In December, 2006, the Economist magazine famously pronounced that farming is inherently bad for the planet. “Since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago,” the article begins, “the result has been deforestation on a massive scale.” Worse, the article continues, “Producing the world’s current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest.”
Debbie Reed, president and director of DRD Associates, an environmental policy agency in Washington, D.C., doesn’t buy it. While the Economist’s Malthusian projections are possible, they do not factor in methods for increasing crop yields organically without gobbling up vast woodlands.
Methods like biochar.
An emerging darling for the organic movement, biochar is not a single substance, although it can be. The word, rather, defines an array of organic materials — cow manure, rice hulls, nut shells, pine cones — cooked into a finely pored char that is then used as fertilizer. Methods for cooking vary from fire burning to large, specialized microwave ovens, but the essence is always the same – take organic matter and super-heat it until it disintegrates.
Depending on the material and the method of production, the final product can vary greatly in pH level, carbon count, and mineral content, making it customizable to various plots. What is consistent, however, is that all biochar packs a nutritional wallop for the ground.
Reed will be part of the morning session at the sustainability conference on Friday, May 1. She will participate in the panels “Saving Our Soils: How Can We Get Carbon Back Into the World’s Soils” at 9:10 a.m. and “Improving Our Agricultural Policies” at 10:30 a.m. at McCormick Hall.
Like the best fertilizer, biochar feeds and rejuvenates the soil, but with four huge advantages. First, natural, organic matter is the fuel. Second, soil infused with biochar today would still be producing crops when humanity rings in the year 3000. Third, like a rechargeable battery, biochar actually balances out nutrient-bereft ground. The lower the soil’s fertility, the more biochar infuses it. Fourth, and perhaps most compelling, biochar has a carbon-negative effect, meaning that carbon is not released into the atmosphere.
The release of soil carbon through the deforestation/cultivation cycle is the central problem of the world’s attempts to solve hunger and malnutrition without cranking out more greenhouse gases. Simply increasing cultivation and production will not work, because, as The Economist pointed out, such increases will inhale rainforest land once other parcels of ground are taken.
Micronesia has come to epitomize the problem. The tiny archipelago in the Pacific — at 271 square miles it is a third the size of Ocean County and with 107,000 people has the population of Allentown, Pennsylvania — has become the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon, thanks to deforestation in order to farm and to build. Third — directly behind the United States and China, and well ahead of India and Brazil.
Biochar’s promise — to be able to nutriate soil and sequester the carbon in it — is tremendous, says Reed. And to understand its benefits, one need only travel to the heart of Aztec country in Central America. Here, many hundreds of years ago, Aztec farmers figured out the benefits of slash-and-burn. These farmers felled trees and burned them over plots of designated agricultural land, allowing otherwise infertile ground to sponge up minerals and eventually produce high-yield crops. Many hundreds of years later, Reed says, there are pockets of still-fertile ground where Aztec farmers burned trees amid otherwise-dead soil.
But for all of biochar’s promise, a nagging rub remains — how do you produce the material for biochar without using up land and natural resources needed to grow it? And, how do you do it without increasing greenhouse gas emissions?
Reed is keenly aware of the problem. She is policy director of the International Biochar Initiative and project director for the Ohio Biochar Demonstration Project at Ohio State University. She also has served as director of legislative affairs and of agricultural policy for the Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton and as senior legislative assistant for Democratic Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey.
Reed, who earned her bachelor’s in nutritional chemistry from Boston University, also participated at the 2000 UNFCCC negotiations at The Hague and as a Congressional delegate to UN climate change negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and in Buenos Aires in 1998. She participated in UN Climate Change negotiations in Buenos Aires again in 2004 and in Milan, New Delhi, and Bonn, Germany. Certainly she sees the vast promise of biochar, but she also knows all about its drawbacks.
Unlike its ancient ancestor, slash-and-burn, biochar makers cannot just raze trees in order to provide a fuel source. It would, simply, cancel out its own use if done on any substantial scale. The fuel sources, then, must come from regenerating crops, but growing more food without generating more greenhouse gases is already a major puzzle, much less how to grow and cook non-food for fertilizer.
Unable to be practically applied on even continental, scale biochar production will have to catch on by taking the slower, more painful route — by convincing families and small farms around the world that it is a good idea. And to do that, Reed says, the making and application of biochar must be made palatable for the farmers who would actually be using it. “If something does not work in everyday life,” Reed says, “it won’t have a lifespan. It can’t be costly or disruptive or it won’t work.”
If it can work, however, biochar could be as close to a universal answer as the organic movement is apt to find. It would solve a major environmental issue in that it would find an effective reuse of animal wastes — offal has become a main pollutant in water supplies surrounding farming areas around the world. It would nutriate otherwise unfarmable ground and it would foster higher yields for crops of all kinds.
But the “if” is a mighty big obstacle. Despite its recent acceptance by American academe, biochar is not a new idea and has been a large focus of environmental research in China and Japan for years. And no one there has figured out a way to get biochar off the blackboard and into the world at large either.