COLUMBUS, Ohio — The way Ohio State University scientist Rattan Lal sees it, many of Earth’s biggest challenges — from growing enough food to protecting water quality to reversing climate change — have answers in the soil.
As Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), Lal has spent his career working to find those answers. Along the way, he’s gained a global reputation for his research and advocacy on soil-related matters along with multiple honors and awards.
His latest recognition, a big one, comes on an appropriate day.
Today, Dec. 5 — designated by the United Nations as World Soil Day — Lal received the Glinka World Soil Prize in a ceremony at the Rome headquarters of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Named for a prominent Russian soil scientist, the award is considered the highest honor in the soil science profession.
Lal was recognized for, among other things, his contributions to sustainable soil management and his research on restoring soil carbon, the latter being a way to both improve crop yields and remove climate change-causing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. His work has “led to the eco-intensification of agricultural systems, following a soil-centric approach,” FAO officials said in announcing the award.
“My immediate thought was how lucky, privileged and blessed I am,” Lal said. “To be selected from a pool of 60,000 professionals representing all countries of the world is the greatest honor ever.”
As part of the ceremony, Lal gave a keynote lecture connected to this year’s World Soil Day theme, “Be the Solution to Soil Pollution.”
“Soil degradation is a major issue in the 21st century,” said Lal, who joined Ohio State in 1987 and whose scientific career spans more than 50 years. “What we call soil pollution — contamination of the soil — is being exacerbated by many human-caused factors, including industrialization, urban encroachment and soil sealing, war, mining, indiscriminate use of pesticides and agricultural chemicals, spillage of petroleum products, and contamination by heavy metals.”
Lal said not only does soil degradation hurt the environment — it reduces air quality, water quality and biodiversity, among other things — it also “strongly affects” people’s health, including by limiting crop yields, increasing hunger and reducing the levels of nutrients in food.
“Soil is the basis of all terrestrial life, and soil resources are finite and easily degraded,” he said. “Therefore it is important to enhance awareness of the soil among the public, civic societies and policy makers.”
He recommends, for example, teaching soil science in primary and secondary schools right through to college and graduate school.
Lal is a faculty member in CFAES’s School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), where he studies sustainable soil management and directs the school’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. He’s also an adjunct professor with the University of Iceland and is the current president of the Vienna-based International Union of Soil Sciences.
The Glinka World Soil Prize is the “pre-eminent award in our discipline,” said Gary Pierzynski, associate dean for research and graduate education with CFAES and a soil scientist by training.
“Dr. Lal is a most deserving recipient. His work has truly had global impact through incredible research productivity and training of hundreds of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists from around the world,” Pierzynski said.
The award carries a monetary prize of $15,000, which Lal said he is donating to an endowment to support the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. Lal founded the center in 2000.
The International Union of Soil Sciences started World Soil Day in 2002 to celebrate the importance of soil to the environment and to people’s well-being. The U.N. later adopted the celebration during its Year of the Soil, 2015.
Lal was born in Punjab, India (now part of Pakistan). He first came to Ohio State to work on his doctorate in soils, which he completed in 1968. He’s been focused on the subject ever since.
“It’s important to remember,” he said, “that the health of soil, plants, animals, people and ecosystems are one and indivisible.”