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Irrigation Pioneer Wins World Food Prize

A pioneer who made arid lands bloom is the recipient of this year's prestigious World Food Prize. Daniel Hillel developed drip irrigation techniques that squeeze the most crop out of a drop of water, making farming possible in places where water is scarce.

Hillel’s orchards near his home in Israel are innovation in action.

Each tree row is fed by plastic tubes which drip water at the base of the tree.

Irrigating drop by drop - called drip irrigation - has transformed agriculture by dramatically reducing the amount of water needed.

Farmers now rely on it in water-scarce regions from Spanish vineyards, to African onion fields, to America’s fruit and salad bowl.

“We in California grow about 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables of the continental United States," says University of California at Davis hydrologist Jan Hopmans. "And the reason that is possible is because of, indeed, these drip and micro-irrigation techniques.”

Hillel got his start in dryland farming as a pioneer in Israel’s Negev Desert in the 1950s.

"The issue was efficient use of water," he says, "because land is available. It’s extensive. Water is limited.”

These desert farmers did not have the luxury of running irrigation water through channels to their crops, the way farmers have since ancient times.

So Hillel and others gave plants just what they needed, just where they needed it.

“The idea was to apply the water little by little, the way you spoon-feed a baby,” Hillel says.

It worked so well that Hillel was soon traveling the world, showing others how to do it.

Experts say drip irrigation is an innovation whose importance is growing, as climate change and rising population strain water supplies in many parts of the world.

“This is where water use, water availability, water-use efficiency and climate change and crop production all converge," Hillel says. "And this has been really the essence of my career.”

A career whose legacy can be measured drop by drop.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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