Environment

Meet Prof Rattan Lal, the godfather of Soil Science, and a Padma Shri 2021 awardee

“News of the Padma Shri award was a great moment for someone who grew up in a rural community during the 1950s,” says Prof Rattan Lal over email. The academic born in West Punjab, Pakistan, was accoladed the prestigious award this year for his contributions to environmental science.

He is one of Ohio State University’s beloved professors for teaching Soil Science, and is Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Centre, and his extensive work and research have taken him around the world to places including Australia, Brazil, and Nigeria. He also won the World Food Prize-2020, and in 2019, he was awarded the Japan Prize.

Meet Prof Rattan Lal, the godfather of Soil Science, and a Padma Shri 2021 awardee

The 76-year-old believes Soil Science holds industries across the board accountable for their impact on the environment. He explains that the global issues of the present era are climate change, food and nutritional security, water scarcity and renewability and world peace and stability. “Solutions to these and other issues lie in soil, both directly and indirectly. With regards to climate change, soil is the largest reservoir of carbon among the terrestrial pools. Globally, ice-free lands contain 1,500 billion tonnes of organic carbon and 750 billion tonnes of inorganic carbon. The permafrost soils contain another 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon In comparison, while the atmosphere contains around 880 billion tonnes of carbon and all vegetation about 620 billion tonnes,” he sums up.

The aforementioned in mind, he adds, “Soils of the world have lost about 135 billion tonnes of carbon since the beginning of agriculture. Thus, restoration of soil carbon stocks in degraded and depleted soils of the world is an important strategy to mitigate global warming. Sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soil (and trees) is the most cost effective option to mitigate global warming. It is a win-win option with many co-benefits. It is a bridge to the future until no-carbon fuel sources take effect.”

As the fight for a greener future is catalysed by various NGOs’ works and collective public scrutiny, more startups are moulding themselves towards an equally conscious business model. And Prof Lal brings up the value of a potential carbon market, “Farming carbon in soil (growing carbon stocks in soil by retention of crop residues and recycling of biowastes) is a new commodity that can be traded like grains, milk, meat and other products. There is a need to develop a carbon market. In addition, farmers can also be rewarded through payments for ecosystem services at a societal value of soil carbon estimated at US$30 to US$35 per tonne of carbon dioxide.”

Being an educator, he agrees that the coming generations have to uphold great responsibility, not just through action but through communication and commitment too. “Translating science into action to reverse the degradation spiral implies a strong and an objective dialogue between scientists, and the general public and the policy makers,” he insists, “The goal is to promote awareness about the importance of soil by revising the school curricula at all levels and include education about soil and environments from primary school onward. There is also a need to enhance environmental laws to respect quality of soil, water and air.” Ultimately, he concludes, soil protection resolution is needed on local, state, national, continental and global scale.

Changing mindsets

The scientist believes that the planet’s soil is like a bank account wherein you cannot withdraw — nitrates, phosphates, potassium and nutrients — more than what you put in and that the balance must be carefully calibrated. If you do not replace these precious resources, it is an example of ‘taking the Earth for granted’ while depleting the natural reserve for nutrients. In this context, Prof Lal says, “The biggest challenge is the mindset about the importance of soil… There is a need to change our values and thinking with regards to the importance of soil and the environment. Education in soil, agriculture and environments must be respected as much as or more than the traditional subjects.”

The inherent values of soil
  • As soil is intricately connected with all terrestrial life, Soil Science is the foundation of agriculture. But there are numerous other ecosystem services that soil creates.
  • It is the moderator of climate, being the source-and-sink of greenhouse gases, and a buffer against sudden fluctuations in climate
  • It is the largest reservoir of fresh water, and is also the best filter for denaturing and purification of water
  • It is the habitat of germplasm and habitat for about 25% of all biodiversity
  • Almost all antibiotics taken by human and domestic animals come from microbes in soil
  • It is the archive of human and planetary history
  • It is a source of industrial raw materials — including clay for pottery, bricks and many minerals
  • It has spiritual values in many religions and has tremendous aesthetic and cultural values.

Prof Lal developed his love for Soil Science from an early age, when such a subject was considered trivial and non-rewarding. He is well-aware of the skepticism he received but he stays persistent and patient through it all, elaborating, “Persistence, hard work, sincerity, transparency and professional courtesy are the only strategy. Skepticism must not lead to frustrations. These are challenges which must be overcome through dialogue and commitment to excellence. The world is already changing. Policy-makers are taking note of soil and its management. Soil Science and agriculture have bright futures ahead. More positive changes will happen between now and 2050 than ever before.”

Delving into the work of One Health Initiative Task Force’s One Health concept — that the health of soil, plants, animals, people, environment and the planet is one and indivisible — Prof Lal states that when the health of soil is degraded, that of everything else follows a domino effect. “People are mirror images of the land. When people are desperate, hungry and miserable, they pass their sufferings to the land, and the land reciprocates. The vicious cycle can only be broken by reversing the degradation spiral and promoting soil health through judicious management of soil resources.”

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 5:19:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/professor-dr-rattan-lal-soil-science-india-interview-padma-shri-2021/article33791877.ece

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