Agriculture – Middle East

Soil Matters

Soil is Life

The Earth’s land surface is covered by the rhizosphere. The Earth’s rhizosphere is a place where death is resurrected into life. Living organisms die and their bodies become carbon and other elements that enrich the soil. Healthy soil is black because of organic carbon. The blackest, riches portion of the soil is called humus, and this is where new life begins. That is why Professor Lal says, “Soil is Life” (2020).

Soil not only produces life in the rhizosphere, but it also protects life on planet earth, even in the atmosphere. How is that so? The answer is carbon sequestration. Soil can reduce the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Soil becomes black with humus when it absorbs carbon, either from decaying organisms or through plants which photosynthesize carbon in the air. The humus also produces delicious food that not only nourishes the body but keeps us healthy.

“Soil carbon sequestration is a strategy to achieve food security through improvement in soil quality. . . While reducing . . . atmospheric concentration of CO2, soil carbon sequestration improves and sustains biomass/agronomic productivity. [Cropland soil] has the potential to offset fossil-fuel emissions by 0.4 to 1.2 Gt C/year, or 5 to 15% of the global emissions.” (Lal, 2004)

Therefore, if soil is living and vibrant, it not only produces nutrient-dense food, it reduces atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Carbon sequestration is especially strong if the soil has the help of plants and wildlife. Trees are particularly important in this matter. Water is also critical for the protection of healthy soil and the food it produces for us. Carbon Sequestration graphic:


Middle East and South Asian Religious and Cultural Connections to Soil and Food Security

Water and soil are critical components of food security. But their importance to human life is not only enshrined in science, they have also been revered in religion for thousands of years. Both of these elements can be found in religious scriptures as sacred and highly protected. Mediterranean and Asian religions, such as the ancient Greek pantheon, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, make the connection between human health and life and Earth’s health. These religions focus on our responsibility to take care of life-sustaining elements of Earth.

“Soil and Sanskriti” (2013) by Professor Rattan Lal explains how the traditions of nature conservation in India and around the world teach us that civilization can only be ensured through sustainable agriculture. Sanskriti can be translated as civilization.

“. . . concepts of protecting “Bhumi” [Earth goddess] and conserving nature were deemed essential to the civilization. . “ p. 268

Professor Lal demonstrates in this article how indigenous traditions of sustainable food practices, and especially the wisdom about soil and water practices which can be found in their religions, can be a way forward when combined judiciously with science. The pandemic we are currently experiencing has forced us to recognize that no matter how advanced our technologies become, nature can humble us and perhaps cause us to turn towards more spiritual matters. This is especially true with regard to our food supply chain (Lal, 2020).

The civilizations which produced these religions also produced scientific knowledge and practices for balancing human industry with custodianship and care of Earth. In Judaism, the concept of “ ‘Tikkun Olam,’ means repairing and restoring the world.” (Lal, 2013, p. 273). Professor Lal quotes (2013, p. 268) the Holy Book of Islam the Qur’an on the importance of protecting water:

“Sustainable and efficient use of water and other natural resources is vividly highlighted in the Holy Qur’an: ‘It is He who has created man from water’ (25:54); ‘And God has created every animal from water’ (24:45); ‘We made from water every living thing.’ (21:30).”

Professor Lal refers to Ibn al-Awam, a great botanist and soil scientist of the Islamic Andalusian Empire that existed on the Iberian Peninsula (756-1491 – Wikipedia) Islamic Civilizations reached an advanced level of soil and irrigational sciences. Filaha, is the Arabic word for Husbandry, or Agriculture, in English. See more Ibn al-Awam’s Kitab al-Filaha, or The Book of Agriculture. Article and summary from


Key Concepts and Terms:

  • Filaha. Arabic word for Agriculture, or Husbandry.
  • Rhizosphere. Portion of the Earth’s land surface containing both decomposing organisms and new life, the Earth’s soil.
  • Sanskriti. Word for culture or civilization in Hindi, Bengali.
  • Soil Carbon Sequestration. The process in which carbon is absorbed from the Earth’s atmosphere into the soil.
  • Tikkun Olam. Concept from Judaism which means repairing or restoring the world (Lal, 2013, p. 273).






This handout is based on the presentation on soil science, “Where Does Our Food Come From? It’s the Soil Stupid.” Presented as part of the 2020 Global Teacher Seminar offered by the Office of International Affairs at the Ohio State University by Professor Rattan Lal. Distinguished Professor of Soil Science, School of Environmental Natural Resources, Ohio State University. Director of the Carbon Sequestration Research Center at the Ohio State University. This handout was written by Melinda McClimans, Assistant Director of the Middle East Studies Center.