BIOCHAR, FOOD AND THE ENVIRONMENT
In previous blogs we looked at the benefit of adding biochar to the soil in order to improve it. Good soil makes healthy plants with good immunity to weather extremes, pest attacks and disease. Nature has been producing biochar since plant material existed. It is found in what was once some of the world’s richest soil, such as the prairies of the American Midwest (now covered from horizon to horizon with chemically induced, genetically modified corn and soya). Over the millennia wild fires would sweep through the dry prairie grasses leaving deposits of charcoal. This would become part of the soil structure layer by layer.
But good soil, with or without charcoal, essentially gets its fertility and structure from the biology that inhabits it. The first of our species who cultivated the soil learned to work with it. Thus was born agriculture, an almost sacred pursuit requiring a deep attunement with the cycles and rhythms of nature.
So what happened to agriculture?
Maybe it started with the machine age, but a turning point came when in 1945, a war-weary and hungry world needed a magic bullet to boost food production. The science of the day came up with NPK (Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorous) fertilizer. If you inherit good soil this will certainly give some impressive results. But the quick fix it should have been soon became an addiction with an insatiable appetite of its own. ‘The Green Revolution’ as it was called, turned agriculture into agri-business, and chemical-based farming became a world-dominating industry.
Heavy machinery enabled the ripping out of hedges and trees, the filling-in of ponds and generally clearing the landscape to make huge fields for monoculture planting, whilst fleshy, fast-growing hybrid crops were developed to maximize yields. This combination formed an irresistible invitation to pests. With most of the wildlife habitats for natural predators now gone, a new market opportunity emerged for wholesale pesticide use. As profits for agri-business soared, the natural environment deteriorated, and even persuasive whistle-blowers like Rachael Carson in her early 1960s book Silent Spring remained largely unheeded.
Today, whilst in Britain we are still protected by EU regulation from the introduction of GM crops (although plenty arrives as animal feed), in America over 90% of all soya, cotton and corn crops, are patented genetically modified with pesticide-producing genes or genes that give resistance to herbicide. None of these crops can grow without heavy applications of synthetic chemicals. This head-on collision with nature has seen the rise of resistant ‘super-weeds’ requiring even stronger herbicides akin to the infamous ‘Agent Orange’. In the two decades up to 2013 over 2.6 billion pounds of Monsanto’s Roundup was used in the USA alone and its use grows year on year. To give a hint as to what this might mean, where the Mississippi delta meets the Gulf of Mexico, a ‘dead zone’ fans out for 5 miles where nothing lives due to pesticide residues – all this to produce quantities of nutrient-deficient food, and a very uncertain future.
The collateral-damage is ultimately us. Apart from the impacts on health from airborne pollutants from crop spraying, there are correlations between the decline in soil health and human health. When we hear that minerals vital for health such as selenium are no longer in the soil, it is not always that the mineral isn’t in there, it is just that the soil biology that made those minerals plant-available, and therefore human-available, is no longer there.
Food supplements can be bought almost anywhere, but the once living soil (part of our environmental ‘capital’), not being part of the money equation, has steadily been degraded to the extent that in many places, even here in our green and pleasant land, no amount of chemicals or clever science can increase yields or produce the food we need to stay healthy.
Biochar is not a quick fix in itself. It is one approach in an overall soil recovery strategy that will come sooner or later as, through necessity, we embrace an agriculture that is sustainable. Fortunately, the science of soil biology and soil recovery, as developed by pioneers such as Dr Elaine Ingham, founder of ‘The Soil Food Web’, make this possible.
A change in our collective consciousness to a more holistic approach to life is also happening as shown by our buying choices for what we eat and how it is grown. As agriculture responds the environment improves. People also seem to be more aware that everything is connected. And if we want to look further into it we will find that beneath our feet, a whole universe of purposeful and intelligent microorganisms can be summoned to work for us 24/7. It’s not only a free work-force, it is also a very large one. An estimated 90% of all organisms that inhabit the world’s land mass live underground.
Underground is also where we find one more persuasive argument in favour of biochar. The idea of locking carbon into the earth instead of sending it up into the air as greenhouse gasses is an appealing one, especially if it can help to restore the fertility of the soil at the same time.
Making charcoal requires heat, which produces CO2, a greenhouse gas, but by comparison, disposing of woody material with a bonfire will send 97% of the carbon locked up inside it into the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses. Allowing it to rot or composting will release 70% of the carbon into the atmosphere, whereas making charcoal releases only 50%, and some of that can be captured as bio-fuel. The other 50% remains behind as a stable form of carbon, where it can last in the soil for centuries or millennia.
Biochar as a viable means of carbon sequestration may always be a local undertaking because transporting large amounts of plant material for centralized processing would create more CO2 than it saves. So where would all the biomass come from? Certainly not from cutting down all the trees and turning them into charcoal. Apart from every other wonder concerning trees, trees themselves form a valuable form of carbon sequestration. But there is an abundance of plant-based material in agriculture left over after every harvest which can be profitably transformed into biochar: plant stems, seed husks, nut shells, wood from tree trimming etc.
Carbon Gold’s UK produced biochar, inoculated with fungi, seaweed and worm castings, has recently been used in a research project sponsored by the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Reading University. Promising results show that when applied to the roots of ash trees, biochar makes them immune to the chalara virus, or ash dieback disease. This is important but not unexpected news and perhaps the science of the future will be focusing its attention on soil biology which, when given the right conditions, seems to know a lot more about plant health than we do. Biochar will inevitably be part of the equation.
Biochar production as a back-garden hobby or farm-scale undertaking is the subject of numerous Youtube videos. Also on Youtube you can also find there some low-tech but inspiring biochar schemes in developing countries where efficient charcoal-producing wood-gas stoves have been ingeniously produced to replace open fires, a cause of so much environmental damage and disease, especially amongst women and children. One of these is the ‘Estufa Finca’ project in Costa Rica where the charcoal made by the stoves is bought back from households and resold in biochar form. It is giving natural approaches to agriculture a boost locally and also having an impact on reversing the damage to banana plantations from disease and over spraying. It’s fun to watch too (Link to Video 1 of 4).
Useful info about soil:
– Books: 10 steps to Gardening with Nature – Rollins, Ingham.
– Google: Bruce Allyn – ‘Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People’ June 2013