The winner of this year’s $250,000 World Food Prize, known as “the Nobel of agriculture,” was announced this week via a special virtual ceremony. The honor goes to Rattan Lal, one of the world’s leading soil scientists, recognized for his breakthrough research on the importance of carbon to soil health and the potential of carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change.
“Over his career spanning more than five decades and four continents, our 50th Laureate has promoted soil saving techniques,” said World Food Prize President Barbara Stinson. “Those have benefited more than 500 million small holder farmers, improved the food security and livelihoods of more than two billion people, and saved hundreds of millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems.”
In a career spanning five decades and four continents, Lal changed the way the world sees soil. He revived and transformed techniques such as no-till, cover crops, mulching, and agroforestry that prevented erosion and restored carbon and organic matter to the soil. His work eschewed the conventional approach of using fertilizers to replace soil nutrients.
In the early 1990s, he co-authored the first paper to show that increasing soil carbon and organic matter increased soil health and also locked atmospheric carbon in the soil.
Lal’s interest in soil began as a child on a small farm that used oxen and manual labor to grow wheat, chickpeas, rice, and sugarcane. He recalls watching his father, uncle and brother plowing the fields with oxen under temperatures reaching 110 degrees. He studied soils from his earliest days at Punjab Agricultural University, continuing on to Ohio State University for a doctorate.
In 2019, Lal, a One Earth advisor, received the Japan Prize, one of the top honors in science and technology, for his work on sustainable soil management and its role in improving food security and mitigating climate change. He is the founder of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State and a past president of the 60,000-member International Union of Soil Sciences. His work has been cited more than 100,000 times in scientific papers. The impact of Lal’s research “on sustainability of agriculture and the environment cannot be over-stressed.” said
Gebisa Ejeta, the 2009 Food Prize laureate, who chaired this year’s selection committee.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, praised Lal’s scientific practices. “The agricultural practices that Lal developed and advocated for are now at the heart of efforts to improve agricultural systems.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke during the World Food Prize ceremony, pointing to the need for more productive and efficient food systems, as the world’s population continues to grow. “He’s helping the Earth’s estimated 500 million small farmers be faithful stewards of their land through improved management, less soil degradation, and the recycling of nutrients,” Pompeo said.