The Power of Soil: An Interview With Dr. Rattan Lal
Soil is a living entity; it is full of life. In a single teaspoon, there are as many as 1 billion microorganisms. This diversity is critical to agricultural production and human survival. To talk about living soil, I sat down with Dr. Rattan Lal. He is not only a giant in this field but also a consistently humble and unfailingly friendly human being. The author of 22 books and one of most cited scientists in the world, Dr. Lal has received global recognition for his work over the years. In 2007, he was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize while serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and in 2014 was included in the Thomson Reuters list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. In 2020, he was awarded the World Food Prize and was designated an IICA Goodwill Ambassador. Bayer Crop Science is joined with Dr. Lal to create Living Soils and protect their biodiversity from degrading.
Here, Dr. Lal tells us about the inspiration behind his work, how he hopes to tackle our most pressing challenges in land cultivation, and his vision for the future of agriculture.
When did you first know you wanted to spend your life studying soils?
My interest in soil and its management goes back to my childhood (1950s) when I was growing up on a family farm in north-western India where farming was a way of life. During those times without fertilizers, tractors, or electric/diesel pump to lift irrigation water, families’ and community’s wellbeing depended on soil and its ability to produce crops – especially so during the bad growing seasons (sub-normal rains, and infestation with locust etc). Not only did I have the hand-on experiences with most farm operations (ploughing, puddling, seeding, weeding, transplanting, harvesting, threshing, winnowing etc), I also faced the challenges of small landholders under the conditions of drought, high temperatures, soil hardness, compaction, crusting, low fertility and dust storms.
When I had the opportunity to study at a college for B.Sc (1959-63) and M.Sc degrees (1963-1965), I had natural instinct for studying soil and learning how to manage it. That interest has been the big motivational force throughout my professional career and remains so even today.
How has your background as a refugee growing up on a small farm in India impacted your work and perspective?
Being displaced from my homeland, and leaving everything behind all one had, created challenges for the family and me. Facing hardships, scarcities and the lack of amenities was a hidden power that challenged me at every stage of my life. In college, being among the top 5 students in the class was essential to earn an academic scholarship (Rs 8/month) and the refugee scholarship (Rs 12/month). Earning this money, small as it was, ignited the willpower and unique motivational force to be competitive and give the best I can. This willpower to compete, and to succeed in the mission, is an important factor in my life. In other words, the hardship turned out to be great teacher which taught me to do my best regardless of the circumstances. That will power to compete has remained an integral part of my personality. It made me who I am.
You predicted that we could decrease the land area under cultivation by 30 percent and decrease total fertilizer use by half but still double grain yields by 2100 IF we improve soil quality. Are we moving in this direction? What challenges stand in our way?
Humanity practicing agriculture on 40% of all ice-free land area, using 200 million tons of chemical fertilizers, diverting 70% of all water withdraw for agriculture, and emitting one-third of greenhouse gases from agricultural operations have degraded 30% of all soils of the world – wasting 30 to 40% of all food produced and dumping it into a landfill. Yet 1 in 7 people is undernourished, and 2 to 3 in 7 people are malnourished. Despite all this wastefulness, there is often a call for bringing more land under agriculture to feed the world’s growing population which was 7.8 billion in 2020 and is projected to be 9.8 billion by 2050 and more than 11 billion by 2100. This wasteful extravaganza, which is also a crime against nature, must stop. We must never ever take food, land, climate, water and other resources for granted. We must learn how to use these precious and finite resources prudently and judiciously. Rather than using more than 5 billion hectare of land for agriculture we must return some land to nature. The strategy is to “produce more from less – less land, less water, less fertilizers, less emissions”. We must develop an agenda to return one-third or even one-half of the land back to nature by 2100. We must learn how-to live-in harmony with nature and develop a big buffer zone between human and other species. We must plan to have 50% of all land under natural ecosystems.
Even though soil science is deeply complex, if you had to pick one simple message that you want everyone to remember – and to tell their colleagues, what would it be?
Soil is the essence of all terrestrial life, and soil life-support capacity depends on its health, quality or functionality. A primary determinant of soil health is its organic matter content which in most conditions (humid, subhumid and semi-arid environments) should be between 3 to 5% in the surface 20 cm layer. Soil organic matter is also the source of energy and the habitat for living organisms, which under optimal conditions should weigh about 5 ton/ha. A soil with a high biodiversity is a disease-suppressive soil. An optimal level of soil organic matter content is also essential for a favourable structure (tilth) that holds and transmits water. The One Health concept states that the “health of soil, plants, animals, people, environment and planetary process is one and indivisible”. In other words, enhancing and sustaining soil health is critical to achieving global peace and harmony. When soil is degraded and cannot produce adequate amount of food and provide essential ecosystem services, it leads to “soil refugees” which are the cause of political unrest and civil strife. Healthy soils are essential to achieving world peace.
What role do you see private sector organizations like Bayer playing in the development and application of soil health technology and innovation?
Private sector organizations like Bayer can play an important role in bringing about the much-needed transformation by translating science into action and promoting the adoption of best management practices, which can help farmers produce more from less and save land for nature. The private sector can also motivate and incentivize farmers through payments for ecosystem services such as sequestering carbon in soil, conserving biodiversity, improving water quality and renewability etc. The private sector can also support research on sustainable management of soil health.
Three-way cooperation between private sector, public sector, and academy can bring about the much-needed paradigm shift in the food production systems and make them not only efficient but also nutrition-sensitive. The private sector can help reconcile the need to produce healthy food with less resource use and enhance its nutritional quality. Private sector can make the dream of “growing healthy food on a healthy soil for improving human and environment health” a reality.
It’s always hard to translate the results of scientific research into policy and into practice. Could you talk a little bit about where you think the most forward-thinking policies are relating to changing soil quality? And where you see practices on the farm changing?
US-EPA has a "Clean Air Act” (1967) and “Clean Water Act” (1972), but there is no equivalent “Soil Quality Act”. I do not know any country that has soil protection act. This is a major obstacle. Such an Act can be used in a positive manner by rewarding those farmers and land managers who adopt the recommended soil management practices. The Act can also be used to restore degraded and polluted soils. It is easier to implement the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act by regulating point sources of pollution. But there are billions of farms globally and it is a challenge to implement it. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that it is impossible to have clean air and clean water without having high quality or healthy soils. Thus, developing and implementing “Soil Quality Act” at county, state, national, continental and global level is essential. Scientists and policymakers must work together, with the support of the private sector, to develop and implement a “Soil Quality Act” – and some countries must take a lead so that others can follow.
What are you most excited about in the new innovations of soil carbon sequestration?
I am enthused about the developments of some low-cost and hand-held device(s) that can monitor soil organic carbon content under field conditions. The goal is that farmers and land managers can use it to monitor management-induced changes as needed.
I am also pleased that policymakers are getting interested in management of soil organic matter content as an option to mitigate climate change and this is an important discussion point at COP meetings since the Paris (COP21) in 2015.
I was pleased to listen to comments from a human nutritionist who remarked that soil health is essential to improving human nutrition and mitigating malnourishments.
These and other trends are new innovations which are very encouraging.
What role does soil health play in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement?
Sustainable Development Goals or the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations are not on track. One oversight has been that the word “soil” s not specifically mentioned in the primary language of any of the 17 Goals, although the word “Land” is included in SDG #15. However, it is now widely realized that protecting, managing and restoring “Soil Health” is essential to achieving several SDGs (such as #1;2;13;15 and others). The focus on improving soil health can still accomplish several SDGs during the remaining 9 years.
The Paris Climate Agreement of limiting global warming to 2 0C is still attainable if: 1) No-carbon fuel sources (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, tidal etc) are adopted widely, 2) Negative emission farming techniques are given a high priority, 3) Degraded soils and ecosystems are restored by afforestation, 4) Some agriculturally marginal land is returned to nature, and 5) Farmers are rewarded for carbon sequestration in soil and trees.
I am hopeful that this will happen.
What are partnerships or policies that could help smallholder farmers better access soil technology and innovations?
There are more than 1 billion small holder farmers, mostly in developing countries of Africa, Asia, Central America, Caribbean and the Andean regions. Many of the small holder farmers are women with no land tenure rights and little access to credit and market. Most of these farmers (and their families) are also prone to under-nutrition and malnutrition, and they have no resources to invest in restoring soil health. They must remove crop residues for other uses (feed, fodder, fuel, construction material etc) and cannot afford to apply soil amendments. Thus, soils of small land holders are degraded and depleted. Indeed, people are mirror image of the soil they live on. When soil is degraded people are poor and malnourished.
Cooperation with the private sector is the important entry point to break the vicious cycle. Cooperation with the private sector can be facilitated by policies which are pro-agriculture, pro-farmers and pro-nature.
The interaction between private sector and policy makers is critical to translating science into action and improving agriculture and wellbeing of billions of people.
What is your vision for the future of agriculture?
The agriculture profession on the whole must be given the respect and dignity that it deserves. This is important to attract younger generation to the agriculture profession (not only farming but also business, academic and industry for value addition).
Soil science, and the ecosystem services that depend on soil health, must be taught at primary school to the college level, and the curricula revised periodically to include the recent developments in rapidly developing scientific discipline.
In addition to publication of scientific data in peer reviewed journals, soil scientists must also be rewarded if their science is: a) adopted by industry, and b) translated into policy.
Globalization of the new discoveries in soil science and related disciplines requires international cooperation. Thus, developing international projects on management of soil health is a priority.
Commodification of carbon, farming carbon so that it has a financial reward, is the next step. Mechanisms must be created to reward farmers through payments based on fair price as determined by the societal value. We have a long way to go to accomplish this.
Farmers must also be paid the real price of the food produced. Keeping prices low is OK but it must not hurt farmers. The real cost of soil degradation must be reflected in the price that consumer pays.
Is there anything else you want to add about how we got here and what comes next?
Soil science has made a lot of progress since 1980s. However, we are facing challenges in translating the known science into action and getting it adopted by farmers (commercial agriculture, family farms and small land holders).
Society must respect the agriculture profession in general but soil science in particular.
The focus should be on nutrition-sensitive agriculture, so that good diet is also a good medicine.
Sustainable agriculture and soil management must be integral to any solution to restoring the environment (mitigation of climate change, purification of water, strengthening of biodiversity).
It is important to develop non-soil food production systems, so that soils can be preserved for other uses. Thus, hydroponics, aeroponics must be used. Urban agriculture (sky farming, glass building specifically designed to grow vegetables and aquaculture) must be developed to produce some (10 to 20%) food within the city limits.