Rattan Lal received $450,000 when he won the Japan Prize, of which he plans to invest back into Ohio State. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

When Ohio State professor Rattan Lal was awarded the prestigious Japan Prize April 8 and its accompanying $450,000 award, he had numerous options for how to spend the money.

He could give it to his family. He could spend it on himself. He could take a vacation.

But Lal, who has been teaching at Ohio State for more than 33 years, decided the best place was at Ohio State, where the money could be used to develop future scientists who will continue his lifelong commitment of advancing soil science.

“I think morally and ethically I must provide opportunities to scientists and other students,” Lal said. “Because when I came to Ohio State as a student, I was also given support, so this is now my time to give it back.”

It’s that same concern for others that first propelled Lal from his roots in the Far East.

After fleeing from Pakistan during its split from India in 1947, Lal and his family moved to Punjab, the Indian state now called Haryana. In Pakistan, his family left behind a 9-acre farm and received just an acre and a half of land in India.

Lal and his family thought they had been cheated. He later learned through his studies of agriculture at Punjab Agricultural University that the size of the farm was secondary to the quality of the soil.

This realization led Lal to a lifelong fascination with soil and a journey to further his education at Ohio State beginning in 1965.

The transition to a new country, half a world away from his own, was not easy.

“The weather was different; the culture was different,” he said. “I had to pay for my own tuition. I had to buy my own books. I had to pay rent and eat food, so studying hard and making sure my grades were good, that was a very important motivation.”

After graduating from Ohio State in 1968 with a Ph.D. in soil science, Lal worked in Australia for a year. During the next 18 years, he worked in Africa and other sub-Saharan countries as well as parts of Asia studying soil use in different locations and cultures around the world.  

Through his travels, he learned that traditional soil tillage — the agricultural preparation of soil using machinery — was depleting soils of vital nutrients and releasing carbon into the atmosphere, which is bad for the environment. This led him to pioneer and implement a no-tillage approach to farming, which helped increase crop yields and reduce erosion.

Lal returned to Ohio State in 1987 as a professor of soil science in the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

“Coming back a second time as a faculty member was a big thing for me,” Lal said. “It was very special. I came back to this office, this chair, where my Ph.D. professor was teaching. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor.”

Over the years, Lal’s work in the field and his research at Ohio State have contributed to sustainable farming methods in many parts of the world and led to numerous global recognitions, including being a member of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change team, which included former Vice President Al Gore. The team was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

In January 2019, Lal’s work earned him the Japan Prize, which is considered the Nobel Prize of Japan. He was one of two recipients along with Yoshio Okamoto from Nagoya University, who won for his groundbreaking discoveries in polymer science. The pair was selected by a panel that consisted of more than 15,000 of their peers.  

“The selection process always focuses not only on the quality and uniqueness of the discovery or invention but also evaluates how much the scientist has contributed to the human society,” Toshihiko Nakahara, chief information officer of the Japan Prize Foundation, said.

After receiving the award, Lal’s response was typical of a man who has spent a lifetime in service of those who are poor, marginalized and in need of help.

“This is a recognition for poor farmers who own only 1 acre, 2 acres, 5 acres, who use those water buffalos and other animals,” Lal said. “There are women in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean with babies tied to their back hoeing the ground in such hard, humid and terrible weather. It’s a recognition of efforts to produce food. This award is as much for them as for me.”

As the impact of climate change becomes more drastic and as the global population increases, Lal said he wants to empower the next generation of scientists at Ohio State who will be on the front lines helping to lift more people out of poverty.

“I think it’s time that the scientific community and the policymakers of this award realize through researchers like me that [subsistence farmers] are being recognized,” Lal said. “The money is really for research to support their work to help them move even more, and hopefully, other people will follow.”