The role healthy soil plays in climate change and food insecurity was laid out in an opening presentation of this week’s World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, with speakers suggesting that a national policy on soil health should be adopted.

The weeklong program is usually held in person in Des Moines, but has been moved to virtual forums and presentations this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The theme of this year’s event, “Breaking New Ground: Building Resilience Today for Improved Global Food Systems Tomorrow,” came into focus during one of the opening programs on Monday, where this year’s World Food Prize laureate, Dr. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at the Ohio State University, and former Vice President and climate advocate Al Gore discussed the wide-ranging effects poor soil can have on the world’s food systems.

The Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation each year awards the prize to honor efforts to lessen hunger worldwide. Lal, who was named the 2020 World Food Prize laureate in June, will receive the award during a ceremony on Thursday.

The World Food Prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native whose work on high-yield, disease-resistant crop strains helped to more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990. Borlaug won a Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work to increase food production in developing nations. He died in 2009.

The annual conference brings together more than 1,200 people, leaders and experts from 65 countries.

On Monday, Lal and Gore cited the negative effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on hunger worldwide, and the need to do more to elevate the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

“It’s critical that we make agriculture both part of the solution … and an engine for economic development,” Lal said. “Food production systems must restore the natural environment while feeding a growing population, especially now, as the pandemic has added several million more to those already suffering from malnutrition and hunger.”

According to Lal, improved agriculture and soil management can provide an opportunity for a “green recovery” from the pandemic.

That could happen “by following the strategy of a resilient food supply chain supported by healthy soil,” he said. “Sustainable soil management that restores soil through restoration and sequestration of atmospheric CO2 is the important starting point.”

Restorative agriculture, conservation agriculture and use of cover crops are tools already available to “reduce carbon and ecological footprint of agriculture, preserve biodiversity, protect the environment, and enhance human and planetary health,” Lal said.

Lal described the work needed to improve healthy soil in the simple terms of maintaining a bank account.

“If you want your bank account to increase, what you deposit into the account must always be more than you withdraw. Soil is exactly the same,” he said. “Carbon being the currency, the amount of biomass carbon going into the soil must always be more than what you withdraw from the soil.”

Lal said if carbon sequestration in soil can be improved, “it will buy us time until the low-carbon fuel sources take effect.”

Gore said as much as possible needs to be done to not only reduce sources of emissions but encourage as much carbon sequestration as possible.

“We have to stop using the atmosphere as an open sewer,” Gore said, referring to emissions that deplete the ozone layer and lead to the warming of the planet and more extreme weather events.

He said more needs to be done to encourage regenerative agriculture, reducing or eliminating tillage, increased use of cover crops and crop rotation, increased use of compost, rotational grazing, and reducing use of synthetic inputs.

He said national legislation is needed to encourage greater use of techniques to improve soil health.

“We have a Clean Water Act, and a Clean Air Act,  why not a healthy soil act?” Gore said.

Lal agreed that a healthy soil act is needed.

“It’s not possible to have clean water and clean air until we have a soil quality act that protects and restores and improves soil quality,” Lal said. “This is the right time to get it.”

Lal and Gore were asked by the moderator, World Food Prize President Barbara Stinson, how carbon markets can be effectively developed.

Gore said that up to now, there has been a lack of sufficient scientific tools to verify and monitor soil organic carbon, but that scientists have begun to make breakthroughs in satellite imagery. He said researchers are analyzing data from the past 45 years to look at what’s happening in fields around the world.

“Every field on every farm on the planet, we can get a record and look very carefully, field by field,” Gore said. “It’s amazing what artificial intelligence and machine learning can do, combined with ground-based sensors and the ability for farmers to verify their own soil carbon buildup.”

He said he’s hopeful the world will see the emergence of a significant carbon market for  agriculture.

There’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the topsoils of the world than in all the forests and vegetation, he said, noting the importance of rewarding farmers for practices that maintain carbon in the soil.

“We need to change our current incentives and reward farmers for sequestering carbon, and providing other ecosystem services, such as protecting water quality,” Gore said. “We also need to put a price on carbon, either directly or indirectly, and that would leverage market forces to help encourage the structural changes we need.”

Gore said a reformed agricultural subsidies program would compensate farmers for audited and verified carbon sequestration.

“That would incentivize the kinds of sustainable practices we need to proliferate throughout the agricultural sector without putting an unfair burden on farmers, and to the contrary, giving them an extra source of income,” he said.

He said demand in global markets for carbon credits is greater than the supply.

“This is not a pipe dream,” Gore said. “It can be done.”

Lal said improving soil health is essential to improving nutritional content of food and human health on the planet.

“We have 700 million people who are already undernourished, and that number is increasing because of the pandemic,” Lal said. “We have 2 billion people or more suffering from malnutrition. Soil degradation is the cause of global malnutrition. When soils are degraded, people are the mirror image of the land they live upon, and therefore soil health is translated into human health. Soil health provides a fingerprint of human health.”

Gore said the term food apartheid is a relatively new term that speaks to the lack of access to nutritional food to low-income and discriminated people across the world. Food justice and food security must be at the front of any agenda related to agriculture and climate, he said.

“At a time when we’re seeing rising levels of obesity in the wealthier parts of the world and rising levels of malnutrition and hunger in the lower-income parts of the world, this is an increasingly important topic,” he said.