Living on a desert farm during the 1950s in the new Israeli state, Daniel Hillel was acutely aware of the challenges posed by scarce water supplies. Along with his fellow farming “pioneers,” Hillel — who would later earn a Ph.D. in soil physics and ecology from Hebrew University of Jerusalem — turned the Negev highlands into a test bed for how to grow crops in arid environments.
“We weren’t the sons and grandsons in a long family line of farmers, so we had to start anew. This turned out to be an advantage,” he says, stressing that this allowed for fresh ideas to flow, literally. Hillel flipped the old irrigation paradigm on its head. Instead of periodically flooding fields, he applied a small, constant stream of water directly to the plant’s roots. The technique, now known as drip irrigation, increased crop yields and decreased water use. Hillel’s innovation is now standard practice in many dry regions.
In June, Hillel was awarded the 2012 World Food Prize, the top honor for contributions to agriculture. Colleagues call him the “father of sustainable water management.” Now retired from classroom teaching, Hillel is a research scientist with Columbia University’s Earth Institute. His latest concern is how climate change will affect food security, especially as the world’s population continues to grow. For instance, “much of the turmoil in the Middle East is due to an underlying issue of resource scarcity, depletion, and abuse,” he says. “Most reporters miss this, because they are looking at politics.”