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You are here: Home News & Events News Inbox A Prophet Of Soil Gets His Moment Of Fame

A Prophet Of Soil Gets His Moment Of Fame

More than 40 years ago, in Nigeria, a young scientist named Rattan Lal encountered an idea that changed his life — and led, eventually, to global recognition and a worldwide movement to protect the planet's soil.
A Prophet Of Soil Gets His Moment Of Fame

Rattan Lal, an Indian-born scientist, has devoted his career to finding ways to capture carbon from the air and store it in soil. Ken Chamberlain/OSU/CFAES

Original Source

Lal was fresh out of graduate school, recruited to join the newly established International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, and given an assignment that, in hindsight, seems ridiculous in its ambition. "I was 25 years old, in charge of a lab, given the mandate of improving quality and quantity of food production in the tropics!" Lal says.

He struggled. The problem was the soil. Because of climate and geological history, it was more fragile than what he'd seen in India, where he grew up, or Ohio, where he'd received his Ph.D. Lal cleared parts of the forest for his research plots, but when the soil lost its vegetation and was exposed to sun and rain, it quickly deteriorated. What Lal calls the "life blood of the soil" — the so-called organic matter, made of microbes and decomposing roots, which holds moisture in the soil and provides a fertile bed for growing seeds — vaporized or washed away, leaving behind gravelly dirt as hot and hard as a road.

One day, a famous scientist named Roger Revelle came to visit. Revelle was one of the pioneers in the field now known as climate science. Lal told Revelle about his problems; about how the organic matter kept disappearing. Revelle pointed out that it was escaping into the air in the form of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Then Revelle asked a question: "Can you put it back?"

"That simple statement, 'Can you put it back?' was my introduction to climate and soil," Lal says.

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