G20 DIALOGS

The Guardian of the Earth: Nobel Peace Prize advocates using agriculture as a solution to climate change

India's Rattan Lal, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2007, spoke exclusively to G20 Brasil when he attended the meeting of Agricultural Researchers from G20 member countries, where he argued that "science must be a promoter of peace".

06/07/2024 7:00 AM - Modified 17 days ago
Soil scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rattan Lal during an exclusive interview with G20 Brasil.. Credit: Audiovisual G20

Soil scientist Rattan Lal introduces himself as an Indian citizen. He is a tall, likeable man with surprising physical strength at the age of 79. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his research and work on soil health and activism for rational agriculture, which produces better while respecting nature.

Lal's mere presence in an environment conveys tranquility, despite the force of his words and proposals. He has the forcefulness of someone who defends the obvious, "agriculture doesn't have to be Carbon emissions neutral, but negative" or "producers should be compensated for adopting good practices".

Born in British India, now part of Pakistan, he had to migrate as a child to India when the countries separated in 1947. In the world's most populous place, his family worked in an arid land that needed creativity to make it productive. On a recent visit to Brasil to take part in the G20 meeting, he argued that the group could play an important role in creating the "Soil Law" and changing our perspective on food production.

With evidence gathered over the years, Lal demonstrates the path towards sustainable development and a carbon-capture economy, which should guide the future of world production. His research proves that water and air quality are directly linked to the health of the earth, and that the best way to reverse the greenhouse effect is through human management of all three elements. 

At a time when humanity is debating whether the Anthropocene has already begun and all continents are experiencing climate anomalies, he shows that science already has the solution to balance agricultural production, environmental conservation and avoid a global collapse. He emphasizes the need for practices that protect and restore natural resources, highlighting the urgency of pro-nature and pro-farmer policies to tackle challenges such as soil degradation and food security. 

In May this year, the Nobel Peace Prize winner gave the following exclusive interview to the G20, discussing sustainable practices, the importance of international cooperation, the Global South and public policies in the sector. 

How can the world strike a balance between increasing agricultural production and protecting the environment?

Brasil has done an excellent job of promoting agriculture, increasing productivity over the last 50 years, similar to other places that have experimented the Green Revolution, such as South Asia. This development has some negative consequences. Greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, water imbalances, drought and floods like the one we're currently experiencing in southern Brasil.

The aim of improving the management of agricultural practices is not always greater productivity. Optimal productivity includes restoring and improving land and water resources. We've put a lot of emphasis on production, now we have to look for agricultural solutions. Even if it means a 5% or 10% loss in productivity, it must be acceptable. Currently, the world produces more than 3 billion tons of grain and 1 billion tons of it does not reach any stomach, human or animal, it is wasted, consuming a lot of resources.

We've put a lot of emphasis on production, now we have to look for agricultural solutions. Even if it means a 5% or 10% loss in productivity, it must be acceptable. Currently, the world produces more than 3 billion tons of grain and 1 billion tons of it does not reach any stomach, human or animal, it is wasted, consuming a lot of resources.

Why produce more and waste more? Optimizing productivity, producing more with less, protecting the soil, water and carbon sequestration capacity is the best option. Embrapa (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) and other institutions such as IICA (the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture) have done excellent research to achieve this. Expanding, adopting and developing policies that are pro-nature, pro-farmer and pro-agriculture will help solve these problems.

We have experienced an increase in monoculture in recent years, which has a considerable ecological cost?

The world certainly has 30% to 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from food production systems. Half of that comes from agricultural production. We have a serious problem of soil erosion by water and wind, leading to floods and droughts, which are unfortunately evident in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. We also have serious problems with biodiversity loss.

Agricultural technologies already exist, such as conservation agriculture, returning crop residues to the land, improving the efficiency of fertilizer use and integrating crops with trees and livestock. The way forward is not through monoculture, but through agroforestry and silvopastoral systems. The question is: if we promote carbon farming, how much money should farmers get for agreeing to reduce productivity? Carbon capture should be like a commodity.

No farmer in the world will farm better at 1 dollar per credit, while the real price should be 50 dollars. While the market develops, we must not underpay or undervalue this precious resource. The goal of zero poverty and hunger can be achieved by carbon farming, if the price paid corresponds to the social value of carbon, not necessarily the market value. We shouldn't focus too much on measuring, monitoring and verifying. These are necessary actions, but satellite images are already available all over the planet, which is a great option.

We need to pay small, medium and large farmers 50 dollars per credit (one credit equals one cubic ton of CO₂). If they sequester two carbon credits in the soil, they should receive 100 dollars per hectare as an ecosystem service. This is where I disagree about the carbon market, which has not yet developed. The Chicago Climate Exchange started at 1 dollar per credit in 2000, reached 6 in 2006, and because there was no demand for carbon sequestration on the land, the market collapsed to 0.20 cents and is still below USD1.

No farmer in the world will farm better at 1 dollar per credit, while the real price should be 50 dollars. While the market develops, we must not underpay or undervalue this precious resource. The goal of zero poverty and hunger can be achieved by carbon farming, if the price paid corresponds to the social value of carbon, not necessarily the market value. We shouldn't focus too much on measuring, monitoring and verifying. These are necessary actions, but satellite images are already available all over the planet, which is a great option.

How does your research on soil health relate to the knowledge and practices of traditional communities?

In the Amazon region and in many other parts of the world, such as Central Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, traditional communities knew how to have a symbiotic agriculture with nature. The problem has been population growth. We are 8.2 billion people and we should be 9.8 billion by 2050. How to feed so many people? Productivity has increased, but while the native methods are very good and pro-nature, their agricultural productivity is insufficient.

We can find a middle ground where we have optimal production that protects and restores nature. Agroecology has four principles: everything is connected to everything else, there's no throwing anything away, Mother Nature knows best and there's no free lunch. Everything has a price; agricultural intensification has a price. I promote agricultural eco-intensification so that these ecological principles are not compromised. By doing this, we can have good production while protecting and restoring the soil and nature.

Politics plays an important role in supporting sustainable agricultural practices. What needs to be done in this area?

In the US, we have the Clean Air Act of 1967 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. Now we need a new law. We can't have clean air and water if we don't have healthy soil. We should now have a Healthy Soil Act. The goal should be that if farmers manage the land correctly, always keeping it covered, minimizing erosion and maximizing the carbon input into the soil, we won't need zero-carbon agriculture.

Agriculture is the only industry that has to be carbon negative, not zero or neutral, negative! I'm talking about agriculture being significantly negative. For example, if you invest one ton of carbon per hectare, agriculture can produce ten tons of carbon per hectare. That's negative. We must have policies that promote agriculture as a negative emissions sector.

Agriculture is the only industry that has to be carbon negative, not zero or neutral, negative! I'm talking about agriculture being significantly negative. For example, if you invest one ton of carbon per hectare, agriculture can produce ten tons of carbon per hectare. That's negative. We must have policies that promote agriculture as a negative emissions sector.

A Healthy Soil Act in Brasil or other G20 countries would be a good example for the whole world to follow. The agro-industry can play a crucial role, especially in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and India, where the small landowners are. We need to make technology accessible to small farmers. We need 100 billion dollars a year to make agriculture a solution.

We can solve this problem together if we are willing to make some sacrifices and respect nature. In this sense, the private sector must be a strong participant. Scientific communities must work and collaborate to encourage private sector investment in soil, land and agricultural solutions.

How can the G20 improve policies and visions on agriculture?

The Indian scientist with part of the G20 communications team. Credit: Audiovisual G20
The Indian scientist with part of the G20 communications team. Credit: Audiovisual G20

If the G20 recommends a Global Soil Health Act at all levels - regional, national and global - with the aim of promoting better agriculture and rewarding farmers for environmentally beneficial practices, it would be an excellent idea.

We are lucky to have IICA, the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Secretaries, with all 34 countries of the Americas as members. IICA can help promote a Healthy Soil Act. They are extending their Living Soils of America program to the Living Soils of Africa program. With cooperation between IICA, countries and universities, South-South cooperation could be very rewarding globally.

Agriculture has made great strides in improving production. Brasil has significantly increased production, but the environment has suffered. The question is how to make agriculture a solution to the issues of climate change, water quality and renewal. We are using 200 million tons of fertilizer in the world, with Africa using less and China and India using more.

How can we reduce total fertilizer use from 200 million tons to 50 million tons by the end of the century? By improving fertilizer efficiency. We still have a lot of waste and pollution, causing greenhouse gas emissions.

Cooperation between policymakers, countries, the private sector and the agricultural community is crucial. Problems can be solved if we have the willpower.

How can soil science help to recover places affected by floods?.

Soil should never be left unprotected and should always be covered. When rain falls on bare soil, it becomes compacted, its structure is destroyed and its ability to absorb and retain water is reduced. Flooding results from improper land use, poor soil management and climate change, causing extreme rainfall events. If we keep the soil covered at all times and grow a cover crop during the off-season, Brasil’s excellent research into this can help.

Soil should be a solution to flood and drought problems. An example from South Asia, the deforestation of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Cambodia, causes floods in some months and severe droughts in others. The solution is for all these countries to work together to reforest the Himalayan lowlands. Similarly, in Brasil, any slope unsuitable for cultivation should have permanent cover. Farmland with slopes below 5% or 7% should use conservation agriculture with five pillars: no disturbance or plowing, return of crop residues as cover, cover cropping in the off-season for more biomass, integration of crops with trees and livestock, having policies that are pro-farmer, pro-nature and pro-agriculture. Managing soil structure can better prevent drought and flood syndromes. The science already knows, the application and promotion need to be developed.

Sir, you were born in the territory that today belongs to Pakistan, which had severe floods in 2022. What policy changes did they make in agriculture?

I was born in British India, now Pakistan, and in 1947, when partition took place, my family moved to India. I grew up in India and am an Indian citizen, but my family is from Pakistan.

The problem of denudation in the lower Himalayas is the main cause of flooding. I wrote an article saying that since the Himalayas cover Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and parts of Cambodia and other South Asian countries, these countries should work together for reforestation. This kind of long-term approach requires trust and cooperation.

So far, policies to deal with floods or agriculture have not changed significantly. A new monsoon season is approaching, and so far, nothing has changed in Pakistan or India in terms of agricultural policies.

It's usually small farmers who suffer the most, what can be done to support them?

In Southeast Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, the majority of farmers are women. In Africa, 60-70% of small-scale farmers are women. Making resources available to women farmers, offering education, conditions and allowing them to control their own destiny is fundamental.

It is essential that women farmers have access to land ownership, credit facilities and the majority of profits from carbon agriculture. When we insist on measurement, monitoring and verification, intermediaries receive most of the money, not the farmers who deserve it. The process should be simplified: remote monitoring, satellite images and methods based on land use should be utilized, with occasional verification in the field. 95% of the money should go to the farmers, and no more than 5% to intermediaries.

Do you believe we can achieve this?

I think so. I'm very optimistic. In the 1960s, India was a hopeless case, dependent on the United States for food. Then came Lester Brown asking who would feed China. Now people are asking who is going to feed Africa? Of course the Africans are going to feed Africa. Let's support them. Help translate scientific advances into practice. At the G20, we're going to try to make sure that policymakers understand that they have to make policies that are pro-nature, pro-agriculture and pro-farmer.

Watch the video interview

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