Israeli irrigation expert wins food prize for drip invention

Thursday, June 21, 2012 | by david pitt

An Israeli scientist who has reached across political and ethnic boundaries to help dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America improve agriculture with new methods of irrigation will receive the World Food Prize.

Daniel Hillel, 81, who is credited with developing drip irrigation methods that conserve water while allowing food to be grown in some of the world’s driest climates, was named the winner of this year’s $250,000 prize in Washington. He will receive the prize Oct. 18 during the annual World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

The system Hillel developed, called microirrigation, carries water through narrow plastic pipes to plants, where it drips or trickles continuously onto the roots. It has revolutionized agricultural practices in more than 30 countries over the past 50 to 60 years, helping thousands of farmers, said World Food Prize foundation president Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador.

Daniel Hillel   photo/ap-world food prize foundation
Daniel Hillel photo/ap-world food prize foundation
Quinn, in announcing the award, talked not only about Hillel’s research but the fact that an Israeli found a way to work with leaders in Arab nations to improve food production.

Hillel’s work significantly improved agriculture in Jordan and Egypt, Quinn said. He also worked in Palestinian communities.

“He’s able to reach across the intercultural gap with this agricultural achievement in order to address that problem that they have in common about how to lift people out of poverty and reduce hunger by working together,” Quinn said.

Quinn noted that several of the letters supporting Hillel’s nomination came from Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Hillel said managing natural resources, respecting ecosystems and living in an environmentally sustainable manner transcend boundaries.

“I’m a great believer in international cooperation, and I’ve devoted much of my career to it,” he said. “I’m a passionate believer in peace rather than rivalry, enmity and destruction.”

Hillel was born in Los Angeles; his family moved to pre-state Israel when he was an infant. In 1951 he joined the Ministry of Agriculture, helping create the first map of the Israel’s soil and water resources. Within a year, he joined a group of settlers who were creating a viable agricultural community in the water-scarce Negev Desert. Working with those farmers, who were willing to experiment with new methods, allowed him to develop and refine his ideas on microirrigation, he said.

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited the farm and was so impressed he asked Hillel to take his ideas to Asia, Africa and South America.

The World Food Prize, which honors efforts to fight global hunger, was created by the late Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops.