Prize.

World Food Prize Foundation President Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador, made the announcement in a ceremony at the State Department at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the importance of water in agricultural development.

The $250,000 prize will be presented to Hillel on October 18 at the Iowa State Capitol during the foundation’s 2012 Borlaug Dialogues October 17 to 19 in Des Moines. The dialogues are named after Norman Borlaug, the scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Green Revolution.
Kenneth Quinn

Kenneth Quinn
“Dr. Hillel laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture through a method known as micro-irrigation, which has impact millions of lives,” Quinn said in making the announcement.

Quinn said that Hillel is the first person from the Middle East to win the World Food Prize, noting that he had been born in America but raised in Israel as an Israeli citizen and was inspired “by the stark need he observed while living in the arid highlands of the Negev Desert.”

Over several decades at the Hebrew University and other institutions, Hillel worked to develop micro-irrigation, which moved away from the traditional use of periodic episodes of flooding to saturate the soil, followed by longer periods of drying out the land, Quinn noted.

Hillel’s method applies water in small but continuous amounts directly to plant roots with dramatic results in both increased productivity and enhanced water conservation. The system has spread to more than 30 countries.

Hillel has worked in several Middle Eastern countries, as well as in Turkey, Pakistan and Sudan, and within Palestinian communities, Quinn said, adding that several of the letters supporting the nomination came from individuals and institutions in Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
Clinton called Hillel “a master of applying new thinking to old problems.”

“Today, farmers using micro-irrigation produce high-yield, nutritious crops on more than 6 million hectares worldwide,” Clinton said.

She has encouraged the State Department to bring the attention of the U.S. government and the world to water scarcity, she said, which could turn into “a devastating crisis.”

“We use more water for agriculture than for any other human pursuit – more than cooking, cleaning, or manufacturing,” Clinton noted.

In the future, she said, farmers will need to get more efficiency out of every drop of water. Clinton also said it takes one liter of water to produce one calorie of food, which she joked “is another reason to watch our calories.”

She also told the audience of farm leaders, scientists and government officials that they were standing in the Benjamin Franklin Room “because you burn more calories.”

Clinton also noted that the Obama administration’s “Feed the Future” program, which is attempting to increase global food security mostly through investments in agriculture in Africa, has made watershed management part of its agenda.

Quinn presented Clinton with a special commemorative version of Borlaug’s Congressional Gold Medal for putting “global food security front and center on the foreign policy agenda.”

Hillel was born in Los Angeles, but after his father’s death in 1931 his mother moved the family to live with her parents in Palestine, part of which became Israel in 1948. Hillel was sent to live on a kibbutz at the age of 9, where he developed his lifelong appreciation of the land and the need to protect its resources.

He returned to the United States to attend high school in Charleston, S.C., the former home of his maternal grandparents, in 1946, earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Georgia in 1950 , a master’s in earth sciences from Rutgers in 1951 and a doctoral degree in soil physics and ecology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1957. He also did post-doctoral work at the University of California in soil physics and hydrology from 1959 to 1961.

He joined the Israeli Agriculture Ministry in 1951, where he took part in the first mapping of the country’s soil and irrigation resources, and participated in the agricultural settlement of the Negev Desert highlands in the early 1950s.

He has worked with the International Food Policy Research Institute and is a senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and is working on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change in association with NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Hillel said in a statement released by the World Food Prize Foundation that his “real joy and gratitude” in winning the prize “is tempered by the realization that the work this award recognizes is far from complete.”

“The task of improving the sustainable management of the earth’s finite and vulnerable soil, water and energy resources for the benefit of humanity while sustaining the natural biotic community and its overall environmental integrity is ongoing and increasingly urgent challenge for our generation and for future generations,” he said.