Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Israeli Scientist Named Winner of World Food Prize

By Kathryn McConnell
Staff Writer

Washington - An Israeli water and soil expert has been named winner of the 2012 World Food Prize.

The announcement of Daniel Hillel as winner was made at a June 12 ceremony at the State Department.

Hillel developed methods to bring water to crops in arid regions, increasing food production and minimizing environmental degradation in the Middle East, according to the World Food Prize Foundation. The new methods, called microirrigation, include drip and trickle irrigation techniques that consistently apply small, accurate amounts of water to plant roots.

Hillel will accept the World Food Prize at the Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 18. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in agricultural research, founded the World Food Prize in 1986. This is the first time that the prize has recognized an achievement in water and its role in food production, and the first time it will go to a citizen of Israel.

Hillel's accomplishments have additional benefits. "Doctor Hillel laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture," Kenneth Quinn, the foundation's president, said at the ceremony. Microirrigation "has impacted millions of lives." Estimates are that the world's population will grow to 9 billion by 2050. Currently about 925 million people suffer from hunger, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.

"Confronting hunger can bring diverse people together across the broadest political, ethnic, religious or diplomatic differences," Quinn said. "Doctor Hillel's work and motivation has been to bridge such divisions and to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East."

Quinn noted that Hillel's nomination for the high-ranking prize was supported by individuals and organizations in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Hillel "is a master of applying new thinking to old problems," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She noted that Borlaug launched the Green Revolution by examining "the chain of events that starts with a farmer planting a seed and ends with a family sitting down to dinner. He looked for ways to improve each step." Through the Green Revolution, Borlaug is credited with saving 1 billion lives in developing countries from starvation.

Following Borlaug, Hillel turned his attention to "another essential link in the agricultural chain - water," Clinton said. Hillel "understood the critical role that water plays in agriculture and the importance of getting every last drop used efficiently."

"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," Hillel said. "Meeting this challenge will require enhanced global cooperation and integrated scientific research."

Hillel's development of better land and water use demonstrated that farmers no longer have to depend on the soil's ability to store water, according to a World Food Prize Foundation statement. Hillel proved that plants grown in continually moist soil achieved through microirrigation produced higher yields than under flooding or sprinkler irrigation systems.

Hillel's water-management concepts are promoted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and have spread to Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, the foundation said. Hillel has devised other sustainable water-management techniques for arid regions, including harvesting rainwater by inducing and collecting runoff from sloping ground. He also developed innovative approaches to enhance water filtration and reduce evaporation.

Hillel was born in California. When he was young, his family moved to Israel. He returned to the United States to attend secondary school and university. Later he earned a doctorate in soil physics and ecology from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In addition to working extensively in the Middle East and for the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, Hillel has worked with several agricultural research organizations. He splits his time between Israel and New York and is a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the Columbia University Earth Institute in New York.

The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world. It has been awarded to people from all over the world working in areas such as plant breeding, soil science, early childhood nutrition, livestock health, famine relief and establishing government policies favorable to agricultural development.

At the ceremony were Israel Chargé d'Affaires Barukh Binah; World Food Prize laureate John Kufuor, former president of Ghana; former president of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano; diplomats and representatives of nonprofit groups and policy institutes; and U.S. Department of Agriculture college interns sent to other countries to collaborate with world-renowned scientists and policymakers.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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