Indian American soil scientist Rattan Lal wins 2020 World Food Prize

Dr. Rattan Lal
Dr. Rattan Lal

Hailed as soil health trailblazer, Lal grew up on a subsistence farm in India.

Leading Indian American soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal has won the $250,000 World Food Prize for 2020 for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production that conserves natural resources and mitigates climate change.

“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,” according to World Food Prize Foundation.

“The agricultural practices Lal advocated are now at the heart of efforts to improve agriculture systems in the tropics and globally,” the Des Moines, Iowa, -based organization said at the 2020 Laureate Announcement Ceremony.

“Dr. Lal is a trailblazer in soil science with a prodigious passion for research that improves soil health, enhances agricultural production, improves the nutritional quality of food, restores the environment and mitigates climate change,” said World Food Prize Foundation President Barbara Stinson.

“His decades of work to address all of these elements fully warrants his recognition as the 50th World Food Prize Laureate.”

READ: Sehgal Foundation receives Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Leader Award (March 17, 2017)

Dr. Lal, 75, currently serves as Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and founding Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University (OSU).

“The unbound joy and excitement of receiving the 2020 World Food Prize reminds me about the gratitude, privilege and honor of working for farmers from around the world,” said Dr. Lal.

“Yet, the urgent task of feeding humanity is not fulfilled until each and every person has access to an adequate amount of nutritious food grown on a healthy soil and in a clean environment,” he added.

“Achieving hunger-free humanity, soil degradation neutrality, negative emission farming and pollutant-free water are among principal challenges which can never be ignored,” said Dr. Lal.

“Sustainable management of soil and agriculture is also essential to keeping global temperatures within the safe range and restoring the environment.”

“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,” the Foundation statement said.

“The world’s population continues to grow, and we need to use the resources we have more productively and efficiently to make sure everyone has enough food on their table,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a pre-recorded speech.

“Dr. Lal’s research in soil science shows that the solution to this problem is right under our feet,” he said.

“He’s helping the earth’s estimated 500 million small farmers be faithful stewards of their land though improved management, less soil degradation, and the recycling of nutrients. The billions of people who depend on these farms stand to benefit greatly from his work.”

Over his career spanning more than five decades and four continents, Dr. Lal has promoted innovative soil-saving techniques benefiting the livelihoods of more than 500 million smallholder farmers, improving the food and nutritional security of more than two billion people and saving hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems, WFP said.

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

READ: Indian American Prof. R. Paul Singh of UC Davis awarded World Agriculture Prize laureate (July 1, 2015)

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.

Dr. 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, the WFP announcement said.

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, it said.

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