COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rattan Lal's education in agriculture—soil science more specifically—was more about opportunity than design, but his years of research contributions have changed farming for millions worldwide.
"You have to believe that what you are doing is beneficial. That it's useful. Or there's no reason to do it at all," explained Lal, an Ohio State University soil scientist. His colleagues would seem to agree. Lal was recently named a recipient of the 2005 Norman Borlaug award, a prestigious international honor for his contribution in sustainable management of soil and natural resources, specifically as it relates to carbon sequestration and global food security. Carbon sequestration refers to the storing of atmospheric carbon in plants and soil so that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reduce or slow. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere contributes to the greenhouse effect or so-called global warming.
Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has focused on carbon sequestration throughout his 18 years of service at Ohio State, studying soils in the United States, Africa, Latin America and India, and aiding in applying the technique of no-till to farms throughout the world. No-till is the best way for soils to store soil carbon.
But carbon sequestration wasn't Lal's original research focus.
Lal grew up on a small farm in Punjab, India, helping the family produce such crops as wheat and rice. A visit to Punjab Agricultural University (which was established with aid from Ohio State University) to observe visiting American professors teach agriculture resulted in an undergraduate soil science degree.
"I knew a guy who was a clerk at the agricultural university who told me about the American professors. And I said to myself,"‘Learning agriculture can't be that difficult. I can do that.'" Lal received a master's in soil science at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi with an assistantship from the Rockefeller Foundation. He followed that with a PhD from Ohio State with funding support from OARDC. His undergraduate major was mainly about which department would provide more financial support.
"Punjab Agricultural University (then the government agricultural college and research institute) used to award meritorious scholarships in areas of study. One area was soils," said Lal. "It paid rather a nominal amount in terms of the U.S. dollars, but it was critical and a great motivation to study. That was a lot of money and if you got one of those you had it made."
Lal passed his good fortune in education on to African farmers during 18 years of teaching them how to turn their struggling cropland into sustainable agriculture.
"The Borlaug award really had something to do with that," said Lal. "It was all about food security."
His current research in carbon sequestration has global relevance, and it is developing regions such as Africa and India that are in most need of its benefits.
"There are 300 million people in Africa and another 300 million in India, for example, who are not sure where their next meal is coming from," said Lal, a professor in the School of Natural Resources with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. "This research is directed toward the problems of soil management—where there is no money for fertilizers or equipment, or such technology is not available. It's about taking fragile soils prone to degradation and increasing production through their fertility."
Lal's ability to link the importance of no-till to the concept of carbon sequestration is one of the reasons he was selected as a Norman Borlaug recipient, noted Jerry Bigham, director of the college's School of Natural Resources.
"Rattan is one of the original innovators for the concept of no-till in Africa, and he's been able to blend his research with carbon sequestration with earlier work on no-till systems," said Bigham.
"We should give him a lot of credit for seeing the potential for research and funding in carbon sequestration. It's a topic that has generated global interest."
Bigham adds that Lal's work has provided major funding and international recognition for the university.
"Lal's work in carbon sequestration makes up a significant percentage of external funding for the School (of Natural Resources)," said Bigham. "Another consideration is the recognition factor for not only our academic unit but for the entire university. It puts us on the map, so to speak."
A few of Lal's areas of research include soil processes and atmospheric greenhouse effects, sustainable management of soil and water resources, restoration and rehabilitation of degraded soils, agro-forestry, tropical agriculture and agricultural development in the Third World.
Lal has authored, reviewed and edited over 1,000 publications and journal articles throughout his career, and has received over 14 distinguished awards. Other appointments Lal currently holds include director of the OARDC South Asia Initiatives, co-editor-in-chief of the journal Soil and Tillage Research, and member of the Environmental Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
He is also a Fellow of the following organizations: American Society of Agronomy, Soil Science Society of America, Third World Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Soil and Water Conservation Society and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in India.
Despite his research successes, for Lal, the challenges of sustainable agriculture remain.
"Africa is the only continent where food production lags behind population growth. The science and technology is there to solve it, but the problem is political and social conflicts," said Lal. "The conflicts don't permit the translation of science into practice that would do farmers some good."
In India, lack of food production is not a problem. In fact, the problem the country now faces is too much production.
"Food production has increased four-fold in four decades," said Lal. "But there is 5 million to 8 million tons of surplus sitting in storage rotting because the government can't use it up fast enough. There is no industry available in India at present to produce value-added commodities from the grain."
And Lal admits that it's much easier to change production practices among farmers in developed countries, like the United States, than it is to change the views of a small family farmer in south Asia or sub-Saharan Africa where day-to-day survival is the top priority.
"It's easier to tell American farmers that it's more beneficial to the soil to leave corn residue on the ground than it is to till it and use the residue for such uses as biofuel," said Lal. "But when such biofuel is used as cooking oil or for animal fodder, it's much harder to convince someone of the long-term benefits. During the Borlaug ceremony in India, I spoke of the importance of no-till, and many asked how they will feed their cattle and cook food without the biomass."
Lal has no ready answers to solve such production dilemmas, but his work, along with the research of those he's collaborated with and those he's mentored, is the first step toward what Lal calls "a radical thinking" to alternative production tools.
"It's about the share of the land with the environment. The residue is for the land; the grain is for the people."
International recognition of Lal's work continues. He will travel to Norway to receive an honorary degree in doctoral science from the Agricultural University of Norway, and he's been nominated for a World Food Prize—the foremost international award celebrating research in food security.