Biochar’med: A One Stop Shop to Improve Soil Fertility, Improve Water Absorption, Filter Water and Repair the Climate

Finally, an answer I can dig my hands into. It arrived wrapped in a canvas bag with the words BLACK REVOLUTION and an image of a hand making a peace sign stenciled in red. Inside, a plastic gallon ziploc containing a mix of compost, coir (shredded coconut husk) and biochar, the secret sauce of terra preta, the rich black earth that helped pre-Columbian cultures thrive in the otherwise nutrient-poor soils of the Amazonian jungle.

Ever since I first read about terra preta in a National Geographic article by Charles (1491) Mann, I have wanted some. And now here it is, an ancient tech that might just help save us all.

Although the ancients, who created it by burning plant wastes in low-oxygen environments such as buried pits, were interested only in creating more fertile soil, biochar is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative, absorbing atmospheric CO2. In other words, it is exactly what we need lots of right now.

Unlike modern petrochemical fertilizers that must be applied each season to give a jolt of nutrition to crops (and, collaterally, to the algae blooming in “dead zones” downstream), biochar helps soils become more fertile by creating friendly habitat for microbes, starting a virtuous circle of soil-building that only gets better over time.

Writes Mann:

…Much as the green revolution dramatically improved the developing world’s crops, terra preta could unleash what the scientific journal Nature has called a “black revolution” across the broad arc of impoverished soil from Southeast Asia to Africa…

… Tropical soils quickly lose microbial richness when converted to agriculture. Charcoal seems to provide habitat for microbes—making a kind of artificial soil within the soil—partly because nutrients bind to the charcoal rather than being washed away. Tests by a U.S.-Brazilian team in 2006 found that terra preta had a far greater number and variety of microorganisms than typical tropical soils—it was literally more alive.

A black revolution might even help combat global warming. Agriculture accounts for more than one-eighth of humankind’s production of greenhouse gases. Heavily plowed soil releases carbon dioxide as it exposes once buried organic matter. Sombroek argued that creating terra preta around the world would use so much carbon-rich charcoal that it could more than offset the release of soil carbon into the atmosphere. According to William I. Woods, a geographer and soil scientist at the University of Kansas, charcoal-rich terra preta has 10 or 20 times more carbon than typical tropical soils, and the carbon can be buried much deeper down. Rough calculations show that “the amount of carbon we can put into the soil is staggering,” Woods says. Last year Cornell University soil scientist Johannes Lehmann estimated in Nature that simply converting residues from commercial forestry, fallow farm fields, and annual crops to charcoal could compensate for about a third of U.S. fossil-fuel emissions. Indeed, Lehmann and two colleagues have argued that humankind’s use of fossil fuels worldwide could be wholly offset by storing carbon in terra preta nova. (emphasis added)

—Our Good Earth / National Geographic

There’s more.

And now, thanks to a small but sparky start up called re:char and a Kickstarter campaign, I have got a bag of this wonderful stuff. I can help my garden grow and help the planet, too—really, truly.

Of course, one bag won’t make much of a difference. But if were possible to scale up production through a global network of small manufacturers using local feedstocks, and if biochar were adopted at even a hundredth the rate of cell phones, the world might be a noticeably better place in the not so distant future. Pretty flowers, nice veggies and a climate under repair. Really, why wouldn’t we try this?

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience

It is amazing what summer soaker can do. Three or four of such storms over the course of a few days can bring back the seemingly dead. For weeks I have given feeble garden hose life support to frying hosta lilies and parched grass, always making sure to water a spot near a robins’ nest so the parents would have a fighting chance of finding a few worms and grubs to feed their peeping young. Some days, the water in the hose would get so hot, I would spritz the sidewalks for few minutes to avoid scalding the already scorched.

Now it’s all green lawns, revived trees and perked up posies, reveling in gloriously normal temperatures that gently rise into mid-80s during the day and settle into the 60s for snugly cicada-serenaded sleep at night.

This is summer as it ought to be. Summer as it used to be, at least in my little sliver by Chicago. Yet even though the view out the window looks like the poster child of resilience, it is more a reminder that what was once reliably normal is fast becoming a rarity to be treasured.

Over 4,700 weather records have been broken in the US so far this year. The withered corn crop, once on track to be the largest in history will now be the largest loss in history. And with demand for all commodity crops increasing right along with global population, even little wiggles can amplify across world markets. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan a couple of years ago sent cotton prices soaring, even though Pakistan ranks a distant fourth as a supplier.

The Great American Corn Pop of 2012 is a much, much bigger deal and will translate into higher food prices, higher fuel prices (another ethanol promise broken), more hunger, more debt, more unrest and more misery in a cycle that will be tough to break.

The drought tipped the balance of a global food system already in a delicate state,   made vulnerable to petro chemical-dependent soils, fast-depleting aquifers, pesticide-impervious "superweeds," an increasingly monopolistic agri-food supply chain, a resurgence of crop pests and rising fuel costs.

Extreme and unpredictable weather causes highways to buckle, concrete to crack, rail ties to kink, bridges to bend and rivers to become unnavigable. Even if you manage to grow a crop, there is still the challenge of getting it to market


How do you adapt to such a fast-moving target? Even if we were able turn off our collective car ignitions and switch instantly to renewable power sources, there are more than enough greenhouse gases swirling around the Earth’s atmosphere to cause mischief for decades to come. The disaster is so overwhelmingly obvious that now Koch-sponsored scientists have seen the grim light. Still, there are politicians who continue to bray for more mining and drilling.

In a tour de force numbers analysis in Rolling Stone magazine, Bill McKibben follows the money:

…We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

—Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Sustainability, which implies a baseline stability—the very thing we are fast losing—is giving way to the meme of resilience: the idea that somehow we will be able to recover from the inevitable disaster looming and “bounce back.” It is the seductive promise of Dorothy waking up safe in her bed in Kansas, with Toto ready to resume his rightful place in her arms once more.

But the tornado that rocked Dorothy’s world is nothing compared to the tornadoes, direchoes, record monsoons, massive droughts and rapid ice melts rocking ours. Even the parched park lawn now showing signs of green grizzle isn’t bouncing back, but  evolving, bouncing onward. Weeds with better root systems are making the most of their competitive advantage. Unless someone rips up the sod and reseeds, that lawn has changed for good.

Resilience is also a neutral concept, a point that is often overlooked. What bounces onwards may not be to everyone’s liking, such as weeds, bunny rabbits, pathogens, drug cartels and oil companies.

So the question is not whether we can return to a comfortable status quo: We can’t. Rather it is Status quo vadis? Where are we going?

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• Global Risks 2012 / World Economic Forum (pdf and additional web resources)