Getting to the root of food security, water resources and climate change

Getting to the root of food security, water resources and climate change
Freelance Writer
Getting to the root of food security, water resources and climate change
Sarah Tanksalvala
Freelance Writer
Sarah Tanksalvala has been writing professionally for five years, specializing in distilling complex topics into engaging narratives. She lives in a hundred year old cabin in Evergreen, Colorado.

What do food security, energy, biodiversity, water resources and climate change have in common? Rattan Lal is working to address each of those problems through soil management. For nearly four decades, Lal has been a leader in addressing soil as a key aspect of the biggest issues facing our planet today.

“I started work on this at Ohio State University in the early 1990s, but before that I was doing similar work in Africa for almost 20 years,” says Lal.

The work has put him in policy discussions in countries across the world trying to figure out how to encourage soil management to solve social and environmental problems.


Lal’s work

In Africa, Lal’s focus had been on how to keep carbon concentration at a level that helped people reliably grow high-quality crops on the same land without converting forest into new cropland. When climate change became an issue, though, it seemed that soil again played a key part. Two drastically different problems had a remarkably similar solution.

In both cases, increasing the carbon concentration of the soil to between 1.5 and 2 percent as far as about 20 centimeters underground made a significant difference. And those aren’t the only two areas which benefit from carbon sequestration – the process can improve water resources and help provide alternative fuel sources, too.

Lal says the future of this field must include discussion of how to actually implement the findings. Political and social scientists and policy makers must investigate how to incentivize soil modification and train people to do it. Understanding the individual soil needs of different places is also important.


Becoming highly cited

Lal says the key to being highly cited is being at the right place at the right time, and researching issues of global significance. He also emphasizes networking. For him, the right place is Ohio State. Not only does OSU provide the lab and research support he needs, but from there he has also received visiting scholars from around the world.

These researchers spend three months to a year learning about Lal’s research and how to conduct it in their own countries. They then return to their home universities with the skills to join a worldwide network of scientists and publishers working on these issues. Lal is one of the central figures in this network.

Lal encourages networking, not only because it increases the impact of research, but also because it helps lessen the burden of limited research resources. He also says it’s important to choose a topic you’re passionate enough about not to get discouraged when problems arise.

“You shouldn’t get discouraged,” Lal says. “The work must continue, and that means you believe in what you’re doing and that you’re going to make it regardless of what happens”


Web of Science connections

Lal uses Web of Science nearly every day, and often several times a day. It guides his research and reading, and tells him which of his articles have made the biggest impact. Through Web of Science, he can find out which topics are important to his research based on citation information. It steers his reading to unique and important topics that he might not have investigated otherwise.

“In my center, we publish two to three books a year,” he says. “You can’t write anything without reading, so Web of Science is very important.”

With XML – which he calls a “miracle” – he’s able to connect anything to the Web of Science from his desk computer, accessing research in ways never before possible.

Carefully selecting a research subject and continuing research despite hardships, while developing a group of like-minded scientists to grow from, is one of the most important aspects of becoming a successful researcher. For Lal, this means getting to the root, literally, of food security, energy, biodiversity, water resources and climate change.

“People should know that soil is part of the solution, and agriculture can be part of the solution,” he says. “That’s an important message.”


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