Soil Is the Solution to Climate Change and Communication Is Key to Unlock It: Prof. Rattan Lal

  • 2019/11/10     Dresden, Germany

    Celebrated every 10 November, World Science Day for Peace and Development highlights the significant role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues. This year, on this occasion, we are happy to bring to you an exclusive interview with Prof. Rattan Lal, a highly esteemed scholar in the soil sciences, who advocates for science to be communicated. Prof. Lal is currently serving his second term as the Chairperson of the UNU-FLORES Advisory Committee.

    By Atiqah Fairuz Salleh, Communications and Advocacy

    To start us off, could you please tell us about the situation with the world’s soil today? What is the status quo?

    One-third of the world’s soil is degraded. This happens through several processes including erosion by water and wind, salinisation, depletion of soil organic matter content, acidification, and nutrient imbalance. The degradation of soil impacts productivity. The total amount of food that can be produced is less than the potential. We call this the yield gap – the difference between what could be obtained and what is actually being obtained. Soil degradation increases that yield gap. What’s worse is that the quality of food is also deteriorating. A micronutrient deficiency in the soil affects the food we produce from it. This has several implications, including for our health.

    So, soil degradation threatens food security. Going a step further, what does soil degradation mean when we consider other global trends such as climate change?

    Climate change is likely to increase the risks of soil degradation, especially through erosion by both wind and water. It is estimated that erosion may increase by 14% globally by climate change. In Africa, soil erosion may increase as much as 38% because of extreme events like heatwaves and drought stress. These extreme events will increase with intensifying climate change.

    “The issue of aggressive climate change and restoring degraded soil is an urgent global matter.”

    Therefore, we need to take care of our land. When we talk about the Nexus Approach towards sustainable environmental management, we talk about interlinkages with resources such as water and waste and how these interlinkages impact one another. How do you think nexus thinking benefits soil science?

    Nexus thinking is about finding symbiotic relationships. We try to link one thing with another and find out what symbioses are created by the linkage. Soil degradation happens because soil organic matter content is depleted by mismanagement and its concentration goes below the threshold level. Nexus thinking means that if there is a drought, flood, or a problem of high temperature, rather than looking at the problem in an isolated manner, we find out what problems can be coupled. If we can link these issues through addressing one or two key soil processes like organic matter content, that has many benefits.

    So far, you have mostly addressed soil scientists. What would be your one message that you would relay to scientists of other disciplines?

    Climate change is an interdisciplinary subject. Soil science is only one component of climate science. If we want to translate any science into action, that requires policy intervention. Unless the team dealing with soil degradation is interdisciplinary – with members from the social sciences, policy, economics, and biophysical sciences working together – the problem cannot be addressed. At times it requires us going further to work across disciplines (transdisciplinary).

    “If it is a social factor driving soil degradation, then the social factor needs to be addressed.”

    You brought up the subject of translating science into action. What would be the three most urgent actions that need to be taken to address soil and land degradation?

    Land use would be a very important discipline. We also need to study soil because the soil is being degraded. Last but not least, we need to communicate science to the general public. Most of these issues are not being disseminated adequately, therefore, they perpetuate.

    I like that you mentioned science communication. Indeed, often we encounter that while water and waste happen to be issues that are generally accessible, soil science tends to be a lot more distant for the public. How would you see the role of communication helping raise awareness about soil science?

    We are not making as much progress as we could because the scientific knowledge is not being put into a language that the public and policymakers can understand. So, communicating the scientific data to the general public so that they are aware of the problems and, more importantly, to policymakers. Communication is a very important element. We must, as scientists, encourage communication to help us spread our message so that people become aware. We have to go beyond our peers and not publish our work exclusively in places where our peers will appreciate. We must publish in places where the general public can appreciate.

    “We, as scientists, have a duty to make sure that the information we generate is communicated to the public. “

    Agenda 2030 provides an international platform to bring different actors together to act for sustainable development. In the design of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it has been said that the soil science community had not been consulted. How did that happen?

    There are 17 SDGs and the word “soil” is not mentioned in any of them. The land is mentioned (Life on land) but the soil is not land. Soil is an important part of the land, but land is everything between the stratosphere and the bedrock. Even people are a part of the land. So, whether it is about poverty, hunger, climate change mitigation, or managing water quality, the soil is the medium which has the capacity to solve those issues. I believe it is the responsibility of the scientific community – which in this case had failed – to communicate that important knowledge to the people who were drafting a global plan of action.

    Would you say then that soil could be the solution for climate change?

    It is. The solution lies underfoot. We do not recognise it. We take it for granted. Soil is the basis of all life. Shouldn’t soil have a right to be protected, restored, flourish, and thrive? It should be free from abuse, pollution, and misuse. Soil is finite, fragile, and easily depleted. If we think from that point of view, then I think we would look after it more carefully. Maybe if we see ourselves as a part of nature, rather than thinking that nature belongs to us, then perhaps some of the issues that the world is facing would not be there.