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Prize Winning Science Ohio State Soil Scientist Mitigating Climate Change

The lights turn on, you take a step inside and look around and you see Rattan Lal’s livelihood. You can see the twinkle in his eyes as he walks into the lab. The lab is filled with soil samples, equipment and writing on the boards from experiments. Lal smiles with pride as he walks around the lab. This is his reason for coming in from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, rain or shine, Christmas or Thanksgiving, you will find him doing what he loves most--soil science. His dedication to soil science recently paid off as he had the honor of receiving the Japan Prize.

The Prize

Lal’s journey to the Japan Prize has been five decades in the making. The Japan Prize is awarded to scholars whose original, outstanding achievements in science and technology are recognized as having advanced the frontiers of knowledge and served the cause of peace and prosperity for mankind. The Prize is presented by the Japan Prize Foundation.

“I got a call from the Japanese embassy. They had me confirm who I was, and if I had heard of the Japan Prize before, then they told me I had won. I couldn’t believe it, I was very excited!” said Lal.

Lal will be seated with the emperor and empress of Japan at the banquet in April.

To be considered for the Japan Prize, recipients must be nominated. Lal remains uncertain who nominated him, but he believes it was one of his colleagues because his Japan Prize clearly stated his contribution to research in Africa.

Christian Feller was a reviewer of nominees and sent a letter of congratulations to Lal. Feller said the first time he met Lal was in Buea, Cameroon, in 1974 during a presentation on no-till agriculture. Lal was proposing that no-till agriculture was the best thing to do for African soil.

“The African soil is eroding and degrading. The soil became depleted. I linked no-till with carbon sequestration to improve soil health and to mitigate climate change all while improving the nutritional quality of food,” said Lal.

Many countries in Africa had French governments wanting to implement different methods of farming. “I Had an opposing view of the French and was disliked,” Lal said.

Feller listened to the dialogue between Lal and the French countrymen.

He expressed to Lal “this is one of your greatest jobs, the no-till study, I really felt it was something very new and very important.”

The French government eventually adopted this recommendation, and the French minister of agriculture came to The Ohio State University in 2015 to meet with Lal and recommend soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change.

Lal in Africa

The Japan Prize has been awarded for 35 years. This is the first time a soil scientist has won the award. “The prize gives importance to agricultural professions, increases the precedence of the soil science profession and highlights agriculture can be a solution it the problem,” said Lal.

Lal has donated the monetary prize to the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center here at Ohio State.

“Dr. Lal is one of the most influential scientists of our generation”

The Journey

Lal’s interest in agriculture started during his childhood as he came from a farming family in Punjab, Pakistan.

“I grew up on a farm. The soil was dry and hard, dust storms would come through the area, so I had an interest in soil from childhood,” Lal said.

Lal attended Punjab Agricultural University to study soil science. Punjab University was founded on the premise of land grant universities in partnership with Ohio State.

Lal came to Ohio State in 1965 to pursue his doctorate. He graduated in 1968 and was offered a job in Australia to research soil management in wheat production. When he was in Australia, he was offered a job in Nigeria. It was a difficult decision, but he chose to go and work in Nigeria for 18 years researching sustainable soil management systems. After 20 years of being away from Ohio State, Lal’s doctoral advisor retired, and Lal was appointed in his place.

“I was back to the same lab and office where I started,” said Lal.

The Science

Soil is dark because it has carbon in it, the carbon is depleted when you plow. When you plow the soil is oxidized and washed away by erosion. No-till agriculture keeps carbon in the soil. The Japan Prize noted Lal linked soil not just for food production and plant growth but also for the environment and climate change.

“I recently published an article that soil can either be a source of carbon, like fossil fuel combustion, or soil can be a sink for carbon,” said Lal. “Soil as a sink is good soil management; it takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Since agricultural practices such as plowing began, we have lost 135 gigaton of carbon into the atmosphere from soil.

“What I’m proposing is if we manage the soil properly, climate change can be mitigated,” said Lal.

“Dr. Lal does impactful global research on issues impacting people all over the world, not just here in Columbus,” said Nall Moonilall, an environmental science graduate student. “He is an extraordinary person and scientist to work under. All of his research has led up to the Japan Prize.”

Personal Responsibility

Implementing his research and work in the lab into his daily life is something Lal strives to do.

“If we are to truly mitigate climate change, our way of life has to change,” said Lal

Lal teaches two classes, one on soil and climate and one on environmental physics—spreading his knowledge to younger generations. He also has visiting scholars from other countries who participate in research projects with him.

“Dr. Lal has so much passion and love toward soil. With his dedication, it was no surprise he won the Japan Prize,” said Basant Rimal, employee for the School of Environment and Natural Resources.

What’s Next

Lal is currently working on a new book about soil fertilizer, urbanization and climate. Lal has published 94 books related to soil science as well as the encyclopedia of soil science, now in its third edition. The majority of literature worldwide on these topics comes from Lal. In 2018, he had 1220 publications.

Lal with his 94 books he has published

Scientists are recognized by the citation index, which lists the top 2000 scientists in the world from all subjects. In 2018, Lal was number 563. The citation index puts Lal in the top 1 percent of scientists in the world with 90,731 people citing his work collectively as of January 2019.

“Dr. Lal is one of the most influential scientists of our generation” said Moonilal.

Winning the Japan Prize was unbelievable for Lal.

“When the Japanese embassy called and told me I had won I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or sleeping,” said Lal. “It’s unreal- and that’s when I feel God must be there somewhere.”

Lal has no plans of stopping his research anytime soon. Winning the Japan Prize reminds him that coming in every day, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., does not go unpaid. It may take some time, but hard work is always rewarded.

Created By
Mariah Morris
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