Biochar: Improved Agriculture and Reduced CO2

Global climate change and soil degradation from industrial agriculture are threatening the world food system.  Extreme weather events, brought on by climate change, will likely make food even more difficult to grow in the coming decades. These added costs to food production are also due to increases in the price of oil.  A higher population will also drive up demand.  As a result, Oxfam International has projected that food prices will double in the next 20 years.   Biochar is the answer to this looming crisis.  Biochar was first discovered in an investigation of the extremely fertile, “terra preta” or black earth of the Amazon.  This soil was created by an early Amazonian civilization hundreds of years ago, and continues to be productive today.  The productivity of the soil owes itself to the micro pore structure of the biochar itself.  The pores of the biochar hold nutrients essential to plant growth, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in the soil.  This allows for farmers to decrease the cost of food production while using less nitrogen fertilizer derived from fossil fuels.  This is critical to the most poverty-stricken areas of the global south often that do not have access to artificial fertilizer.

Africa is one of the areas in which biochar has shown the most promise. Africa has some of the worst soil in the world and is also most affected by famine.  Yet a recent study in Cameroon, demonstrated that biochar and organic fertilizer increases grain yields by 140 percent.  Similar studies from around the world show increased production in other food staples such as potatoes, corn, soybeans, and wheat.   Biochar also retains water better then un-amended soil, allowing for lower irrigation rates.  Less irrigation means conservation of dwindling water resources, lower food cost, and better resilience to climate change induced drought.  Water availability also helps to increase root growth and density leading to healthier crops that are more able to meet global food demand. If that was not enough, biochar also increases the growth of micorhizzal or root fungi.  These symbiotic fungi increase the surface area of plant roots, allowing for even more efficient absorption of water and nutrients.   

The agricultural benefits of biochar are many, but you may be asking how is biochar made and what is it made of?  Soil scientists found that biochar is produced from the burning of organic matter in an artificially created low oxygen environment, through a process called pyrolysis.  In other words, wood, plant waste, or other agricultural byproducts are baked at an extremely high temperature.  This process converts the plant material to carbon.  When organic waste is converted to carbon it removes carbon from the carbon cycle, storing it in the soil for thousands of years.  Pyrolysis, effectively produces the, “carbon sink” that climate scientists have proposed as a solution to global climate change.  The process also creates a combustible byproduct called wood gas.  Wood gas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that has been used as fuel for standard internal combustion engines. This could one day entirely replace the use of oil.

Overall, biochar is a true panacea to many of the current problems of global food security, resource depletion, and climate change.  It all starts with soil, black soil.  If you would like to learn more about current studies of biochar please visit the International Biochar Initiative.org.

 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/sustainableharvest/2292587221/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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