Editor’s Note: We recently wrote about Daniel Hillel receiving the World Food Prize. Here’s an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Drip, Drip, Drip
Daniel Hillel talks about how he helped revolutionize the way farmers water their crops
October 15, 2012
By Neena Rai
Daniel Hillel helped change the way farmers in the Middle East water their crops. Now the rest of the world is catching on.
Decades ago, the Israeli-American scientist helped develop and spread an idea called micro-irrigation agriculture. Rather than flooding the land at infrequent intervals, crops are exposed to small amounts of water in frequent or continuous doses. The result: much more efficient use of a tight water supply in arid climates.
The breakthrough—for which Dr. Hillel was awarded the 2012 World Food Prize—took root throughout the Mideast and parts of Africa. But it’s seeing higher usage these days as more countries, from the U.S. to India to Mexico, face devastating droughts, many scientists say, because of climate change and vast population growth.
Not only are growing numbers of places adopting these methods, but they’re doing new and inventive things with them, such as using new types of tubing that can more easily get water into the soil.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with Dr. Hillel about his contributions to micro-irrigation, the method’s spread around the world and his concerns for global food security. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
A Dream of Open Spaces
WSJ: What inspired you to choose a career in agriculture?
DR. HILLEL: I was born in Los Angeles in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression. At an early age, I moved with my family to Palestine—a part of which would eventually become the state of Israel. At age 9, I was sent to live on a kibbutz, and I learned the reality and challenges of farming in arid conditions. I fell in love with the land, the soil, the ever-changing weather and open spaces. The miracle of irrigation was a revelation for me. I have kept this love all my life, and it became my vocation and avocation.
WSJ: At what point did your focus shift to drip-irrigation methods?
DR. HILLEL: After I completed my studies at Hebrew University [in the late 1950s], I began to develop, together with colleagues, ideas to improve the efficiency of soil and water management in arid conditions. Traditional methods of irrigation focused on flooding the land so as to saturate the soil, but this meant crops were alternately subjected to an excess of water and then to gradual desiccation.
But we realized through drip irrigation, by applying water to the rooting zone of crops very gradually, drop by drop, the soil is never saturated nor ever allowed to desiccate. Consequently, the system becomes more sustainable, water is used more efficiently and farmers could get much more crop per drop.
WSJ: How did you take the idea of drip irrigation as a concept and apply it to the real world? What challenges did you face in its application?
DR. HILLEL: We were lucky enough to be developing our ideas during the 1960s plastics boom just as low-cost weathering-resistant plastics became available. While earlier the soil could only be irrigated by flooding or via expensive portable metallic pipes, the invention of low-cost plastic made it possible to apply small doses of water to the soil continuously, so we could dictate how much water exactly the plants would be provided, at a rate commensurate with their changing needs.
A Trickle to a Torrent
WSJ: How did this new technological process then become widespread around the world?
DR. HILLEL: The system of drip irrigation was patented by enterprising engineer Simcha Blass. Drip-irrigation systems manufacture was instituted in Israel during the 1960s, from where it spread throughout the world. Basically, in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Bank, I have served in more than 30 countries to apply and disseminate improved methods of irrigation, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Palestine, as well as in parts of Asia and Africa.
WSJ: Where do we see drip-irrigation methods spreading to today and why?
DR. HILLEL: We see drip-irrigation methods spreading to various parts of the world, such as parts of the U.S.A., different parts of India as well as various parts of Africa, such as Zimbabwe. All these countries face the same issue: the great need of intensifying crop production in a context of heavy population growth and climate-change issues, such as drought. The technology must be constantly innovated and tailored to the crop types in question. For example, we’ve seen irrigation technology that is solar powered and also developments to the tubing material used; instead of using plastic tubing there have been switches to ceramic as the material is more porous.
WSJ: Can you name one country in particular that has recently adopted drip irrigation with great results?
DR. HILLEL: For me, I see Egypt as a great success story—a population that has witnessed soaring population growth and has managed to intensify its crop production as a result of drip-irrigation technology.
What’s to Come
WSJ: What other advances would you like to see in irrigation methods?
DR. HILLEL: Rather than just trying to control the soil or the greenhouse, control over the entire environment of the plant should be the next focus, and recognition of this has very recently started. The intensity of light, wind force, even the genetic makeup of the plant, are conditions that can all be controlled in irrigation.
We must confine agricultural production to limited areas where we have control because then one can dictate the conditions of the environment, while protecting the larger environment and its natural biodiversity.
WSJ: Do you think that international governments need to do more to place agricultural issues and food security higher on the political agenda?
DR. HILLEL: I firmly believe that international governments, as well as agencies, must do more in this regard.