Farm Food Facts

Soil is Sexy: The Power of Soil Sequestration with 2020 World Food Prize Winner Dr. Rattan Lal

October 14, 2020 USFRA Episode 95
Farm Food Facts
Soil is Sexy: The Power of Soil Sequestration with 2020 World Food Prize Winner Dr. Rattan Lal
Show Notes Transcript

Today is all about soil management and with us to to dig into the subject is Dr. Rattan Lal, Ph.D.  Dr. Lal is a Distinguished University Professor and Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University, as well as IICA’s Chair in Soil Science and Goodwill Ambassador. He was President of the Soil Science Society of America (2006-2008) and the International Union of Soil Sciences (2017-2018). He researches soil carbon sequestration for food and climate security, conservation agriculture, and soil health. With an h-index of 157 and about 112,000 citations, Dr. Lal has authored almost 1,000 journal articles and mentored 360 researchers. He is laureate of the 2018 GCHERA World Agriculture Prize, 2018 Glinka World Soil Prize, 2019 Japan Prize, 2019 U.S. Awasthi IFFCO Award, the 2020 World Food Prize, and the 2020 Arrell Food Prize. 

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 Honor the Harvest Forum. Welcome to the U S Farmers and Ranchers in action weekly video podcast for Wednesday, October 14th. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Today is all about soil management and with us to to dig into the subject is Dr. Rattan Lal, Ph.D. Dr. Lal is a Distinguished University Professor and Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University, as well as IICA’s Chair in Soil Science and Goodwill Ambassador. He was President of the Soil Science Society of America (2006-2008) and the International Union of Soil Sciences (2017-2018). He researches soil carbon sequestration for food and climate security, conservation agriculture, and soil health. With an h-index of 157 and about 112,000 citations, Dr. Lal has authored almost 1,000 journal articles and mentored 360 researchers. He is laureate of the 2018 GCHERA World Agriculture Prize, 2018 Glinka World Soil Prize, 2019 Japan Prize, 2019 U.S. Awasthi IFFCO Award, the 2020 World Food Prize, and the 2020 Arrell Food Prize. Dr. L al, welcome to Farm Food Facts, and I'm sure I mispronounced a whole bunch of those prizes, but congratulations on all of them. I guess my first question is how did you become so interested in soil?

Dr. Lal:

Uh , first of all, thank you for inviting me to this very important program and part of your very detailed introduction. Uh, that's much appreciated. Uh, I have been interested in soil science from my childhood. I grew up in a small farm in NorthWestern India. Um , farms are normally five acre, ten acre a small farm. And a soil quality soil health, soil productivity is the main , uh , determinant of their wellbeing and food security and how the entire , living c omes from that small farm. And I had been personally involved in farm operations, from the very young age, u h , w atching my father, b rother, uncle, plow the fields. Irrigate the fields, u h , tr a nsplant cr ops and notice how, whe n so lid degraded, u h , it s consequences, d r ought for example is a serious one. Dust storm I remember very vividly windblown dust, u m , q u i te a l o t , u h , d r ought, u h , an d a d e pletion of nutrients, u h , g l ottic symptoms of crops at that time. I did not rea d it as wh y, u h , b u t these are so me of the memories of firsthand experience of working. So my interest in soil goes back to that time. And when I had an opportunity to study in a college and you had a choice or me rging either in genetics plant breeding or in not up o n pa thology or so il science, u h , I had more interest in soil tha n in ot h er su b ject. A nd I, once I started, I really liked it from that time.

Phil:

Well, doctor, I , I must tell you I'm embarrassed because my, my recollections of being a kid was just playing in soil, playing in the dirt and you're making me sound like I missed this entire other world.

Dr. Lal:

I also played in dirt, but the dirt was a t different t imes it was actually t he part of her farm w here we bought and that when it is on o ur farm, they become the soil a nd the crops grow. And that's a big difference.

Phil:

So what motivated you to pursue soil science as a career path?

Dr. Lal:

Well, I , uh , had interest in soil academically, and then of course, as luck would have it , uh, I graduated from Punjab agriculture university in 1963 and , uh , I was very fortunate. I had a top position , uh, in my university. And with that, I went for an interview in New Dehli , uh, for a master degree and the director of the Rockefeller foundation in Dehli at that time , uh , dr. Ralph coming senior , uh , was also interviewing people , uh , that he would provide scholarship to study , um, uh , soil management for corn production or the Rockefeller program. And I was very fortunate. I got selected for the assistantship , from the Rockefeller foundation to study soil properties on corn production in India. So here was an incentive to be given on an assistantship to cover your tuition and expenses and you have to study. Uh , so that got me into doing the research on store size . And after I studied with Rockefeller foundation, dr. Cummings and my thesis advisor, one of the advisor, his name was Dr. Bellsright. So , Hey , rather than daily and had blue professors famous install of science, Dr. Ralph Cummings was himself a graduate from Ohio state. So that gave me a link , um, also being at Louisiana and Punjab daily from a BS degree, Ohio state had a on track through USAID. So I had a good entry point into Ohio state. So I showed up here in Columbus, Ohio exactly 55 years ago to do my PhD degree. So soil science has been good for me.

Phil:

Yes. It sounds great with all those prizes. I can only imagine what your office walls look like in your bookcases look like. Um, talk to me for a moment about the kind of research that you're doing through the carbon management and sequestrations center.

Dr. Lal:

I started this research of this type of before coming to Ohio state, as a faculty member, I was working in Africa, Nigeria to be exact. And for most of the subs had an Africa all the way from Senegal to Somalia region that I was familiar with. Um, soil degradation was a problem, and the degradation was called by plowing and deforestation and subsequently solid orient . And one of the factors leading to serious eroison problem was depletion of the soil organic matter content. So when you remove a forest and erosion happen , soil loses its organic carbon. We call it a light friction. It's easily moved away and now also decompose very quickly. And one of the solution was that we discovered there, if we can somehow maintain this all organic matter content and that process of maintaining our organic matter content is what we technically cause soil carbon sequestration. So that activity, it was continued when I came here and , uh , the process is to transfer atmospheric carbon dioxide through plant biomass and plant contain carbon from the atmosphere to photosynthesis , uh, and sequester it in the soil so that it's not decomposed immediately. And the way the soil keeps it is three processes either that are going to carbon reacts physically and chemically with clay and still find fractions and become stabilized, or it can be transferred deeper into the sub soil so that it's away from the erosion and prime part. Uh , and third, it can become a compound of , uh, organic substances, which are calcitrant. They have more Longwood and this mechanism store carbon in soil. So it's not readmitted in the atmosphere. So this is one of the mechanism of sequestrations and it's the organic, the other mechanism of solid carbon is inorganic. We have the carbon dioxide, which is evolved from the guests , just a reaction through microorganism to rules that aspires to your tool. And this carbon dioxide dissolved in water, either very not education becomes carbonic acid and carbonic acid reacting with K times calcium generation potassium precipitate as calcium carbonate. That is also carbon sequestration. So these two mechanism of soil and the third, of course, the trees , bio muscle decree. So this is to gather the tree and the soil one mechanism in three to install is called terrestrial carbon sequestration. And this is what the carbon management restoration center does. We try to assess, monitor, evaluate model the rate of carbon sequestration installed of different eco regions globally , uh , and evaluate the impact of that carbon in soil, on production, both the quality and the quantity of the food produced. We also evaluate the impact of that carbon on soil, water retention, both the quantity and the renewability on biodiversity. These are called ecosystem services. So in addition to evaluating rate of carbon sequestration, we also assess ecosystem substance . And the third thing that we do is that try to find out whether we can mitigate and adapt both adaptation and mitigation of climate change by carbon sequestration. So those are the activities we do it primarily on a global scale and the reason and the mechanism of us doing globally. We are very fortunate to have visiting scientists, graduate students , post docs from around the world. As of now, we have more than 380 visiting scholars come from around the world with us and work. So their work make us a global institution.

Phil:

So there's no question in my mind that there's no one on this planet who knows more about soil science than , than you do. Um, is there any, is there any particular emerging area in research that has you the most excited , Uh , impact on productivity?

Dr. Lal:

Uh , for example, we calculated that if we can increase carbon in soil by one ton per Hector in the root zone, we can increase , um , grain yield of corn, for example, for the same input of fertilizers under by 300 kilogram per Hector, per acre. So , uh , it's saves inputs. Similarly, you do not have to have irrigation as much as otherwise. So that's one part is very exciting. The second part, of course, the quality of the food produced , uh , is improved , uh, but more important these days because of the climate change, soil has become a solution to our adaptive station and mitigation climate change. So these three things are food and nutritional security and climate adaptation mitigation. And for that one, I must add, we have a very serious problem. I would go to bloom, I , you know, higher river Lake Erie and those area, if water passes through a soil, which has adequate amount of organic carbon, then the nutrients which eventually wash into and cause algal, bloom, nitrogen phosphorus , and other will be retained back inside . So soil organic carbon really creates many essential ecosystem services for humanity and for the planet. And that is a very exciting and very rewarding and very uncredible things to research on it , uh, gives me optimism , uh , hope that some of these global issues we have faced these days , uh, the solution lies underfoot to the power of judicious management of soil , uh, creating nature-based solutions. And that's for example.

Phil:

yes, it sounds fabulous when you combine all three of those things. Um, and it also underscores how important having healthy soils are , uh, to achieving, to achieving global food security would new thing.

Dr. Lal:

Absolutely, absolutely critical . Uh , we cannot achieve global food security without , uh, having healthy soil and be healthy soils and only be obtained if the organic matter content in the soil , uh , is about three to 4%. I keep on the changing organic carbon and organic matter organic carbon is about 50% half of the organic matter. One other thing, which is very critical, very essential, very exciting is that the health of soil plants, animal people, ecosystems, and the planetary processes that are all interconnected. So if you look at the globally as a whole , uh , people are mirror image of this file on the other way, half the people in the mirror image of the health of the soil, if the soils are degraded people living on that soil have also poor health. And one other part, which is sometimes we forget, and that is last year 2019 had almost 17 million refugees. And many of those refugees are what , because solar refugees , soil is so degraded. It doesn't support them. So they do not mind jumping into the Mediterranean and trying to get to Europe somewhere. And in that process, as you know, the political map of Europe, we have the same situation sometime, and we notice what is happening on other Southern border people who cannot stay on the land because the land doesn't support them. They are forced to migrate. And that is what happened. The other part is when people are desperate because their basic necessities are not met by the land that supports them. And then desperate, that is what causes fanaticism and extremism. In fact, the global peace and security is threatened. Men. People are desperate because their necessities are not met. I say very clearly to policymakers and other, if they pay attention to this simple statement, that more than the nuclear weapon, more than the weapons of mass destruction, what peace and stability is threatened by hunger and desperateness.

Phil:

Absolutely . And if we look throughout history , um , it's having that lack of food , uh , that has created so much turmoil and so many, you know, Wars , uh, that we've seen for hundreds of years. Um, you know, every farmer and rancher that I speak with , um, always talks about soil, how important it is. Um, what would you like to tell farmers and ranchers that they might not know about soil health?

Dr. Lal:

I must say that farmers really are very intelligent , uh, everywhere. Uh , they know really more the practical aspect of the soil than a researcher like me would know . So I really salute them about the knowledge in terms of what I could tell them differently is that there are certain part of soil that we can quantify as a researcher. And I would like them to understand so they can feel the meaning of that. They can relate to what I'm talking about. For example, when we talk about solid carbon sequestration, I will say the rate of carbon sequestration by adopting improved practices. One ton per Hector per year are a thousand pounds per acre, per year of carbon. From a farmer's point of view, it'd be much easier to say the soil tilt is fryable. So it is very fluffy. So it has a darker color. It is more, more, it's more easy to crumble. So there's a difference in terminology. So somehow it is, is scientists who have to learn how to communicate with farmers and with the policy maker in a language that we are on the same page. And that is a part which I think requires how can we communicate with farmer so that our scientific knowledge and their practical experience can lead to synergism. And from that point of view, the policymakers , the same thing, the research table are good for publication, the policy makers have to understand what are its implication that they can enable farmers to do what the scientific community thinks is more appropriate for farmers in terms of improving soil health.

Phil:

So you've talked about the policymakers , you've talked about the farmers, you've talked about the scientists, all that have to be synergistic. What about society? What should society do to support farmers in the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices? We hear a lot of people writing about it, a lot of people talking about it, but I'm not sure we're seeing a lot of action on it.

Dr. Lal:

Thank you. That's a very important part. I want to answer that from two perspectives. One is that a society should be willing to pay a farmer, the price for our good produce that we consume as consumer. Uh , if we demand a good quality product, then the farmers are required to adopt certain practices to produce it , uh, should , uh, be rewarded for that. And that is what I call payment for ecosystem services, for example, a ton of carbon, if a farmer's request or a part of all the opportunity cost of the crop residue, which goes back on the land, additional nutrients opportunity costs are another thing I have calculated that occurred in 2014, Chicago price about $130 per ton of carbon. And if a farmer is requesting half it ton , a carbon that's $65 per Hector that will come to on an acre basis, $25 per acre, or , uh , uh , if it is one third of a ton, you're talking about $16 per acre of $40 per Hector . So somewhere between 16 and $25 16 per acre and 25 , uh , but depending on half a ton of one, third of a ton society's should be willing to pay. So that's one part. So policy makers should create an act alternately by whether there is an act being discussed right now, as we speak , uh , growing soil, climate health, Hectacre, something to that effect. So that's one part which is very important. And the other part is in the U S we have clean air act. We have clean water act. We expect clean water and clean air without having healthy soil impossible. So if we want to have clean water and clean air, we must have healthy soil. So we must have a soil quality act of spoil tech , uh, when we can protect soil. So it's those three X and water and soil. So I'll bring the tongue , uh, that act has not yet happened. And I think as a president of the Soil Center of America about 12, 13 years ago, as president of the international union of solid science, I feel it is the duty of the scientific community to talk to our policymakers and convince snacks , playing them the need, our soil health act. So that the second part, the third part is perhaps monetary reward. And perhaps the legal implication act may not be as effective, always does not matter what religion you belong to, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, whatever. I have tried to summarize what the scriptures say about natural resources, about soil, all diligent commonality amongst them is protection and care and stewardship of soil, water, vegetation, natural resources, all of that. And I would suggest, I hope that all religious organizations does not matter what region they should think about commonality amongst the religion , rather than the differences. It is the differences which leads to the problem . The commonality is this stewardship. So if at all, preachers could do that. I'm very pleased to tell you a story about I gave a talk somewhere. And the statement I had made was I think it was something like this. I'm going to repeat it. The fire that burns in the pit of an empty stomach is so ferocious, so hot , that it can only be quenched by the divine power in a loaf of bread made from grains grown on a healthy soul . Few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a clipping of a video, his pastor in church, her PT . Sometimes I was so delighted. I think this is the kind of thing we have to do in religious organization. BNB also communicate the importance of divine power in soil to pass from death into life. That would make a lot of difference . So we had three options, monetary legal, and spiritual, and we can do all three of them

Phil:

And very well said. And you know, every year , um , when you see that report that comes out, that shows a dollar bill, and you know, what part of the dollar bill actually goes to the farmer, and it's always the smallest part and the marketing is always the biggest part . Um, and , and to your point, you know, having, having the right spirituality and paying farmers and ranchers , um, the, the proper pricing, if you would , um , I think that we've gone down the wrong path , um, in the U S that, you know, our system has been built, have the cheapest food, the most efficient food on the planet. And we haven't thought about all the implications of all that. Uh , so doctor, thank you so much for your insights. Thank you for your spirituality and, and keep up the great work and thank you for joining us today on Farm Food Facts.

Dr. Lal:

Thank you for having me.

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor. The harvest form or movement sponsors, United soybean board and national pork board. Our presenting sponsors, Wells Fargo and Cargil. Our gold sponsors, Bayer, Dairy West, Nebraska soybean board, McDonald's, Nutrien and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Our bronze sponsors, Purina and Ernst & Young, our youth sponsor Ruan and our donor sponsor Tyson. For more on all things, food and agriculture. Please visit [email protected] Also be sure to look out for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers and on Twitter at USFRA until next time.