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Dr. Daniel Hillel - 2012 World Food Prize Laureate

posted on October 19, 2012

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As we produce this episode of Market to Market, we note that 90-year old former U.S. Senator George McGovern was surrounded by family members this week as he nears the end of his life.


McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a historic landslide in 1972.  But, the South Dakota Democrat served nearly 25 years in Congress, where he helped develop numerous food and farm policies. 


In 2008, he and Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas were awarded the World Food Prize for their commitment to enhancing the nutrition of millions of the world’s poorest children. 


Often referred to as the agricultural equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, The World Food Prize was awarded again this week in Des Moines, Iowa.  And like McGovern and Dole, this year’s winner also broke through political barriers to fight in the war on hunger.

Over the last 5 decades, the population of the world has doubled and experts predict it will double again by the turn of the century. It’s projected that in order to keep up with the growth, 100 percent more food will have to be produced in 50 years than is produced today. The ability to meet the nutritional needs for a growing population will continue to rely heavily - as it has in the past - on technological advances in agriculture.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “This is a system of drip irrigations. You see the line and there are drippers here. From these little holes water flows into the soil one drip at a time. Drop by drop…”

Dr. Daniel Hillel’s pioneering work in micro-irrigation has revolutionized food production in arid regions. The technique makes irrigation much more efficient and increases crop yields. He is credited with transforming what was once a desert into an oasis in the Middle East and around the world.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “It used to be the mode of irrigation that began in the Middle East, was diverting water from rivers, flooding the land and then growing crops on the saturated soil. That was an advance in civilization, of course, at the time and it provided for an expanded production base and expanding population.”

The process, however, wastes a precious commodity…water. Eventually, it also causes soils to become waterlogged and saturated with salt making the land unsuitable for crop production.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “So waterlogging and salinization is a scourge in the Middle East. And not only in the Middle East but in many river valleys that are subject to this old method of mismanagement.”

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “The soil is moist, kept moist by the frequent sprinkling. It is high frequency, low volume irrigation that keeps the soil constantly moist. Never saturated, never dry, optimally moist…And this encourages maximum growth and fruiting of the trees.”

According to the United Nations, 12.5 percent of the global population, or one in eight people do not get enough to eat. Because Hillel’s work in micro-irrigation plays an important role in the war on hunger, he is the latest recipient of the World Food Prize. The World Food Prize is the foremost international award in the field of agriculture and it recognizes the achievements of individuals whose work has improved the quality, quantity or availability of food.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “My joy at receiving this award is tempered by the realization that the work it recognizes is far from complete. Despite all obstacles, there are already hopeful signs of progress. We must build upon and enhance these beginning in the interest of insuring long term harmony of the community of life in our one and only planet.”

The technique of micro-irrigation that Hillel developed in Israel is credited with turning barren deserts into productive agricultural land in over thirty countries including Arab nations throughout the Middle East. His work transcends long standing political and cultural barriers. Hillel demonstrates dramatically what is possible for one person to accomplish when differences are put aside for the sake of the greater good.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “The Midwest is the breadbasket for the United States, for North America and it is in many ways the breadbasket of the world. It’s helping to feed the world and yet there is room for improvement. We must be concerned over our resources, the proper use of resources, the sustainable use of resources, the cooperative use of resources. We share the atmosphere, we share the oceans, we share water resources. We share the future of the world.”

For over 40 years, Dr. Hillel has sounded the alarm that climate change could reduce the amount of rainfall in already dry environments - warning of possible food shortages while developing innovations that help to feed a growing population.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, Columbia University - Earth Institute: “The culminating message is that we have misnamed our species. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens Sapiens which means wise, wise man. That’s too self-flattering.  I suggest we change the name of our species to Homo Sapiens Curans which in Latin means, ‘wise man that is caring.’”

Tags: agriculture deserts Dr. Daniel Hillel micro-irrigation news water World Food Prize