Israeli micro-irrigation expert wins world food prize


Israeli micro-irrigation pioneer Daniel Hellel is the 2012 World Food Laureate:

An Israeli scientist who pioneered a radically innovative way of bringing water to crops in arid and dry-land regions was named the winner of the 2012 World Food Prize in a ceremony today at the U.S. State Department, at which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the keynote address. 

“Water has been a very big topic of concern here in the State Department,” Clinton said. “We have tried to focus our government’s attention and the world’s attention on the importance of getting ahead of what will be a devastating water crisis if we are not smarter and more purposeful in addressing the problems now. It’s especially fitting that we honor today someone who has made such contributions because he understood the critical role that water plays in agriculture and the importance of getting every last drop used efficiently.

I’m delighted to see the importance of irrigation acknowledged in this way and the reinforcement of the need to use it efficently. His achievements are summed up here:

Dr. 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. 

This is something all irrigators should do as normal practice.

First drawn to the critical needs of the water supply in arid regions during his years of living in a small settlement in the highlands of the Negev Desert, the new approach Dr. Hillel developed provided for a low-volume, high-frequency, calibrated water supply to plants. As such, his research led to a dramatic shift from the prevailing method of irrigation used in the first half of the twentieth century: applying water in brief periodic episodes of flooding to saturate the soil, followed by longer periods of manufactured drought to dry out the soil. The new innovative method developed and disseminated by Dr. Hillel applied water in small but continuous amounts directly to the plant roots, with dramatic results in plant production and water conservation.

Dr. Hillel’s development and promotion of better land and water management clearly demonstrated that farmers no longer needed to depend on the soil’s ability to store water, as was the case when using the previous method of high volume, low frequency irrigation. 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.

Dr. Hillel proved that plants grown in continuously moist soil, achieved through micro-irrigation, produced higher yields than plants grown under the old flooding or sprinkler irrigation methods. 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,” with the successful cultivation of field crops and fruit trees — even in coarse sands and gravel. 

By integrating complex scientific principles, designing practical applications, and achieving wide outreach to farmers, communities, researchers, and agricultural policymakers in more than 30 countries, Daniel Hillel has impacted the lives of millions.

Dr. Hillel’s water management concepts—promoted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization 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-yielding, nutritious food on more than six million hectares worldwide. Dr. Hillel also helped devise a range of other adaptable, sustainable water management techniques for arid regions.  Specifically, harvesting rainwater by inducing and collecting runoff from sloping ground can allow farmers to grow crops on previously barren lands.

His innovative approaches to enhancing infiltration and reducing evaporation through soil surface treatments have enhanced agricultural productivity. He has defined ways to control the leaching of solutes, the water-logging of root zones, and the erosion of topsoil by precisely determining the supply of water required with only small increments of percolation and drainage needed to prevent salt accumulation.

Salt accumulation isn’t a problem in New Zealand but control of leaching, water-logging and soil erosion are concerns everywhere.

We don’t face water shortages as dire as those in many other countries, but irrigation is important in drought-prone areas like much of the east coast of both main islands. We need exports if we want to retain first-world status and the world needs more of the food we produce so well.

More irrigation will help us produce more and while Dr Heller’s methods might not be best here the principles of  efficient and responsible use

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