Soil scientist wins World Food Prize

Oct 16, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4609

Friday marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations World Food Day.

 Since 1987, an event in Des Moines, Iowa coincides with the commemoration of the day known as the World Food Prize.

Gone is the pageantry surrounding the awarding of the honor, but not lost is the impact this year’s winner has on combating hunger.

Peter Tubbs reports in our Cover Story.

For Dr. Norman Borlaug, the struggle to feed a growing global population was a lifetime challenge.  Dr. Borlaug’s work in hybridizing rice and wheat that would produce in difficult conditions earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He was lauded for saving more human lives than any other person who has ever lived. 
Dr. Borlaug helped establish the World Food Prize in 1986, and each year the award recognizes work that increases the production of food around the globe. The last 100 years has seen the greatest increase in food production since the beginning of agriculture, and has helped to propel the growth of the human population. 
But an increasing population demands a larger and higher quality diet, which places a growing burden on the world’s agricultural acres. The activities of billions of humans also increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere which, according to climate scientists, is changing climates, adding difficulty to maintaining the yields of the world’s farms. 
The discovery that soils can be a solution to both of those challenges has earned  the World Food Prize for Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University.
A refugee from Pakistan as a child, the family of Dr. Lal had 1.5 acres of ground to sustain themselves near Delhi, India. That soil fascinated young Dr. Lal. After achieving academic success in India, Dr. Lal began graduate work at Ohio State University. After graduation, Dr. Lal was recruited to establish a soil science institute in Nigeria. His focus was on soil erosion and degradation, which is a common problem for small stakeholder farmers globally. A lack of soil carbon and organic matter limited production in harsh climates, and common agricultural practices also depleted soils. 
Lal’s experiments and research into increasing organic matter in soils led to techniques that reduced soil erosion through no-till, cover cropping and mulching while also increasing yields. Scientists from around the world frequently traveled to his institute in Nigeria to learn the new techniques first hand.
Dr. Lal began researching at Ohio State University in 1987. His work determined that restoring degraded soils through increasing soil carbon and organic matter improved soil health and also counteracts rising carbon dioxide levels by sequestering atmospheric carbon. The publication of his work in 2004 garnered international attention. The idea that climate change could be slowed through soil management changed the view of soil. 
Dr. Lal established the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University in 2000. The Center studies the interaction of the atmosphere with soil. Dr. Lal has become one of the world’s most prolific soil scientists, with over 100,000 citations of his work.  
Dr. Rattan lal, Ohio State University: “I strongly believe that health of soil, plants, animals. People and ecosystems is one indivisible. 
Lal’s research confirms that growing crops from healthy soils produces more from less- more food from fewer acres, requiring fewer chemicals, less tillage, less water, and less energy. Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels with better soil management techniques provides a path to slowing the effects of climate change. A career of soil research, resulting in soil management discoveries that improve the human condition, has earned Dr. lal the 2020 World Food Prize.
Dr. Rattan Lal, Ohio State University: “While the Green Revolution of the 1960’s were a great success, the soil approach ensures the long-term sustainability of agricultural systems, reconciling the need for increasing food production with the necessity of improving the environment. The specific focus is on the restoration of soil health, and the quality of water and air. (edit)  Two billion people are malnourished due to a lack of micronutrients and a deficiency of protein. The current increases in global temperatures may reduce the economic yield of food crops, increase demand for irrigation water and other inputs, and accelerated risks of soil degradation through increases in environmental intensity and aridity. The 2020 Food Prize to me is a recognition of the importance of protecting the health of the finite and fragile soil resources through sequestration of soil organic carbon by adoption of soil conservation over the years. 
There is a strong need for a paradigm shift towards making agriculture practice part of the solution, and empowering farmer and land managers to produce more and more from less and less, by reducing waste, enhancing eco efficiency, restoring degraded soils, restoring denuded lands, and saving soil and water for nature. 
“The importance of soil, plant, animal, human and environment has nexus, and can never be over emphasised. It’s not a question of either/or. We must have both. It is critical to minimize out dependence on agrichemicals. As Mahatma Gandhi advised, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil, is to forget ourselves.” It is essential to adopt the concept of eco intensification of agricultural systems, to produce more from less: less land, less agrochemicals, less tillage, less irrigation water, and less energy use, so we can save resources for nature.” 

Producer contact peter.tubbs@iowapbs.org

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