Ohio State soil scientist honored for increasing global food production

(Photo: Ken Chamberlain, CFAES)

COLUMBUS, Ohio— A world-renowned scientist at The Ohio State University—whose global work to restore soil health, boost food production, and fight climate change has reaped another honor, this one from a Canadian-based institution. 

Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor of soil science in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), today received an Arrell Global Food Innovation Award.

For 52 years, Lal has been adapting methods to restore soil health globally, including helping hundreds of millions of landowners in the developing world.

“My source of inspiration has been the challenges farmers of the world face, especially the resource-poor and small landholders. The majority of these are women farmers,” Lal said. 

“Their struggle in trying to make a living from degraded and depleted soils under harsh and uncertain climate conditions is the driving force and source of my motivation to find land-based, natural solutions for them,” Lal said. 

Lal introduced and helped mainstream agricultural methods to reduce deforestation, control soil erosion, and enrich soil, leading to sustained or higher crop yields around the world. 

He was chosen for the Arrell Award because of the overall global impact of his career and how important his work is—and will continue to be—in dealing with climate change, said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. 

Lal’s work has become “fundamental to the science community” and is “applicable to small-holder farmers around the world,” he said.

“As one of the world’s foremost soil scientists, Professor Lal’s decades of work have helped advance knowledge and shape practices in how to conserve one of the world’s most important and fragile resources.”

Through work in the developing world and beyond, Lal helped expand food production with measures that not only conserve natural resources but also reduce the effects of climate change. 

Plants grown on healthy soil can best take in climate change-causing carbon dioxide from the air when those plants perform photosynthesis. And when those plants die, their remains, if incorporated into the soil can enrich the soil with organic carbon.

In 1997, Lal co-wrote the first documented report showing how restoring degraded soil could also defend against rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air. 

Around the world, Lal has promoted agricultural techniques including eliminating plowing, retaining crop residue left after harvest, planting cover crops, minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers by reducing losses, and setting aside some land and water for nature, rather than for agriculture or other purposes. Each practice comes at low cost, affordable even to farmers in the developing world.

In the early part of a career spanning five decades, Lal served as a soil physicist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. There, he helped in efforts to restore the productivity of soils in Africa and throughout the tropics. 

“Perhaps no single individual has contributed more to the knowledge base of African agriculture,” wrote Ronnie Coffman, a Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University and one of four scientists who nominated Lal for the Arrell Award. 

“He is most certainly a researcher who has advanced the understanding of food production with a significant positive impact on society.” 

While growing up on a small farm in northern India, Lal first became interested in healthy soil’s potential. 

Experiencing frequent droughts and brutally hot temperatures, Lal came to realize that soil can play a critical role in being a buffer against harsh climate conditions by holding onto water and nutrients. Even in bad years, farmers could survive, but that survival depended on the health of the soil.

While his elder siblings worked on the farm, Lal was the only one in his family who went to school, the only one who learned to read and write. That fueled his intense drive to make the most of his education and research to help farmers and influence how agricultural land is managed. 

“Dr. Lal has been extremely successful in influencing sustainable agricultural practices around the world, and the ripple effects of his work come, in part, through those he has mentored—just over a thousand undergraduates and graduates, postdocs, and visiting scholars,” said Cathann A. Kress, Ohio State vice president for agricultural administration and dean of CFAES. 

“He has brought about a paradigm shift in sustainable soil management. His approach recognizes the need for increasing food production with the necessity of improving the environment.”

For the Arrell Global Food Innovation Award, Lal will receive $76,000, which he plans to donate for soil science research and education.

In June, Lal was named the 2020 recipient of the World Food Prize. A faculty member at Ohio State for 33 years, Lal in 2019 became the first Ohio State scientist and the first soil scientist to ever receive the Japan Prize. 

He was listed by Thomson Reuters as among the top 1% of most-cited scientists in agriculture for 2014–2019 and among the world’s most influential scientific minds in 2015. Lal was recognized for his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Lal first came to Ohio State to work on his doctorate in soil science, which he completed in 1968. 

The guiding philosophy for his work has long been that the well-being of humanity starts in the ground. 

“Sustainable management of soil and agriculture is critical,” Lal said. “The future of humanity and of the planet depends on the health of the soil.” 

CFAES News Team
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Rattan Lal