Soil Science after COVID-19 by Rattan Lal

Most of our readers will not be familiar with the name of Rattan Lal. He is an American soil scientist of Indian origin. His work focuses on the potential of soils to help resolve global issues such as climate change, food security and water quality.

He was awarded the 2019 Japan Prize ‘for the sustainable soil management for global food security and mitigation of climate change.’ On June 11, 2020, Professor Lal was named the recipient of the prestigious World Food Prize 2020.

His research diverged from the conventional 1970s soil fertility strategy of heavy reliance on commercial fertilizers. His research led a better understanding of how no-till farming, cover crops, crop residues, mulching, and agroforestry can restore degraded soils, increasing organic matter by sequestering atmospheric carbon in the soil, and help combat rising carbon dioxide levels in the air.

It is important to understand Lal’s assessment of the current situation; he set it out in an article published in April, at the height of the pandemic, in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation with the title ‘Soil science beyond COVID-19’. While at first sight this article might seem to be aimed at specialists, it in fact contains statements that should be taken on board by everyone.

Starting from an analysis of the current situation and summarized by the sentence “The sudden collapse caused by COVID-19 indicates fragility of humanity even to a microscopic foe”, Lal addresses the causes of the pandemic and connects them together: the ecosystems have been altered by deforestation, in-field voluntary and intentional burning, excessive ploughing and inundation by irrigation, indiscriminate use of chemicals, inappropriate use of natural resources, and of course, addiction to fossil fuel.

Thus, a series of vicious cycles overlap, which are set in motion by ad-hoc deforestation, land misuse, and soil mismanagement.

soial and water© 2020 by the Soil and Water Conservation Society


The ever-growing need for more deforesta­tion leads to adverse effects on human wellbeing, health of the planet, and vicious pandemics.

The unfortunate and bitter truth about the loss of life and human suffer­ing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic teaches humanity a lesson that unless it mends its ways, nature will do in its own ways what should have been done by us. It also teaches us that, with removal of the current lockdown, a business as usual approach is not acceptable.

Analogous to develop­ing a vaccine against COVID-19, it is also essential to develop an inoculation against the mindset about the importance of soil protection, restoration, and conservation. Maintaining soil quality and functional­ity is critical to advancing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, all of which are interconnected and severely affected by the COVID pandemic.

Urgent action must be taken to protect the vul­nerable population by ensuring that the food protection and supply chains are operational and secure.

Protecting farmers against the adverse effects of the lockdown is essential to strengthening the resilience of the agricultural industry.

With sustain­able soil and agriculture management at the forefront of global issues, it is impor­tant to have a scientifically credible plan that is understandable and relatable for policymakers.

This is the time for the sci­entific institutions to reflect, rethink, and revisit what needs to be done when the shutdown is lifted.

Thus, there must be a paradigm shift in our values, lifestyles, and thinking. Indeed, the rate of global warming can be kept within a 1.5°C limit by reducing our consumption; finding non-C fuel sources; returning some land back to nature for afforestation; using land and water judiciously; and never ever taking food, water, soil, and natural resources for granted. It is important that human­ity takes from nature only as much as is needed, and no more.

The COVID-19 crisis necessitates implementation of the “One Health “strat­egy: health of soil, plants, animals, people, and environment is one and indivisible.

We send grateful thanks to Professor Lal.

The whole article can be found on the site of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

Rattan Lal

Journal of Soil and Water Conservation April 2020, jswc.2020.0408A; DOI: https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.2020.0408A