Daniel Hillel discusses sustainable agriculture practices

Eric Debner

On a night many might never forget, 2012 World Food Prize Laureate Daniel Hillel gave this year’s Norman Borlaug lecture “Soil, Water, Energy and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate.”

Hillel addressed some of the many challenges the world faces in developing efficient and sustainable agricultural practices without causing undue harm to the environment and natural resources.

“We are not able to expand agriculture much beyond where it is today without encroaching upon natural ecosystems and violating their biodiversity and impoverishing the biosphere,” Hillel said. “So we have to be very careful and learn how to intensify production and do it sustainably without degrading the resources of the land and water.”

Hillel said the practice of agriculture is not becoming easier and it is becoming more exacting. The previous generation leaves the following generations a more complex world and with it a more complex view of the world and a great responsibility.

Hillel explained how the rising human population has led to an increase in the demand for agriculture for food and the attainment of a higher standard of living.

“The world’s population has been projected to stabilize at 9 [billion] to 10 billion by the third decade of this century,” Hillel said. “Consequently, our expansive population has been placing ever greater demands on the world’s limited and vulnerable soil, water and biotic resources.”

A growing global population has lead to the development of “mechanized agriculture,” which is the heavy use of large machines on the farm. Hillel discussed an important notion many might hold that farm machinery has increased production efficiency.

“The enormous increase in labor efficiency resulting from the use of motorized machinery has been purchased at the cost of greatly increased consumption of energy and reliance on external, unstable and increasingly expensive energy sources,” Hillel said. “In some types of agriculture, the total amount of energy consumed in fuel used to operate the engines and to produce and supply fertilizers actually exceeds the energy value of the products.”

He also elaborated on the importance of maintaining the quality of soil. Large machines operated in mechanized farming cause direct damage to the soil; both compaction when wet and pulverization when dry lead to accelerated erosion.

An effective method to restore soil fertility is the practice known as agro-forestry, in which crops and trees are grown together.

“Trees and shrubs can be planted in parallel rows with crops grown in between,” Hillel said. “[These] trees act as nutrient pumps, improving soil fertility while crops grow between those rows provide food.”

Hillel emphasized the energy efficient and careful use of water in agriculture.

“Much more can be done to improve the efficient and sustainable utilization of our water resources,” he said. “Both in rain-fed and irrigated farming. Modern methods of low-volume high frequency irrigation can be applied to small farms.”

Hillel gave a few choice words of encouragement for the next generation inheriting the challenges and responsibilities which will affect the future of the world.

“My hope is to encourage them to pursue their interests, and to raise their awareness of the crucial importance of this profession that we share, which is agriculture and environment and land and water and climate,” Hillel said. “You [young people] are the future of the world.”