Rattan Lal lecture for Paraguay: “Agricultural sustainability will only be possible if the human and social dimension is given top priority”
Asunción, 22 April 2021 (IICA). Soil degradation, environmental pollution and climate change drive many people to despair and are a serious threat to security and global political stability. The critical aspect of environmental sustainability, therefore, is its human and social dimension.
This was the view expressed by award-winning scientist, Rattan Lal, at a keynote lecture for Paraguay, organized by the National University of Asunción (UNA) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). The virtual event attracted more than 3,000 participants, among them, policymakers, researchers, specialists from public and private institutions, as well as lecturers and students from universities in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Peru and Venezuela.
The scientist, who is considered the world’s leading authority on soil sciences, established a direct relationship between environmental degradation, deteriorating living conditions and chronic poverty. He warned that it the human and social aspects of agricultural activity are not addressed, economic and political sustainability will be impossible.
The Ohio State University professor maintained that, “Sustainable development implies that people are in a better position, from an ethical and moral perspective. Political stability and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. Thus, we must protect and care for our natural resources”.
Lal was a Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate in 2007 and was awarded the World Food Prize in 2020. Last December, he collaborated with IICA to launch the “Living Soils of the Americas” initiative, in a bid to galvanize public and private efforts in the fight against soil degradation – a phenomenon that is endangering food production, and by extension, food security.
Professor Lal delivered a presentation with a strong social focus, touching on issues such as the challenges of the environmental sustainability of the soil and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The event also enjoyed the participation of Zully Vera, President of Asunción National University; Moisés Santiago Bertoni, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Paraguay; Manuel Otero, Director General of IICA; and Gabriel Rodríguez, the IICA Representative in Paraguay. Mario Abdo Benítez, the President of Paraguay, sent a message, in which he emphasized the value of agricultural activity.
Professor Vera remarked that, “Paraguay has tremendous natural wealth, and therefore, we are able to produce food for our population, but in specific areas, we can also produce food for the world. Thus, Asunción National University, as a public university of Paraguay, is committed to combining efforts to strengthen resilience and the capacity to adapt to climate-related risks, with an emphasis on our young people and local communities”.
Minister Bertoni, on the other hand, maintained that, “Since the 90s, Paraguay has incorporated conservation policies into its agriculture sector, which have allowed producing regions in the country to improve conditions and to enhance their productivity. This has enabled us to succeed, from the perspective of agricultural production. We are convinced that our production systems are completely sustainable. We have laws that protect native forests and farmers are not only producers but are also responsible for conservation”.
Lal began his presentation with a series of quotes from the celebrated encyclical “Laudato si”, which speaks of “care for our common home”; it was presented by Pope Francis in 2015. Lal agreed that care for the environment is an integral part of any economic and social development process.
One of the Pope’s lessons that the expert highlighted was the fact that “Environmental protection cannot be ensured based solely on a financial cost and benefit calculation. The environment is one of the goods that market mechanisms are not equipped to defend or promote sufficiently.”
Professor Lal also referred to the need to generate public policies that compensate farmers—the true guardians of food security in Latin America and the Caribbean—for environmental services that they provide through their activities. To this end, he cited another Laudato si’ passage: “The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation, which would not help to reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide”.
The scientist insisted that the system of supply and demand is not the best option to determine how much small farmers should be compensated for carbon capture in their fields. “Policymakers have to recognize these farmers’ value to society and to establish measures to benefit nature and the poor”.
“There are one billion farms of between 2 to 2 ½ hectares”, he added, “whose owners are small farmers with insufficient resources. This is the main obstacle to soil protection. They are often desperate, and they extract everything from the soil. Scarcity of resources and desperation lead farmers to do things that affect soil health”.
The expert felt that, “Small farmers should be paid 120 dollars for each hectare that retains a ton of carbon. This figure is not based on market prices, but on the social contribution of the soil. Family farmers cannot continue to be relegated to second place. It is critical that resources reach the hands of small farmers to assist them to escape poverty and to empower them. Family farmers should be treated in the fair and transparent manner that they deserve”.
During the lecture, Lal described agriculture in Paraguay, as “an example of a success story”, stating that, despite being a small country, it is self-sufficient in food. “This is what all countries in the world should be”, he said.
“Soil health is at the heart of agriculture. Without soil health, agriculture cannot flourish and agriculture, of course, is the heart of all aspects of human well-being. If soil quality is improved, this will automatically lead to the improved health of animals, people, ecosystems and planetary processes”, he concluded.
On the other hand, Manuel Otero, referred to the importance of the “Living Soils of the Americas” program, headed by IICA and the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (CMASC) that Rattan Lal heads at Ohio State University. The initiative serves as a bridge between science, the public policy sphere and development work on soil health restoration in the Americas. The IICA Director General emphasized that the transformation of agriculture into an activity that is undertaken in complete harmony with the environment is a process that has already begun and that is irreversible.
“The deterioration of the soil resource must be halted, as it is seriously affecting the productivity of our main production chains. Without living and healthy soils, it would be utopic to even imagine the leaps in productivity that will be necessary as we look to 2050. We must develop a much more harmonious and synergistic relationship with the environment. This is no longer negotiable. The aim, therefore, is to produce more with less. Moreover, sustainable soil management will call for the use of ancestral knowledge combined with the latest technology”, he said.
Institutional Communication Division, IICA.