World Food Prize winner says the Bible comments on sustainable food production

The Bible contains some important commentary on sustainable food production, at least from the point of view of Daniel Hillel, winner of the 2012 World Food Prize.

Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2012 4:15 pm | Updated: 3:52 pm, Thu Nov 8, 2012.

Jeanette Kazmierczak 

The Bible contains some important commentary on sustainable food production, at least from the point of view of Daniel Hillel, winner of the 2012 World Food Prize.

Hillel spoke about the important aspects and duties of interdisciplinary research in the future of food production for the annual D.W. Brooks lecture hosted by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Thursday.

Hillel started his lecture with the biblical story of the flight of the Children of Israel from Egypt. He said after crossing the Red Sea, God asked Moses where he wanted to go. Moses had a stammer, so God assumed he was trying to say « Jerusalem. » Hillel said maybe he was trying to say « Georgia. »

The lecture invitation represented full circle back to Georgia for Hillel. He graduated from the University with a degree in agronomy in 1950. After receiving his master’s in soil science from Rutgers University in New Jersey, he went to Israel, where he was a pioneer of irrigation methods in arid regions. He won the World Food Prize for his work.

“Many consider [the World Food Prize] the Nobel Prize of agriculture,” said Josef Broder, associate dean for academic affairs for the college.

Hillel said only 25 percent of the world’s landmass is suitable for agriculture, and only 12 percent of that is under cultivation. But any expansion of cultivation would pose a threat to ecosystems and biodiversity. Demands made by higher living standards and a larger population must be met by a sustainable increase in production on farmed land, rather than an expansion of land use, he said.

Hillel said experts hope the world’s population will level out around 9 to 10 billion people, and the movement of people into cities is compounding the difficulties of trying to feed that many mouths.

“Some 20 to 30 million hectares are being converted from farmland to urban use annually at the present,” Hillel said.

One hectare is roughly equal to two and a half acres, so 20 to 30 million hectares is approximately 49 to 74 million acres.

The excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, electrical equipment for irrigation and harvesting and fossil fuels for transportation means that the amount of energy expended on agricultural inputs is more than the energy produced.

“Much more attention much be devoted to optimizing energy, water, nutrient and pesticide input in agriculture so as to enhance efficiency and avoid environmental degradation,” Hillel said.

He said wisdom about sustainable food practices needed to be cultivated through interdisciplinary education, research and international cooperation.

“These trends and these prospects emphasize the imperative to conserve the remaining agricultural land and to improve and intensify production on a sustainable basis without damage to the natural environment or the depletion of its resources,” Hillel said. “That is our task as practitioners of agriculture, as custodians of land management, as teachers and as students of agriculture.”

Hillel said in the original Hebrew, the Bible said Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to serve and preserve its living community. He said the biosphere is our collective Eden so long as we can serve and preserve its functions and resources.

Will McFall, a second-year master’s student studying agricultural economics, said he liked that Hillel incorporated his background working in Israel into the lecture and that it was accessible to a wide range of audiences.

“I’m kind of more interested in the policy side, and he didn’t address that too much,” McFall said.

But he said he liked that Hillel made the duty of sustainable food production an interdisciplinary effort.

“I think it’s one of those lectures that adds a moral responsibility for a new generation of scientists,” said Khalil Lezzaika, a first-year doctoral student from Lebanon working in the geology department’s water resources and remote sensing research group. “It’s not just sitting in your office publishing papers, but actually seeking change in the world.”

 

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