DES MOINES — Soil health is critical to meeting global challenges like eliminating hunger and ensuring clean drinking water, says this year’s World Food Prize winner, who pioneered research on sequestering carbon in soil as a way to battle climate change.
Research by Rattan Lal, a distinguished professor of soil science at Ohio State University, showed how plants could pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, preventing it from combining with oxygen and creating carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
“This breakthrough research transformed the way the world saw soils,” the World Food Prize Foundation, a Des Moines nonprofit that sponsors the annual $250,000 prize, said in its Thursday announcement.
“As a result, soils are now not only the foundation for increasing the quality and quantity of food and preserving natural ecosystems, but an important part of mitigating climate change, as well,” the foundation said in its release.
The World Food Prize’s weeklong symposium, which brings thousands of people to Des Moines in October to focus on global food security and nutrition, will be held virtually this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, World Food Prize President Barbara Stinson said Thursday.
Officials are still weighing whether the award ceremony for World Food Prize, traditionally held at the Iowa state Capitol, will be virtual or in-person.
The foundation said Lal, who led research on restoring soils in Africa, Asia and Latin America, “explored and transformed” many of the conservation practices that farmers use today. They include planting cover crops, which build nutrients and cut soil erosion; reducing or eliminating tilling to leave the soil — and the carbon it contains — undisturbed; and agroforestry, an approach that combines growing trees along with crops and raising livestock.
The practices lead to healthier soils that can better hold water and nutrients, reducing runoff that pollutes water and contributes to flooding, while providing farmers with better yields and more revenue, experts say.
The U.S secretaries of state, Mike Pompeo, and agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced Lal’s award in a recorded video message.
“The world’s population continues to grow, and we need to use the resources we have more productively and efficiently to make sure everyone has enough food on their table,” Pompeo said. “Dr. Lal’s research in soil science shows that the solution to this problem is right under our feet.”
Globally, Lal’s models indicate that, by 2100, restoring soil health could more than double the annual grain yield to feed the growing world population while decreasing the land area under grain cultivation by 30% and reducing total fertilizer use by half, the foundation said.
“It has many, many benefits,” Lal said. “Food and nutrition is one. Water quality is another one. Biodiversity is another one. Biofuel fuel production another.”
“What we’ve lost from soils…