The 2020 World Food Prize goes to Dr. Rattan Lal

Rattan Lal photo

The UNCCD joins the voices of many in congratulating Dr. Rattan Lal on being awarded the 2020 World Food Prize for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production that restores and conserves natural resources and mitigates climate change.

Very few people can be credited with transforming global agriculture, impacting the wellbeing of millions of small-scale and subsistence farmers and pastoralists and providing the roadmap towards healthy ecosystems, all at the same time. Rattan Lal has achieved this through four decades of tireless effort focused on the interface of science, policy and practice. His humble claim has been that he has been at the right place and the right time often in his career. But the reality is he is the global leader in addressing what food security, energy, biodiversity, water resources and climate change have in common: soil, how it is managed, and the pivotal role of carbon.

Indeed, Dr. Lal is at the forefront of a solution-based approach to addressing the environmental challenges of our time based on “producing more from less” through optimizing inputs and minimizing waste. The impact of Dr. Lal’s work and what it means for the future of humanity and the planet are truly extraordinary. Even in the face of a global population that is projected to surpass 10 billion by 2050, the economics of taking action are very encouraging. The soil-centric approach to sustainable land management practices introduced by Dr. Lal is the key to closing yield-potential gaps and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. It is estimated that soils can sequester around 20 PgC (petagrams of carbon) in 25 years, more than 10 percent of the anthropogenic emissions. Moreover, reaching 95% of potential maximum crop yields could create an additional 2.3 billion tonnes of crop production per year, equivalent to a potential gain of USD 1.4 trillion, helping ensure the well-being of the more than 570 million farms in the world, over 90% of which are small and family-run.

Named as a Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University in 2011, Dr. Lal has had an extraordinarily productive career spanning four decades, the first half of which was based in Africa. It is there where understanding the link between soils, people and ecosystems in a time of unprecedented environmental change became his passion. With 2,300 publications accumulating 85,000 citations to date, he is one of the most highly cited scientists in the world. His accolades, too numerous to list, include being a member of the IPCC which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and being regularly included in the Thomson Reuters list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.  He has extended his impact exponentially through the training of numerous agents of change:  +160 graduate students & postdocs and +525 visiting scholars & professionals who have returned to their home institutions with the skills necessary to join a worldwide network of experts working on these issues. Serving as head of four of the most important soil science societies in the world, Dr. Lal’s leadership has ensured that relevant science is being brought into practice through sustainable land management and soil rehabilitation. And perhaps most important of all, Dr. Lal regularly engages decision makers at all levels, helping bridge the vast divide between science and policy. This has included co-authoring the visionary 2012 white paper which prepared the groundwork for Land Degradation Neutrality, which is now a global target among the Sustainable Development Goals.

These are the qualities and achievements which led to his selection for a Global Drylands Champion at the UNCCD’s eleventh Conference of the Parties held in 2011 and to the Science-Policy Interface of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 2017 where he has served with distinction.

Rattan Lal has been instrumental to ensuring science underpins the policy decisions of the UNCCD. As a member of the Science-Policy Interface (SPI) of the UNCCD since 2018, he and Dr. Jean-Luc Chotte led the coordination activities with both the IPCC and ITPS through to COP 14. The work with IPCC led to land degradation neutrality (LDN) being recognized as a key response option for the achievement of multiple benefits, including climate change mitigation and adaptation (see key messages in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land.)

In addition to these efforts, Dr. Lal served on the advisory board for the Global Land Outlook. He also was a co-author of Realising the Carbon Benefits of Sustainable Land Management Practices, the technical report which ultimately led many of the key elements of decision 16/COP.14. In the current biennium, he and Dr. Marijana Kapović Solomun led the SPI effort to review the guidelines for Monitoring, Reporting and Verification soil organic carbon which have been produced by ITPS for the Global Soil Partnership.