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This year’s world food crisis may be just a harbinger of what’s to come if droughts, climate change, and poor farming practices continue to make soils less hospitable to agriculture. Ohio State professor Rattan Lal is working on global solutions to these problems, starting right here in central Ohio. WOSU’s Jonathan Hickman has the story.These days, Ohio State professor Rattan Lal is in great demand; even short conversations in his office tend to be interrupted by a phone call every few minutes.
“So the President of Iceland called this morning…and he said now look, I’m going to go Beijing for the closing of the Olympics, and on my way back I can stop by in Dhaka.” Says Lal.
How do you find yourself on the receiving end of phone calls from heads of state? In Lal’s case, it’s by spending years doing cutting-edge research on how soils, climate, and agriculture work together. One of his bookshelves holds dozens of the kinds of books you’d expect to find in the office of a soil scientist. But a closer look reveals that Lal’s name is listed as an author on every single one of these books. On this particular morning he’s fielding calls about a conference he’s organizing in August. Appropriately for a scientist with such great reach, his research spans the globe.
“We are working in Costa Rica . . .we are working in the Ohio River basin. . we are working in south Asia, especially Bangladesh and India. . .and we are working in Iceland.” Says Lal.
It seems that the rest of the world is just waking up to the issues Lal has grappled with for years. Climate change and soil degradation are expected to have devastating effects on food production in many parts of the world. Many of these are places where large parts of the population are already “food insecure”-they can’t depend on having enough food to meet their daily needs.
“The price of food goes up. In mexico the price of tortilla went up very quickly. There have been food riots in many countries because of the increase in the price of wheat, the increase in the price of corn, the increase in the price of soybeans.”
But Lal says if governments implement the right agricultural policies, we may have a chance to slow down climate change, improve the environment, and increase food security at the same time.
“In fact, that is our mission. We want to make agriculture a solution to the problem of climate change and environmental issues, while at the same time increasing food production. And they are compatible.”
Lal sees huge benefits in adopting agricultural practices that help make sure that carbon from plant material and is integrated into soils instead of being released back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. No-till farming, cover crops, and fertilizing with manure can trap tons of carbon in soils for thousands of years. Not only will that help reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, but carbon in soils improves soil quality and fertility.
“There is a threshold level of soil organic carbon which must be maintained before the soils are responsive to irrigation, fertilizers, and variety. So the best strategy in Africa, which has defied any means of improving production, is improving soil quality.” Says Lal.
Farmers can see two- or three-fold increases in their crop yields when they manage their land for soil carbon. But dung and crop residue, which are needed to build soil carbon in fields, are often used by farmers as fuel for cooking, livestock fodder, and building materials. Lal believes that carbon credits-effectively paying farmers to sequester carbon-could be a solution. He predicts that farmers in Ohio can develop a mechanism to obtain carbon credits here, and that could serve as a model for the world.
“If we can develop it in Ohio, it will also teach us how we can do that in Costa Rica and the developing countries of Africa and Asia. But the potential for Ohio is tremendous. . . and if the rate of carbon trading is the same as it is in Europe, about $30-$40 per ton, you’re talking about quite a large carbon trading revenue that can be, provide another income stream for Ohio farmers.”
In fact, Lal says the potential for soil sequestration of carbon is so great-and so cost effective-that entire nations can offset their greenhouse gas emissions by improving their soils.
“We had a good discussion with the president of Iceland. He believes. . .that Iceland can be made an emission neutral nation through desertification control and restoration of degraded soils. It’s a small country, but the principle that it can be done is applicable anywhere.”
Lal sees the current state of soils and agriculture as an opportunity, and hopes to spread his vision. And like anyone trying to change attitudes, he wants to get them while they’re young.
“We must teach our students a slogan that I teach in my class: in soils we trust.” Lal says.