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