Biochar Offers Answer for Healthy Soil and Carbon Sequestration

Deep, rich, black soil is a farmers dream come true. Healthy soil is full of life, with entire communities living just below our feet. Healthy soil can retain and purify water, provide an abundance of food, and even act as way to sequester carbon dioxide. One key to getting there is amending soil with biochar. Biochar is what you get when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen through a process called pyrolysis. When incorporated into soil, biochar provides the structural habitat needed for a rich community of micro-organisms to take hold. Incorporating biochar into soil can also act as a way to sequester carbon.

Carbon dioxide sequestration was not likely the original goal of biochar, or terra preta, developed thousands of years ago by the Native Americans in the Amazon region. But today, as we recognize the cost of emitting green house gases, we also recognize the wisdom of using biochar as micro-habitat to improve our soils. Biochar is a classic win-win scenario, a solution that can provide us with a valuable tool for fighting climate change, world hunger, poverty, and energy shortages all at the same time. Sound good? Tim Flannery, a regular fixture here at TreeHugger, was interviewed this week by Beyond Zero (Listen to the Podcast), and discussed the benefits of biochar, or terra preta, as a sequestration technique.

One of the clear benefits Tim sees of biochar for carbon dioxide sequestration is that it is easily measured. You can literally weigh the carbon before you use it for soil amendment. This ease of measurement makes biochar easy to manage in any carbon sequestration calculations, which are notoriously difficult to quantify.

Another point Tim made is that when biochar is added to the soil, it is at a much lower risk of returning to the atmosphere than if it were carbon in a living forest. Biochar is mostly inert, and is known to stay in the soil for thousands of years. It is also not subjected to the risk of being blown down in a hurricane, or cut down, or otherwise placed in a process for a more rapid return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

As a sequestration technology, biochar is simple, easy, and proven. Although sequestration alone might be enough of a reason to consider biochar, the benefits of biochar in agriculture are really the reason this solution is gaining momentum quickly. The use of biochar has been shown to increase water retention, microbial activity, uptake of minerals by plants, as well as continued deposition of healthy soil. Two new organizations have emerged that highlight the multi-faceted solution of biochar.

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) has emerged as the center for biochar research and development. The IBI:

"Provides a platform for the international exchange of information and activities in support of biochar research, development, demonstration and commercialization. It advocates biochar as a strategy to:

* improve the Earth's soils;
* help mitigate the anthropogenic greenhouse effect by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering atmospheric carbon in a stable soil carbon pool; and
* improve water quality by retaining agrochemicals.

The IBI also promotes:

*sustainable co-production of clean energy and other bio-based products as part of the biochar process;
* efficient biomass utilization in developing country agriculture; and
* cost-effective utilization of urban, agricultural and forest co products."

Biochar begins to answer problems surrounding biodiversity, water purity, deforestation, hunger, and poverty. As we recognize the 'services' healthy soil can provide biochar continues to gain value as a strategy to mitigate many of these issues at the same time. Another important new organization centered around biochar as a multi-faceted solution is the Biochar Fund.


"The Biochar Fund is a social profit fund that completely changes the way in which chronic hunger, deforestation, energy access and climate change are addressed amongst the world's poorest populations: small subsistence farmers at the tropical forest frontier. The fund's systemic interventions create a synergy that breaks and reverses an environmentally destructive, unsustainable and socially catastrophic land use cycle. By doing so, we help communities gain the knowledge, tools and financial means needed to lift themselves out of poverty once and for all. Simultaneously, the biochar concept has the capacity to help tackle climate change in a significant and cost-effective way. It allows us to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Biochar offers us the opportunity to stop destroying our soils, enhance the communities that live under our feet, and create sustainable human communities as well. For more on biochar and recent developments please follow the links below to a wealth of information.

:: Beyond Zero Emissions
:: The International Biochar Initiative (IBI)
:: Biochar Fund

Tags: Agriculture | Carbon Sequestration

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