The World Food Prize Foundation

The World Food Prize Foundation Offers Tribute to 2012 Laureate Dr. Daniel Hillel

03/10/2021

On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, the World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to Dr. Michal Artzy and the family, friends and colleagues of Dr. Daniel Hillel, 2012 World Food Prize Laureate, who passed away on March 9, 2021.

Barbara L. Stinson, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, paid tribute to Dr. Hillel, stating, “The world has lost a great scientist, peacemaker and leader in the effort to end hunger. His work developing numerous water conservation approaches has made deserts bloom. Millions of people living in dry land regions around the world will carry on his memory, as the techniques he developed free them from water scarcity, soil degradation and food insecurity.”

Dr. Hillel was honored as the 2012 World Food Prize Laureate for his role in conceiving and implementing a radically new mode of bringing water to crops in arid and dry land regions - called micro-irrigation. Hillel’s pioneering scientific work in Israel revolutionized food production, first in the Middle East, and then in other regions around the world over the past five decades. His work laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture, increasing crop yields, and minimizing environmental degradation.

At the 2012 Laureate Award Ceremony, then Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon joined in presenting the Prize to Hillel. In recognizing Dr. Hillel, the Secretary-General stated, “…we draw hope from contributions like those of this year’s honoree.” He went on to say, “Imagine trying to coax crops out of the dry ground of the Middle East,” and that Dr. Hillel “stared at hard circumstances. Instead of waiting for a rainstorm, he had a brainstorm.”

Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Jordan and Sheikh Hamad Bin Ali Bin Jassim Al-Thani of Qatar were also in attendance at the Award Ceremony. Dr. Hillel’s scientific achievements were noted alongside his dedication to working with people across borders to help improve food security for all. Of particular significance was that Dr. Hillel’s nomination for the World Food Prize contained letters of support from individuals and organizations in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President Emeritus of the World Food Prize Foundation, stated, “I was deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend Dr. Daniel Hillel. During my tenure as President, no moment more perfectly captured the theme of Peace Through Agriculture than when the Secretary-General of the United Nations traveled to Des Moines to join in presenting our prize to Dr. Hillel, an Israeli Jewish irrigation pioneer. Dr. Hillel had been nominated for our award by three Muslim scientists from three Muslim and Arab countries.”

Born in the United States but raised in Israel, Dr. Hillel was first drawn to the critical issue of agricultural water scarcity during his days living in the highlands of the Negev Desert. His research led to a dramatic shift from the prevailing method of irrigation. In the first half of the 20th century, farmers typically applied large amounts of water in brief periodic episodes of flooding to saturate their fields, followed by longer periods of drying out the soil. The new methods conceived and developed by Dr. Hillel applied water in small but continuous amounts directly to plant roots, dramatically reducing the amount of water needed to nourish crops, maintaining their consistent health and resulting in higher crop yields to feed more people.

Dr. Hillel’s water management concepts have spread around the world and are now used on more than 6 million hectares worldwide. By integrating complex scientific principles, designing practical applications and achieving wide outreach to farmers, communities, researchers and agricultural policymakers in more than 30 countries, Dr. Hillel impacted the lives of millions.

On receiving the Prize, Dr. Hillel said, "My joy and gratitude at being granted the World Food Prize this year 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 an ongoing and increasingly urgent challenge for our generation and for future generations. Meeting this challenge will require enhanced global cooperation and integrated scientific research. It is a task, indeed a collective responsibility, that we cannot shirk and must indeed broaden and intensify."

Daniel Hillel was born the youngest of five children in Los Angeles, California, at the beginning of the Great Depression. After his father died, his mother moved the family to live with her parents in Palestine. His experience as a child living in the countryside on a kibbutz inspired his lifelong appreciation of the land and the need to protect its resources, leading him to pursue an academic and professional career in agriculture.

In 1946, Hillel returned to the United States to attend high school. He earned a B.Sc. degree in agronomy from the University of Georgia in 1950, and a M.Sc. degree in earth sciences from Rutgers University in 1951.

Hillel’s first post upon returning to the nascent state of Israel in 1951 was with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, where he took part in the first mapping of the country’s soil and irrigation resources. He soon left the Ministry to join a group of idealistic settlers dedicated to creating Sde Boker, a viable agricultural community in the Negev Desert highlands. When the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, toured the area a year later, he was so impressed by the venture that he resigned from the government and became a member of Sde Boker. Recognizing the young scientist’s exceptional capabilities, Ben-Gurion later sent Hillel on goodwill missions to promote sustainable agriculture in developing countries. 

In 1957, Hillel earned a Ph.D. in soil physics and ecology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then did postdoctoral work at the University of California in soil physics and hydrology from 1959 to 1961.

Through his research, Hillel proved that plants grown in continuously moist soil, achieved through micro-irrigation, produce higher yields than plants grown under flooding or sprinkler irrigation. Using less water in agriculture per unit of land not only conserves a scarce resource in arid and semi-arid regions, but also results in significantly “more crop per drop”.

The technology he advanced, including drip, trickle and continuous-feed irrigation, has improved the quality of life and livelihoods throughout the Middle East and around the world. His water management concepts—promoted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as HELPFUL (High-frequency, Efficient, Low-volume, Partial-area, Farm-unit, Low-cost)—have spread from Israel to Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. HELPFUL irrigation technology is now used to produce high yields of nutritious food on more than six million hectares worldwide.

Hillel participated in many missions around the world, working for and with international agencies and organizations such as the World Bank, FAO, and the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote water-use efficiency in dozens of countries. He also worked with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. and the International Development Research Center of Canada. He held positions as a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Along with his international field and development work, Hillel embarked on a career in academia as a researcher and professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Massachusetts, Columbia University, and other major research centers worldwide. He published more than 300 scientific papers, research reports and practical manuals and authored books for the general public on the vital role of soil and water in healthy agro-ecosystems.

Hillel demonstrated the synergistic linkages across food production, water management, and soil science. His achievements have been and will continue to be essential to extending the Green Revolution and confronting the many global challenges in fighting hunger and poverty into the next century.

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