World Food Prize Laureate to Speak on Water in a Changing Climate on April 14 at UMass Amherst

Daniel Hillel

AMHERST, Mass. – Daniel Hillel, the Israeli water and soil scientist who developed micro-irrigation to improve agriculture in the Negev desert and professor emeritus of soil physics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will speak on “Water Supplies, Water Requirements and Agricultural Water Use Efficiency in a Changing Climate” at 4 p.m. on Monday, April 14 in Stockbridge Hall’s Bowker Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public. 

In 1952, Hillel and “a band of adventurers,” as he called them, established the first farm community, Sdeh-Boker, in the Negev Desert highlands, where he began to tinker with dripping water slowly but continually into the soil near plants rather than on top, to conserve it. Over the next decades his micro-irrigation techniques greatly advanced agricultural output and water efficiency on Israel’s desert farmland, then the wider Middle East and other arid regions.

In 2012 Hillel was awarded the World Food Prize, sometimes known as the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture,” for his role in conceiving and implementing micro-irrigation, which at the time was seen as a radical new way to water crops. His technique is credited with revolutionizing Israeli food production by increasing crop yields while minimizing environmental degradation, and it soon spread to other regions. 

Wes Autio, director of the UMass Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture that is sponsoring Hillel’s talk along with the College of Natural Sciences, says, “I am delighted that we can bring this world-renowned emeritus faculty member back to campus. His retirement left a big hole in the research and educational fabric of UMass Amherst, but we are pleased that he has continued his spectacular career. We are looking forward to congratulating him on all of his recent accomplishments but most importantly on the World Food Prize.”

At the food prize ceremony, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said of Hillel, “Instead of waiting for a rainstorm, he had a brainstorm. His work has transcended boundaries to grow ‘more crop per drop’ in some of the driest places on earth.” Hillel’s other honors include the UMass Amherst Chancellor’s Medal given in 1982 for exemplary service as a professor of soil physics. He was at UMass Amherst from 1977 to 1993.

Born in Los Angeles in 1930, Hillel emigrated with his mother and four siblings to Palestine the following year, where he eventually lived on a kibbutz and learned farming. In recent years, Hillel’s work has focused on climate change and its potential effects on agriculture. His most recent book is “Handbook of Climate Change and Agroecosystems: Global and Regional Aspects and Implications.”

He told a reporter for “Crops, Soils, Agronomy News” in 2012, “We have to give climate change our attention, devote our research resources to it, and take what action is necessary. First of all, to mitigate or limit climate change and then to adapt to the extent of climate change that is inevitable. Some of it is inevitable, but we can also reduce the severity by limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases… and agriculture is part of that effort.”

Through the interest and support of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Hillel’s ideas on sustainable agriculture born on the desert kibbutz began to be noticed. Eventually Hillel became a much-sought-after visiting expert consulted by more than 30 nations on soil and water conservation and agricultural development. Educated at the University of Georgia, Rutgers and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hillel has published several hundred scientific papers and has authored and edited almost 20 books since taking his first job in Israel, mapping the new country’s soils.He is currently a senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University.