Dr. Rattan Lal on Soil Health, Plant Science and Food Security

Food chains start from the ground up. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil is key for growing the food we need to feed a rapidly growing global population. A renewed focus on soil health can lead to more efficient crop yields that will strengthen global food chains and improve global food and nutrition security.

Dr. Rattan Lal is the director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University and recipient of the 2020 World Food Prize for his work in soil science. We sat down with Dr. Lal to talk about the importance of soil health in strengthening food systems and mitigating the impact of climate change. This interview has been formatted and adapted from its’ original recording for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University?

The objective and mission of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center is to determine how we can create a positive soil carbon budget so that the soil can be restored. Through these efforts, we can make agriculture part of the solution in order to produce food, restore the environment and mitigate climate change.

We have hosted about 180 visiting scholars over the past 20 years. Through our global network we’ve fostered enhanced international cooperation.

Speaking of international cooperation, your career has spanned four continents over five decades. How has your work in innovative soil-saving techniques evolved over the decades?

I am from South Asia and I first came to the U.S. as a student about 55 years or so ago. From here I went to Sydney and spent some time there. And then to West Africa for about 18 or 20 years. Then I came back to the United States.

In the end though it does not matter where you are, whether it’s Asia, Australia, Africa or the Americas. The basic principle of soil and the fact that it must be protected, restored and managed judiciously is true everywhere. Specific applications may need to be fine-tuned for social, cultural, economic or ethnic factors, but the basic components are the same.

And those components are: ensuring the least possible disturbance of the soil; always keeping the ground covered with cover crops or other biomass; implementing integrated soil fertility management and judicious combinations of organic and inorganic fertilizer; and the integration of crops with trees and livestock.

These basic concepts are applicable everywhere. It’s a matter of fine-tuning them to the local condition.

Have you noticed any major changes in how the industry looks at soil health and management, and any adaption to the four principles you mentioned over the course of time?

In the last 10-15 years there’s been a lot of positive changes. For example, the concept of soil sequestration featured prominently at COP21 in Paris in 2015.

COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco introduced the AAA initiative—Adaptation of African Agriculture—based on the same principles.

COP25 in Madrid brought together 29 ministers of agriculture from across Latin America to adopt a program for climate action and farmers.

Over the years, soil health and agriculture more broadly have become important tools for mitigating climate change.

Can you tell us about how your work in soil helps with a sustainable food supply and food security around the world?

A recent report from FAO says we have about 700 million people that are undernourished. Now there’s about another 130 million or so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, more than 2 billion people are malnourished, mainly due to lack of micronutrients. And these nutrients must come from soil. If the soil does not have these nutrients, the food produced from the soil will also be deficient.

This has led to a new concept called “One Health.” This One Health stands for the health of soil, environment, plants, animals, people and the planet Earth. It’s one and indivisible. If the health of soil goes down, everything else goes down with it. Therefore, if you improve the health and quality of the soil, the health and wellbeing of the people living on that land also improves.

When soil degrades and the land cannot support people, we create soil refugees, or climate refugees. There’s political instability, civil strife, unrest. Therefore, leading the political forces that can bring about stability to the restoration of the land quality is very critical.

In 2015, The UN said that 25,000 die every day from hunger-related deaths. That translates to about 17 people dying every minute. This hunger-related death is really a weapon of mass destruction. Somewhere along the line we have to address hunger, and to address hunger and malnutrition, soil health is very critical. World peace depends on this.

Building off your comments about “One Health,” can you talk a little bit more about how soil health, the environment, climate change and biodiversity are all connected?

When you take resources for granted and use extractive practices that cannot be sustained, the eventual price you pay is very huge. Many foregone civilizations like Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, the Aztecs and Mayans and Incas—they took their natural resources for granted and eventually had to pay a very heavy price. Somehow, we must reverse the degradation trend. We have to make sure that soil is maintained and healthy. Healthy soil determines the health of plants, plant health determines animal health, which determines the health of humans, which determines the health of entire ecosystems.

At CropLife International we focus on various plant science technologies and innovations—can you speak a bit about the role plant science plays in soil health?

Plant science plays an important role in soil health. Plants photosynthesize 123 gigatons of atmospheric CO2 into plant biomass. Unfortunately, most of it goes back through plant respiration and soil respiration. But imagine if you can keep back just 10% of it—that’s 12 gigatons. If we can use plants to help with photosynthesis and retain some of that CO2 back into the biosphere, that can be tremendous.

Biotech plants that have more resistant biomass can be very helpful. Soil scientists and plant scientists must work together to design plants that could achieve this.

What does it mean to you to be this year’s World Food Prize recipient? And when you reflect on your work and how far the industry has come, what does the World Food Prize make you think about the future?

Thank you. I’m very fortunate indeed to be named the 2020 laureate, 50 years after Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize. But really it is more than that. It is a recognition of farmers of the world and their importance. They are the greatest steward of natural resources and land. It is a recognition of the link between soil and the environment, and between soil health and human health. It’s a recognition that soil health is critical to world peace, stability and tranquility.

Dr. Lal’s work over the last 50 years has helped more than 500 million smallholder farmers, improved the food and nutritional security of more than two billion people, and saved hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems. Learn more about other leading experts who are working to advance soil health here.