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‘Low-Hanging Fruit’: Dr. Rattan Lal on How Soil & Farming Can Help Save the Climate

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’: Dr. Rattan Lal on How Soil & Farming Can Help Save the ClimatePhoto via the Japan Prize website
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Dr. Rattan Lal’s world revolves around soil. And he understands, perhaps better than anyone, that every person’s world revolves around soil. Everything we eat, each and every day, begins with soil. There is, said Lal, a “direct relationship between human wellbeing and health of the soil and the land where they live… The fact is when people are desperate, miserable and hungry, they transfer their misery to the land. And land reciprocates. There’s a direct relationship between the two.”

The Dust Bowl of 1930’s America is an example of this principle, said Lal, when harmful agricultural practices combined with severe drought to unleash an environmental catastrophe on the Great Plains. When you don’t respect the soil, said Lal, disaster is imminent.

“Soil reciprocated. Paid back. Soil got revenge,” said Lal. “And that revenge, as history will tell you…many civilizations which have gone extinct were once thriving, but soil got revenge.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Lal, professor of soil science and director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, is one of the most renowned soil experts in the world. In 2007, he was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when that organization won the Nobel Peace Prize. Though he is no longer part of the IPCC, Lal continues to work for international climate solutions with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

In the last two years alone, Lal has been recognized with international awards, including the 2018 World Agriculture Prize and the 2018 World Soil Prize. In April, he was awarded the Japan Prize in Tokyo, during a ceremony attended by Emperor Akihito. These three prizes came with a combined award of $540,000, all of which Lal has donated back to the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center.

Lal was born in 1944 in what was, at the time, the Punjab region of India. Four years later, after the India-Pakistan split, his family moved across the new border to India as refugees. Lal’s childhood living on a small farm in Punjab prepared him in some ways for a career in the study and care of soil.

“Growing up on the farm, of course I was familiar with soil and irrigation,” said Lal. “I remember being through dust storms on the farm. So I had an interest and knowledge about soil.”

Lal went to Punjab Agricultural University, which had a relationship with Ohio State, and by the late 1960s he had begun his lifelong career with OSU. As head of OSU’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, Lal works to identify ways to use soil and agriculture to control carbon emissions by first identifying how much carbon the soil of the world can absorb.

“Right now agriculture globally, directly and indirectly, contributes for 30% of the total human-induced emissions,” Lal told me, before searching on the desk behind him for his water glass.

“Think of soil as a cup of water,” he said. “How much can I put back is how much I’ve consumed… Soil has a capacity to store carbon. And the previous management of the soil by plowing and by destructive farming practices, by not replacing what is removed by erosion, by dust storms, we have lost carbon. In the United States, Midwest, Ohio, we have lost one-third…of what was in the soil.”

Some soils in Asia and Africa, said Lal, have been cultivated for thousands of years, and between 75-80% of the carbon might have been lost. Fossil fuels have only been a source of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, Lal pointed out, but agriculture has been emitting carbon since agriculture first began, about 12,000 years ago.

“So these soils have therefore created a sink capacity of how much carbon can we put back by better management,” said Lal. “And that’s what we do in this center. We identify…the soil’s capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Carbon seeps out of the soil in a variety of ways, including erosion, plowing, decomposition, and leeching. Lal’s center evaluates each of those emission sources and looks not only to stop that process, but reverse it.

“We identify how we lose, and then we try to determine how can we reduce the loss, and then how can we put it back,” said Lal. “So the goal is the net balance, at the end of the…cropping cycle, is positive.”

By reforming farming and tillage practices around the world, soil can begin to reabsorb carbon from the atmosphere, which will lead to healthier soil as well as a healthier climate. But there are a few caveats. First, Lal made it clear that transforming soil into a carbon sink cannot negate the entirety of carbon emissions. Soil simply can’t absorb everything, but should be thought of as “part of a whole menu of things to be done.”

Climate change will also worsen soil erosion, thereby releasing more carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.

“It’s a positive feedback,” said Lal. “The frequency of extreme events — extreme rainfall, extreme drought, extreme wind velocity — as those things…happen, the vulnerability of soil to erosion increases. In fact, as the temperature goes up, the decomposition rate of soil organisms also increases. The decomposition is practically zero in winter here; the soil is frozen. But the moment it begins to warm up, the microbes wake up and they start eating and multiplying.”

And that’s just seasonal soil. Right now, arctic permafrost contains even more carbon, safely trapped underground. As the temperatures rise, the permafrost will thaw, releasing all of that carbon, as well as methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

“If the permafrost begins to melt, and it emits methane and nitrous oxide, that’s a disaster we cannot even imagine,” said Lal.

Photo via the Japan Prize website

The project of transforming soil into a carbon sink is going to take cooperation from people and governments around the world, but especially farmers. Lal wants farmers to know that they are the biggest stakeholders, and the most important stewards, when it comes to soil as a climate solution.  

“Even a small change in soil, positive or negative, can have a drastic impact on the atmosphere,” said Lal. “Farmers should know that, that they are the key stakeholders in a solution — a solution, not the only solution — to climate change.”

A spoonful of healthy soil contains millions of organisms. Soil, Lal said, is a living entity. And if soil is a living entity, Lal believes it should have the rights of a living entity — the right to be protected, restored and managed properly. Lal pointed to Toledo’s recent passage of the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” which has been controversial since the beginning, facing challenges in the courts and in the Statehouse, but which Lal sees as an example of how ecosystems like soil might be protected in the future.

“Just like if you kill a protected animal, there’s a legal implication to it,” said Lal. “Similarly, if you deliberately destroy a soil, there should be legal implications.”

Lal wants farmers especially to recognize soil as a living thing and a vital part of the ecosystem, and to turn away from things like burning crop residue and using excessive pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. But he also understands that this, to use an understatement, is a big ask.

“If we are going to ask farmers to respect soil and do a few things which may not be of short term economic benefit to them, then the society as a whole has an obligation to compensate them for that,” said Lal. “We are asking farmers to solve the climate change issue for the world. We are asking them to improve the biodiversity for the wellbeing of the planet. We are asking them to improve soil health so that the algal bloom and hypoxia can be less. That’s beyond the call of normal duty.”

That call of duty has to be answered by people living in cities as well. A megacity of more than 10 million people requires about 6,000 tons of food every day, said Lal. There are about 30 megacities in the world, and there may be as many as 80 by the end of the century. Cities cannot continue consuming and wasting nutrients at the current rate, and must turn to practices like urban farming to make up the difference, while the best soil in rural regions is used for human agriculture and the rest can be left for nature.

“Humans are only one species,” said Lal. “We have 8.7 million species. We have taken over more than one third of land, what it produces. We are a really greedy species. And we are very invasive.”

The last year has not provided much evidence that human society is turning away from its greedy ways. Instead of utilizing the agricultural reforms Lal advises, business interests in Brazil have set fire to the Amazon rainforest to clear land for farming and grazing. Last October, the IPCC released a report insisting that humanity has a lot of work and a little time to control runaway climate change. Though he’s no longer part of the IPCC, Lal receives the panel’s reports for review and comment, and called the 2018 report “awakening” in terms of how much climate change has already happened.

Lal remains positive about the direction of the awareness around climate science, even if governmental action has remained stubborn to change. When Lal first started writing on the subject, in the early 1990s, nobody cared about soil as a climate solution. He hopes that now more people are starting to see soil restoration as “low-hanging fruit,” buying us all time until low or zero carbon fuel sources can take effect.

“Somewhere along the line we have to change our values so that we value the environment and soil and agriculture,” said Lal. “For heaven’s sake, agriculture is a profession that each of us performs three times a day. Whenever we eat food, that’s agriculture. How can you give it the lowest priority? It should be the highest priority.”

Unless you are willing to pledge never to eat again, said Lal, “then you have an obligation to improve it.”

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