Irrigation Pioneer Garners Top Prize


Daniel Hillel, 81, of New York and Zichron Yaakov, Israel, has been awarded the 2012 World Food Prize for his collaborative work that revolutionized the field of irrigation. The award honors efforts to fight global hunger and was created by American Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Hillel, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, did the research that led to the prize in Israel in the early 1960s. He is credited with helping to develop drip irrigation techniques that conserve water and yet provide plants with enough water to grow even in arid conditions. The method is now used worldwide. He is married and the father of five children.

Q: How did you come to develop this method of irrigation?

A: No single person conceived the whole notion of drip irrigation; it was an evolution. I was working in the Negev. … We were working on trying to improve the efficiency of water use. Water is scarce and land at a premium, so efficiency is very, very important. In the U.S., the tendency had been to try to minimize the number of irrigations — to saturate the soil and wait as long as possible to irrigate, thereby letting the plants absorb the moisture before irrigating.

When we were working in Israel we were not farmers bound by tradition and were quite willing to try new, unorthodox things. Just then the plastics industry came into being, producing low-cost plastic tubing that was weather resistant and could be laid over the soil or in the ground and not deteriorate.

It’s like raising babies. Instead of once a week opening their mouths and gorging them with an enormous amount of food and then letting them starve for a week before gorging them again, feed them little by little according to their needs.

This new philosophy of irrigation could have been quite lucrative for you.

I never attempted to patent or commercialize it. I was working in the public domain for public institutions. Others have patented it and gone commercial; I avoided that. I’m not making a value judgment. I don’t regret not going commercial — that is not my interest.

You were a founder of the kibbutz called Sde Boker, where David Ben-Gurion moved after his first retirement from public life in 1953. And it was Ben-Gurion who sent you to other countries to teach it to others.

He sent me first to Burma and then to other countries in Africa and Asia. But others did the same thing. I have to be careful not to make any false claims. They chose me for this prize because of my contributions and publications. I have spoken for the U.S. State Department and Israel in a couple of dozen countries, but I don’t claim I exclusively invented this. I helped.

I went to over 30 countries explaining this for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Why then do we still hear reports of widespread famine in areas of Africa?

The problem in Africa is a lack of information and a lack of land ownership — people are not sure who owns what. They also don’t have an assured supply of water or clear market mechanisms or roads or electricity.

You are now a senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University working on climate change and agriculture. What does that work entail?

We expect that the climate is changing because we have been changing the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution we have been spewing gasses and creating an enhanced greenhouse effect. The more carbon dioxide we spew, the more heat is retained in the atmosphere and the warmer the earth and the oceans become. This is affecting plant and animal life, water supply, water demand and food production.

The prize comes with a check for $250,000. You are going to be 82 in September. Have you any thoughts of retiring?

I hope to use the money to continue my work and not have to waste time having to make money to finance my life and activities. … Moses didn’t retire until he succumbed at 120. I ain’t going to quit until I’m 120 ½.

This is an edited transcript.