By Ranjana Narayan
Dakhla, Morocco– His expertise as a soil scientist has helped arrest degradation and grow crops in several areas across Africa and the world. Much sought after and bestowed with many prestigious awards, Indian American scientist Rattan Lal is keen to share his knowledge with India to boost soil health and productivity, but sadly, he says, no one is interested.
“The trouble with India is nobody listens. But here (meaning abroad), people listen,” Lal, a Distinguished University Professor at Ohio State University, told IANS on the sidelines of an international conference here.
Lal, in his early 70s, who has a slew of awards and honours to his credit, including the M.S. Swaminathan award and the Norman Borlaug award in India, says he tried to reach out to the then Manmohan Singh government and even to the current Narendra Modi government with his offer of help, but to no avail.
Simple and unassuming, Lal, who is Director of the university’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Centre, said his extensive work in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s at an institute that was part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), focused on the impact of deforestation on climate change.
“The study focused on run-off erosion, drought stress, soil degradation for the whole of Africa, and humid tropics,” Lal said on the sidelines of the Crans Montana Forum on Africa and South-South Cooperation, where he was invited to read a paper.
“We developed a method to cultivate soil so that erosion does not happen. Cultivation is done without the plough. Weeds are first controlled by herbicides, and we grow a cover crop to press down the weeds. We showed that this can work even if the land is at a gradient,” said Lal, who is also on advisory panels of the Moroccan and French governments.
“Right now, in 150 million hectares around the world, crop is grown following this method,” said Lal, who belongs to Punjab.
According to him, this method of agriculture is being followed in Ohio, where the “soil has not been ploughed since 1960”.
“Crops grow every year there. We kill the weeds with herbicides and leave the weeds on the ground. This covering prevents the soil from being washed away. Even the crop residue is left on the ground, as mulch.
“The weeds and crop residue left on the ground prevents the carbon from escaping into the atmosphere,” he said.
“Soil carbon sequestration is my field of expertise. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and the carbon remains in the leaf residue as humus, which enriches the top soil. If we do agriculture correctly, and the carbon taken from the atmosphere by plants is put back into the soil, then we can reduce the carbon footprint in the world — at the rate of 0.4 per cent a year.”
Lal said in India the crop residue is burnt off or fed to cattle and cow dung too is burnt. “The land gets nothing back, the soil is depleted. Carbon content in the top soil should be two per cent/100 gm of soil. But in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — the granary of the country — the carbon content in the top soil is a mere 0.05 per cent.”
This leads to the fertiliser and pesticides leaching into the ground water, which causes cancer. “This is a serious problem,” he said, adding that he had met the then Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia under the UPA government and told him that the crop residue and dung should “go back” into the land. “But he didn’t have the time to listen.”
When the Narendra Modi government came in, he tried to meet the Prime Minister on the subject. “We tried to fix an appointment to meet (External Affairs Minister) Sushma Swaraj last year, but it did not work out,” he said.
According to Lal, even brick kilns should be banned as brick-makers use the valuable top soil where all the nutrients reside, and it takes thousands of years to enrich the soil. Fodder for cattle should be grown in separate areas.
“The wheat and rice we grow is for the people to eat, but the husk is for the soil to eat. That equity we must maintain. India is pushing for improved crop varieties but ignoring soil and water very badly,” said Lal, who studied at the Punjab Agricultural University and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the early 1960s.
Among top international awards Lal has received are the IPCC – 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Certificate and the von Liebig Award.