“Soil sciences was a promising area when I entered (the field) in the late 1960s and remains just so and not popular as we get into the 2020s. But the bestowing of the World Food Prize for my work is a clear recognition of its crucial role in agriculture,” says Rattan Lal, winner of the 2020 award.

In a way, the $250,000-award, considered the Nobel Prize for Agriculture, is the crowning glory for the 75-year-old Indian-American soil scientist, who hails from Haryana. It follows the prestigious World Agriculture Prize (2019) and the Japan Prize (2018) for Soil Technology. Lal, a Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and founding Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at the Ohio State University (OSU), has already created an endowment at the university. Very soon, he intends to start another with the WFP money. The entire focus will be on promoting soil science, he says in an interview.

According to him, the challenges facing agriculture are the impact of climate change, shrinking and degrading land, and falling productivity. In addition, we will have to feed 1.5 billion Indians, 1.6 billion Chinese and an estimated global population of 9.8 billion by 2050 without increasing land, water and chemical inputs.

Says Lal: “We use more land, water and fertilisers than required now. We have to decrease and not increase all these.” For example, the land under cereal crops should be reduced to 500 million hectare from the present 700 million hectare. Water used for irrigation has to be brought down by a third. This is possible through drip irrigation. Use of fertilisers and pesticides should be reduced by improving soil health — all these while ensuring higher productivity and making agricultural practices nature-friendly.

Referring to India, especially Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Lal favours a halt to the practice of burning stubble or crop residue. He also wants urgent measures to be taken in the fertile regions of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal to address the issue of nutritional deficiency and degradation of soil.

More than 100 million hectare or a third of the total cultivated area in India is degraded due to erosion, salinity and brick making. Indian soils are deficient in all of the 17 micronutrients. The government has to take urgent policy steps to reverse this and improve soil health. Soil restoration will not happen overnight and will take over a decade, he says.

On Green Revolution

Lal feels that his winning the award is not only a recognition of the 700 million small farmers across the globe but also the soil-centric approach of the Green Revolution. “ It was a miracle... a Godsend, as production quadrupled. We had the PL-480 from the US and with it weeds too. But it was seed-centric.”

After a decade at least, a shift towards soil health and improvement should have happened. It has not changed much even now. The heady mix of seed-water-chemical in excess over decades has had a disastrous impact on soil health. India and developing nations must improve productivity and sustainability by improving both soil and environment. It’s no longer a question of either or, he asserts.

On corporate farming

Lal says the core issue is managing land well, be it a small farmer, a corporate or a farm cooperative. One solution is to wean away people from agriculture and towards industry, especially in India where 60 per cent are dependent on farming. Second is to reverse land fragmentation by some novel thinking.

On whether Indian agriculture needs a higher budget allocation or a change in mindset, Lal says more money, of course, is needed for research and education. But the question is how best it can be utilised. “We need a holistic approach to make agriculture more natural, resource-based and sustainable. For this, a certain mindset is needed,” he adds.