Without healthy soil, any discussion about feeding the world abruptly stops. True, there are other ways to get food – from rivers, lakes and oceans, for example -- but for the most part, food comes from the soil, from the earth, from what most people call dirt. And to feed the world that dirt needs to be productive, meaning it needs to be healthy in its own way.
That fact wasn’t lost this year on those who award the World Food Prize, which is committed to improving the global quality, quantity or availability of food. Since its inception in 1987, the prize, announced earlier this summer, has gone to not only scientists, but presidents, former presidents and bureaucrats, all of whom play an important role in advancing the world’s food supply. For example, some have promoted school lunch programs; others, humanitarian relief. Very important indeed.
But when it comes to actually digging in the dirt that grows crops and ultimately feeds livestock, few have contributed like this year’s prize winner, Daniel Hillel. This soil physicist and author, who split his career between the University of Jerusalem, Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts, literally wrote the book on healthy soil. His 1971 text, Soil and Water: Physical Properties and Processes, has been translated into eight languages and is widely accepted as the core text worldwide in colleges and universities.
Soil physics involves fundamentals such as water uptake by plants and water retention and movement in soil. To that end, Hillel’s work outside of the classroom has been focused on helping farmers in underdeveloped nations help themselves through better soil health.
He’s done so by honing in on a process called micro irrigation, which involves getting water to crops in arid and dry land regions. All the aid money in the world won’t make it rain. But with micro irrigation, crops that would otherwise burn up or wilt in the sun’s heat can instead use it to be productive.
The low-volume, high-frequency calibrated water systems developed by Hillel and other soil scientists provide small, continuous amounts of water to the plant roots, rather than a periodic flooding in which the soil is saturated and water can be lost. The results are dramatic in terms of production and water conservation. Water resources are scarce to begin with, and any crop irrigation initiative must be balanced and sensitive to human needs, too.
There’s an Ontario angle to all this -- Hillel knows the University of Guelph, and Guelph knows him. He received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Guelph, 20 years ago this year. Professor emeritus David Elrick, a fellow soil physicist who’s been Hillel’s colleague for more than 40 years, wrote a letter of support for Hillel for the 2012 World Food Prize.
Said Elrick: “His research in the 1960s and 1970s was highly innovative, and lately he expanded his interests to the world stage where he has worked tirelessly on improving the world food supply through the sustainable use of water, a critical resource.”
Prize administrators deserve praise for this selection. They’ve been very supportive of development over the years, awarding the prize to researchers who have realized such accomplishments as drought-resistant sorghum hybrids and large-scale storage of fruits and vegetables, as well as advancements in rice production. Now, in awarding the prize to Hillel, they clearly make a case for the importance of soil.
Coincidentally, the prize announcement was followed by yet another plea to developed nations from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and others, calling on them to redouble their efforts to fight hunger. Soil health is unquestionably an integral part of this mission.