Dinner with Rattan Lal, world-renowned soil scientist

June 1, 2023

A person with an empty stomach will do whatever it takes to put something into it. Where there are immediate hunger pains, long-term consequences seem insignificant. Desperation is ripe, and violence is not far off.

Agriculture then — the ability to grow and deliver food to all — is a matter of national and global security. It’s a prerequisite to world peace, and it starts with soil health.

When Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and Solutions from the Land co-chair, heard this sentiment during a dinner hosted by The Ohio State University (OSU) in April, he knew he was in good company. The speaker was Rattan Lal, Ph.D., the world-renowned soil scientist who was awarded the World Food Prize in 2020.

From India to Ohio

Lal’s story is an inspiring one. As told in this 2018 article from OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Lal grew up as a refugee in northern India. When he was 5 years old, his family had to leave their farm in what is now Pakistan. They learned to survive on a small, 1.5-acre lot, where he helped raise wheat, chickpeas, rice and sugarcane.

India faced frequent droughts and hot temperatures, and as a child Lal recognized the soil’s critical role in helping them get through these difficult times.

“Farmers could survive even in bad years, but that survival really depended on the health of the soil,” Lal said in the 2018 article. “I strongly believe that the health of soil, plants, animals, people and ecosystems are one and indivisible.”

While Lal’s older brother and sister had to run the farm and home when their mother died, Lal had the opportunity to attend school. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in India and, thanks to the encouragement of a professor as well as a travel scholarship from the Punjab, India, government, and funding as an OSU graduate assistant, Lal moved to Ohio to continue his studies. He earned his doctorate in soils from OSU in 1968 and now serves OSU as Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science.

As summarized by the World Food Prize in 2020, Lal has built a “career spanning more than five decades and four continents, … (promoting) innovative soil-saving techniques benefiting the livelihoods of more than 500 million smallholder farmers, improving the food and nutritional security of more than 2 billion people and saving hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems.”

Soil health as a start

During the dinner at OSU, Lal spoke on seven things he personally learned from Mahatma Gandhi—things that would destroy humanity. Top of the list was the destruction of the soil, which would lead to an inability to feed ourselves.

If we look at the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals, Lal continued, they all start with soil health.

The 17 goals are:

  1. No poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. Zero hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
  3. Good health and well-being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Quality education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Gender equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Clean water and sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Affordable and clean energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Decent work and economic growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  10. Reduced inequalities: Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Sustainable cities and communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Responsible consumption and production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Climate action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Life below water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Life on land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Partnerships for the goals. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

The soil health connection is obvious for some goals, like zero hunger. We need healthy soil to continue growing food. But, as Yoder says: “Soil is the key to life itself. Everything else then comes because of it.”

Healthy soil holds more water, making the land resilient in times of drought and flooding—both increasingly common in some regions with climate change. Healthy soil is a key component of a healthy ecosystem, which affects the quantity and quality of our water supply. It is full of biodiverse life and sparks biodiversity across the ecosystem.

Agriculture, rooted in healthy soil and circular systems, which turn waste into value, produces more than food and ecosystem services. It creates renewable energy and fuels. It provides and improves livelihoods everywhere, but especially in impoverished regions.

When agriculture is stable and thriving, communities have the capacity to address issues like inequality and justice. Girls, boys and adults can receive the education they need. Communities have access to the nutritious food they need to be healthy and thrive.

“Soil health is the key to life itself, and everything else then comes because of it,” Yoder says.

Partner with farmers

Agriculture needs infrastructure, research, innovation and collaborative partnerships. Global leaders must recognize the significance of agriculture and partner with farmers, learning from them and enabling them to continually improve their land stewardship.

For these reasons, Solutions from the Land continues to advocate for farmer-centered conversations and opportunities for farmers to share how they are making the world a better place from their corners of the land.

It was encouraging, Yoder says, to see the world’s greatest soil scientist echoing the heart of SfL’s guiding principles and vision of all farmers, ranchers and foresters can and are doing for the global community.

“Let’s keep on keeping on!” Yoder says.

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