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India-born soil scientist Rattan Lal chosen for 2020 World Food Prize
Washington, June 11, 2020
India-born soil scientist Rattan Lal, who serves as Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and founding Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University (OSU) in the United States, was named today as the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate.
The 76-year-old pedologist was chosen for the honour for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production that conserves natural resources and mitigates climate change, a press release from the World Food Prize Foundation said.
The annual $ 250,000 World Food Prize was founded in 1986 by renowned agronomist Norman E Borlaug, who was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He hoped the prize would both highlight and inspire breakthrough achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world, and which is now often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”
The 2020 Laureate Announcement Ceremony featured pre-recorded remarks from the U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson announcing the name of the laureate.
“The world’s population continues to grow, and we need to use the resources we have more productively and efficiently to make sure everyone has enough food on their table,” said Pompeo. “Dr. Lal’s research in soil science shows that the solution to this problem is right under our feet. He’s helping the earth’s estimated 500 million small farmers be faithful stewards of their land though improved management, less soil degradation, and the recycling of nutrients. The billions of people who depend on these farms stand to benefit greatly from his work.”
From his humble beginnings as a refugee growing up on a small subsistence farm in India, Lal’s determination to learn and succeed in school propelled him to become one of the world’s foremost soil scientists. His pioneering research on the restoration of soil health in Africa, Asia and Latin America led to revelations that impacted agricultural yields, natural resource conservation and climate change mitigation. The agricultural practices Lal advocated are now at the heart of efforts to improve agriculture systems in the tropics and globally, the release said.
“The unbound joy and excitement of receiving the 2020 World Food Prize reminds me about the gratitude, privilege and honor of working for farmers from around the world,” said Dr. Lal.
“Yet, the urgent task of feeding humanity is not fulfilled until each and every person has access to an adequate amount of nutritious food grown on a healthy soil and in a clean environment.”
Always working on the premise that the health of soil, plants, animals, people and the environment is indivisible, Dr. Lal began his research career at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, developing soil health restoration projects across Asia, Africa and Latin America. He explored and transformed techniques such as no-tillage, cover cropping, mulching and agroforestry that protected the soil from the elements, conserved water and returned nutrients, carbon and organic matter to the soil. This in turn improved the long-term sustainability of agroecosystems and minimized the risks to farmers of droughts, floods, and other effects of a changing climate.
In 1987, he returned to his alma mater, OSU, where his research showed how atmospheric carbon can be sequestered in soils. This breakthrough research transformed the way the world saw soils. As a result, soils are now not only the foundation for increasing the quality and quantity of food and preserving natural ecosystems, but an important part of mitigating climate change, as well. Three separate United Nations Climate Change Conferences adopted his strategy of restoring soil health as a means to sequestering carbon. In 2007, he was among those recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize Certificate for his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, when the IPCC was named co-recipient of the Nobel Prize.
“Dr. Lal is a trailblazer in soil science with a prodigious passion for research that improves soil health, enhances agricultural production, improves the nutritional quality of food, restores the environment and mitigates climate change,” said Stinson. “His decades of work to address all of these elements fully warrants his recognition as the 50th World Food Prize Laureate.”
Dr. Lal’s innovative research demonstrated how healthy soils are a crucial component of sustainable agricultural intensification – enabling higher crop yields, while requiring less land, agrochemicals, tillage, water and energy. His work has been pivotal in enhancing the productivity and sustainability of global agricultural systems, resulting in improved crop yields and food security, while also saving hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems.
“Here at USDA our motto is ‘to do right and feed everyone,’” said Perdue. “The scientific innovations, like those developed by Dr. Lal, embody this motto in the work that he and we are doing. The agricultural practices Lal developed and advocated for are now at the heart of efforts to improve agricultural systems.”
Commenting on Dr. Lal’s selection, World Food Prize Selection Committee Chair and 2009 Laureate Dr. Gebisa Ejeta said, “Every year we are astounded by the quality of nominations for the Prize, but Dr. Lal’s stellar work on management and conservation of agriculture’s most cherished natural resource, the soil, set him apart. The impact of his research and advocacy on sustainability of agriculture and the environment cannot be overstressed. He is a most deserving recipient and inspiring leader.”
While Lal is one of the most prolific agricultural scientists with more than 100,000 citations, he is acutely aware of the necessity of working with national, international and governmental institutions to translate research into impact at the community and farmer level.
Lal’s models indicate that restoring soil health can lead to multiple benefits by the year 2100, including more than doubling the global annual grain yield to feed the growing world population, while decreasing the land area under grain cultivation by 30 percent and decreasing total fertilizer use by half. Making this a reality will enormously benefit farmers, food consumers and the environment.
“Achieving hunger-free humanity, soil degradation neutrality, negative emission farming and pollutant-free water are among principal challenges which can never be ignored,” said Dr. Lal.” Sustainable management of soil and agriculture is also essential to keeping global temperatures within the safe range and restoring the environment.”
Lal’s soil-centric approach is based on the premise that “the health of soil, plants, animals, people and the environment is one and indivisible.” His research shows that growing crops on healthy soils produces more from less: more food from less land area, less use of agrochemicals, less tillage, less water and less energy. As soils also provide essential environmental services such as retaining rainwater, filtering pollutants and providing habitat for all manner of organisms, it is all the more important for societies to manage soils sustainably.
“I believe soil is a living thing. That’s what soil health means, soil is life. Every living thing has rights. Therefore, soil also has rights,” Lal said. “As long as you are consuming the natural resources - food, water, elements - coming from the soil, you owe it to soil to put something back, to give something back, whatever you can.”
He has taught his methods to researchers from around the world who came to IITA and also traveled to Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, Thailand and many other countries with tropical climates to practice and promote good systems for soil health. Lal identified and promoted land-use and soil management practices tailored to each region of the world to effectively restore soil health and avoid soil degradation. He developed region-specific soil guides for the adoption of conservation agriculture systems, alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture and technologies for sustainable intensification of agroecosystems. By establishing long-term experiments throughout the tropics, he popularized the practice of conservation agriculture in regions of harsh climates and fragile soils.
Rather than simply expanding the use of inputs (i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, energy) or the land area used to grow crops, Lal’s experimentation and efforts presented sustainable agricultural intensification practices boosting food production while decreasing the amount of land and increasing the efficiency of the inputs used to cultivate it. Lal’s models indicate that restoring soil health can lead to multiple benefits by the year 2100, including more than doubling the global annual grain yield to feed the growing world population, while decreasing the land area under grain cultivation by 30 percent and decreasing total fertilizer use by half. Making this a reality will enormously benefit farmers, food consumers and the environment.
Through his innovative work on agricultural eco-intensification, Lal not only introduced the concept of soil physical health and resilience as an effective strategy for meeting the farming challenges of a changing climate, but also identified the promise soil holds for carbon sequestration efforts. The key to solving these issues, Lal found, is the carbon contained in soil. Soil contains 1,550 gigatons of organic carbon in soil organic matter, as well as 750 gigatons of inorganic carbon, which adds up to three times the amount of atmospheric carbon. Lal recognized this potential for soil to act as an enormous carbon sink to slow the increase of atmospheric carbon and stymie global climate change.
While a professor at OSU in the early 1990s, Lal co-authored the first scientific report showing that restoring degraded soils through increasing soil carbon and organic matter not only improved soil health, but helped combat rising carbon dioxide levels in the air by sequestering atmospheric carbon. His analysis showed that soils can sequester carbon at rates as high as 2.6 gigatons per year. When his research was published in Science in 2004, it garnered worldwide attention.
This breakthrough research transformed the way the world saw soils. They were now not only the foundation for increasing the quality and quantity of food and preserving natural ecosystems, but an important part of mitigating climate change as well.
Because of Lal’s leadership in linking soil carbon to climate change, three separate United Nations Climate Change Conferences adopted his strategy of restoring soil health as a means to sequestering carbon. This gave rise to the “4 per 1000” Initiative to increase soil carbon at an annual growth rate of 0.4 percent through implementing the conservation farming practices Lal had already adapted to regional conditions. Lal’s proposals on soil health closely tie into four of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
A consummate communicator, he served as president of four international professional societies including the International Union of Soil Sciences and is a member of many more; developed strong channels of communication with policymakers at national and international levels; mentored 350 students and researchers from around the world; collaborated with industry leaders to reach their goals for reducing carbon emissions; made more than 500 keynote presentations; and visited 105 countries to promote the soil-centric approach to advancing food security. He is credited as one of the most influential agricultural researchers by peer review organizations around the world.
Lal is a trailblazer in soil science with a prodigious passion for teaching that improved soil health enhances agricultural production, improves the nutritional quality of food, restores the environment, and mitigates climate change. In this approach, he reconciled two seemingly opposing elements: the need for increased food production with the necessity of restoring soil, water and air quality.
"Normally, people think of agriculture as the problem," Lal said. "But with me, I want it to be the solution."
Rattan Lal estimates he was born in 1944 in the small farming village of Karyal in West Punjab in what is now Pakistan. After partition, his family moved to Rajaund in Haryana.
Lal first became curious about soil through his experiences with subsistence farming as a boy. He recalls watching his father, uncle and brother plowing the fields with oxen in temperatures reaching above 45 Celsius (>110 °F). The ground was very hard--all the crop, including the straw, was removed at every harvest; nothing was returned to the land. Lal wondered at the time about the difficulty of plowing the land, and why plowing was even needed.
Lal had the chance to study soils more upon entering Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana after earning a scholarship for graduating at the top of his class from his two-room school in Rajaund in 1959.
His application and fortitude were recognized by his soil science professor and mentor, Prof. D.R. Bhumbla, who encouraged Lal to continue his studies at Prof. Bhumbla’s own alma mater, The Ohio State University.
After completing his M. Sc. at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, Lal went on to OSU to pursue his Ph.D. under the mentorship of Prof. George S. Taylor.
In 1987, Lal returned to The Ohio State University. There he established the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center in 2000.
Prior accolades recognizing Dr. Lal for the exceptional energy and insight he applies to the crusade for conservation around the world include the Japan Prize (2019), the GCHERA World Agriculture Prize (2018), the Glinka World Soil Prize (2018), the Liebig Award (2006), and in India, the Swaminathan Award (2009) and the Norman Borlaug Award (2005).
On one of his last trips to India, Dr. Borlaug himself presented Lal with the Norman Borlaug Award honoring outstanding Indian researchers in agriculture.
"Lal epitomizes Dr. Borlaug’s philosophy that science is meaningless if it does not serve humanity. Lal’s efforts to extend the Green Revolution by advancing soil health makes him a laudable 50th Laureate of the World Food Prize," the release added.