Ohio State soil health scientist wins World Food Prize

Rattan Lal’s models indicate that restoring soil health can lead to multiple benefits.

Soil scientist Rattan Lal has won the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate for developing and mainstreaming a soil-central approach to increasing food production that conserves natural resources and mitigates climate change. 

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.

Always working on the premise that the health of soil, plants, animals, people, and the environment is indivisible, 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.

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. 

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% and decreasing total fertilizer use by half. Making this a reality will enormously benefit farmers, food consumers, and the environment.

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