Award-winning scientist Rattan Lal’s fascination with soil goes back to childhood on his family’s farm in India; he marveled at the soil’s ability to produce food and wondered why it needed to be plowed when it got compacted over time.
“I have a lot of good memories from childhood, and of agriculture as it was in those days,” he said. “I would normally go to the field in the evening and take food for my father, brother and uncle who would be working in the field…We would have two buffaloes, maybe one or two cows for milk and a couple of bullocks and I looked after those cattle. I also took part in transplanting rice.”
Alongside the good memories, however, he also recalls destruction: witnessing the devastation of monsoons, being caught in dust storms with his cattle and praying with the village priests for rain to quench the dry land.
Flooding and drought both trace back to soil, he said. When it’s unhealthy, it isn’t receptive to rainfall and washes away, causing “erosion and pollution and floods and misery.” In turn, the same soil can’t retain an adequate supply of water for use during dry seasons.
These are the questions and conundrums that shape Lal’s philosophy—and his life’s work.
As a professor of Soil Science at the Ohio State University, Lal has dedicated himself to studying the connection of soil health to food insecurity and environmental degradation, with a particular interest in the role of agriculture in generating these phenomena. He left home at 15 to study soil science and earned his B.S. and M.S. in India before traversing the ocean to finish his Ph.D. at the Ohio State University. His research and advocacy have taken him to countries like Australia, Nigeria, England, Germany, Chile and Iceland and earned him prestigious awards such as the Japan Prize and the World Food Prize.
Lal’s focus on sustainable agricultural practices comes from a place of urgency.
In 2018, the agricultural sector alone made up about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Globally, farming, forestry and other land use make up around 24% of emissions. Gases from agriculture consist primarily of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide which, respectively, are released from the waste of animals (primarily cows), churned soil and excess fertilizers.
Greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only consequence of contemporary farming practices; runoff containing fertilizer from Ohio farms, for example, caused the 2014 algal bloom in Lake Erie’s western basin, leaving 500,000 Toledoans without drinking water for several days.
But Lal believes that land use doesn’t necessarily need to be destructive.
“Agriculture and land managers and farmers are the largest stakeholder in the environment when it comes to carbon sequestration, water quality, the algal bloom issue, the sedimentation problem, the siltation of rivers and dams, the loss of biodiversity,” he said. “Agricultural land has to be part of the solution.”
He proposes changing our relationship with soil through conservation agriculture and other land restoration projects, which, according to his research, could potentially reduce global emissions by 15 percent. Rather than relying on soil fertility strategies that replace nutrients with artificial fertilizers, Lal’s research focuses on maintaining soil health through farming techniques that retain the nutrients, carbon and organic matter naturally found in soil.
Above all, Lal maintains that demonizing the agricultural industry is counterproductive to the fight against climate change. He believes that the U.S. and other countries need to shift their attitude towards the farming industry and recognize its value to society.
“We all have to eat food three times a day, and eating food is an agricultural activity. How can we say that the profession that produces food is no good?” he said. “Food quality and food access and food safety and food nutritional value are absolutely essential to human wellbeing, yet we do not respect the people who produce food very much.”
Part of this lack of respect comes from people’s distance from the production of food, according to Lal.
“Food does not come from a grocery store. It comes from a farm,” he said. “We have a disconnect between nature and humanity, and we need to bring that connection back.”
In terms of agriculture in Ohio, Lal pointed out examples of farmers in the state who are working to bridge this disconnect and integrate agricultural practices that reduce the negative impacts of farming on the environment.
One of the individuals he mentioned was Bill Richards, chairman of Richard Farms Incorporated located in Circleville, Ohio and former chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service. Richards implements and advocates for no-till farming, a practice that decreases farming costs, nutrient runoff and erosion. No-till farming helps soil retain carbon-enriched organic matter that serves as nutrients for plants and thus reduces the need for artificial fertilizers. It also lowers the quantity of carbon dioxide gas that plowing releases into the atmosphere.
Lal also highlighted David Brandt, another farmer in Ohio who has helped bring attention to the benefits of no-till farming. His farm in Carroll, Ohio served as the launching ground for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s campaign “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil,” which advocates for soil health management systems that implement cover crops, rotation diversity and no-till methods to increase land production potential.
Lal, who currently mentors 10 students, hopes his story will attract more young people to enter his field and continue the pioneering efforts of farmers like Richards and Brandt in educating the public about the importance of soil health. While Lal himself found his origin and life’s work in the soil, he believes that every generation owes something back to the earth.
“All of our cultures tell us that humans came from soil, belong to soil and are destined to go back to the soil one day, so we must respect that entity,” he said.