A scientist who has worked to restore and improve soil health to expand food production worldwide was named today as the 50th recipient of the World Food Prize.

Dr. Rattan Lal, a distinguished professor of soil science and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, was announced as the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate during a ceremony held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Food Prize was founded in 1986 by Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Cresco, Iowa, native. Borlaug, commonly referred to as the father of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his efforts to increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops. He died in 2009.

Lal grew up on a small subsistence farm in India and went on to become one of the foremost soil scientists in the world, developing practices that increased agricultural yields in Africa, Asia and Latin America. His work also has increased efforts on conservation and climate change.

During today’s ceremony, livestreamed on the World Food Prize Foundation’s website, Lal said it’s important to acknowledge the connection that exists between people and the soil.

“When people are poor, poverty-stricken and miserable, they pass on their sufferings to the land, and the land reciprocates,” said Lal, who will receive a $250,000 award from the World Food Prize. “And this realization that the land and people are closely connected is very important.”

He said when people are hungry and desperate, “that problem creates fanaticism and extremism."

“This hunger and misery can only be quenched by a loaf of bread grown from grain in a healthy soil,” Lal said during a digital conversation with 2009 laureate Dr Gebisa Ejeta, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University who won the prize for his development of a sorghum hybrid that was resistant to droughts that helped increase food production in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lal also talked of soil as a living thing, containing up to 25% of the world’s biodiversity.

“If soil is a living thing, then soil, like any living thing, must also have rights. Rights to be protected, rights to be restored, rights to be managed judicially,” he said.

Lal said the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the world to “critically consider how we produce, store, process, transport and consume our food.”

Using the best science to improve agriculture can help maximize efficiencies, while minimizing the “leakage of inputs into the environment, and therefore reducing carbon and the environmental footprint of the production system, and save land, water and natural resources,” he said.

Lal said the coronavirus pandemic also teaches everyone that the world is one family.

“If we treat each other well, we will certainly be better off,” said Lal, who indicated he would contribute his award to teaching and research in soil and sustainable agriculture.

Today’s ceremony also featured brief comments by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Pompeo said ensuring a secure food supply is especially important now during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Dr. Lal’s research in soil science shows us that the solution to the problem is right under our feet,” Pompeo said. 

Pompeo said Lal’s work is helping 500 million small farmers and the billions of people who rely on them.

Perdue said Lal’s soil-centric approach to increasing food production while restoring and conserving natural resources matches the USDA’s motto of “do right and feed everyone.”

“The scientific innovations developed by those like Dr. Lal embodies the work he and we are doing,” Perdue said. “Agricultural practices Lal developed and advocated for are now at efforts to improve agricultural systems.”

Perdue said Lal is a pioneer in soil health research that demonstrates that soil structure is “crucial to sustaining and enhancing quantity and quality of food production in the tropics where soil degradation has resulted in low and ever depleting soil carbon.”

Lal will be presented with the award at a ceremony during the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium on Oct. 14-16 in Des Moines.