Could biochar save the world?
Biochar—the agricultural application of charcoal produced from burning biomass—may be one of this century's most important social and environmental revolutions. This seemingly humble practice—a technology that goes back thousands of years—has the potential to help mitigate a number of entrenched global problems: desperate hunger, lack of soil fertility in the tropics, rainforest destruction due to slash-and-burn agriculture, and even climate change.
"Biochar is a recalcitrant form of carbon that will stay almost entirely unaltered in soils for very long periods of time. So you can sequester carbon in a simple, durable and safe way by putting the char in the soil. Other types of carbon in soils rapidly turn into carbon dioxide. Char doesn't," managing director of the Biochar Fund, Laurens Rademakers, told mongabay.com in a recent interview.
The Biochar Fund, which is currently implementing programs in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, focuses first on alleviating hunger and providing food security, viewing carbon sequestration and forest protection as a bonus. But how does biochar aid the world's hungry?
"Biochar will increase the fertility of problem-soils in a very noticeable, quick and long-term way. This is important for subsistence farmers, because they often cannot afford to buy fertilizers or invest in organic cultivation techniques that take a long time to establish. Biochar can be produced locally, with very low investment, and in a simple, easily understood process," Rademakers explains.
According the UN, one billion people in the world today suffer from hunger: the highest number in history. With global population still on the rise, researchers around the world are attempting to figure out how to feed the world without decimating the environment and worsening climate change.
"With biochar, [farmers] can jump from being undernourished to well-fed, and from subsistence farmer to a peasant that can sell some surplus—after only one or two harvests," Rademakers says.
With farmers able to produce more on tropical soils there is far less impetus to conduct slash-and-burn agriculture, which means that once tropical soils are depleted impoverished farmers simply move deeper into the forest and clear a new plot. According to Rademakers, this inefficient cycle—difficult for the farmers and destructive to the environment—could be stalled, perhaps even halted, by the application of biochar. With some half billion people currently practicing slash-and-burn farming in the tropics, biochar, if employed intelligently, could go a long way in mitigating deforestation. A recent study in Nature found that sustainable application of biochar could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent.
If this sounds too-good-to-be-true, Rademakers says that test areas in sub-Saharan Africa are showing amazing results.
In Cameroon, the Biochar Fund saw crop yields jump on average by 240 percent. After this success, the organization began working with "the world's poorest people, cut off from much of the world, 70% undernourished" in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says Rademakers.
With the aid of a local organization, ADAPEL, the Biochar Fund is working this year to provide biochar to twenty farming villages in the Congo.
Rademakers says this project's goals are many: "slow down the local deforestation rate by at least 50%, boost crop yields by 100%, thus improve farm incomes and alleviate some poverty and hunger, and reduce fire-wood consumption by households by 50%, which we are doing by introducing char-producing cooking stoves that burn very cleanly and efficiently."
Despite the incredible results produced by biochar in recent studies, Rademakers cautions that more work is needed before widespread implementation: "It is a young concept. We must give it some time, and test it more thoroughly."
However, he says that if trials continue to perform well "in the [world's] most difficult places" the organization is "ready to work in all places where deforestation is a problem caused by poor people who have no alternative."
If biochar continues to show its effectiveness in feeding some of the world's hungriest people, halting deforestation, and sequestering carbon, it could prove one of the world's best weapons against the seemingly overwhelming problems of the 21st Century.
"The tropical forest frontier has become a mental frontier in the West," says Rademakers. "It is here that the fight against climate change can be won in a relatively straightforward manner, simply by protecting forests. However, biochar seems to be one of the few strategies with which one doesn't chase people off their lands or into alternative, problematic livelihoods in the name of conservation."
In an August 2010 interview with mongabay.com, Laurens Rademakers talks about the direct and indirect benefits of implementing biochar in tropical agricultural communities, while outlining both the complexities of these initiatives and the questions that still remain unanswered.
INTERVIEW WITH LAURENS RADEMAKERS
Mongabay: What is your background?
Laurens Rademakers: I had a brief academic career in environmental anthropology, but was soon dissatisfied with the lack of concrete "results" coming out of that work. This is why, again for a brief period of time, I fell victim to a very results-oriented line of work, namely consulting. Some work on natural resource management in Africa, for both the private and the non-profit sectors, was interesting, but it often lacked a human dimension.
In the meantime, I studied and wrote about the emerging renewable energy sector, and its potential and pitfalls for Sub-Saharan Africa. However, instead of writing about people and technologies, I changed jobs one more time and started working with people—via the Biochar Fund, a social profit which implements conservation and agricultural development projects mainly in Central Africa.
Mongabay: How was Biochar Fund created?
Laurens Rademakers: While analyzing the potential of bioenergy in Africa, it became apparent that this is an extremely complex issue. Projects may yield great social and environmental benefits, but they can just as well result in the contrary. Much depends on the scale, the site, the social ownership and the strategic end-goals of such projects. Many biofuels projects, for example, are controversial, because several of these factors are filled in negatively.
However, one type of biomass utilization stood out and that was biochar. It seemed like this technique of soil fertilization might become the core of a synergy that would solve several pressing problems simultaneously: soil depletion and deforestation, food security and hunger, climate change and energy security.
A group of young scientists and hands-on people from Europe and Africa decided to test biochar-based synergies out, and so the idea to create a social profit organization around it was born. Very early on it seemed like the concept was strong, because we instantly attracted a considerable amount of funding for several projects.
Mongabay: What is biochar? How does it improve soil fertility?
Laurens Rademakers: What's in a name? Biochar is charcoal. Some people call it "biochar" or "agrichar" to indicate that this porous carbon will be used to fertilize soils or that it is derived from agricultural residues. Most types of biomass that have undergone a process called pyrolysis—heating in a low-oxygen environment—can be called biochar or charcoal.
Biochar is a recalcitrant form of carbon that will stay almost entirely unaltered in soils for very long periods of time. So you can sequester carbon in a simple, durable and safe way by putting the char in the soil. Other types of carbon in soils rapidly turn into carbon dioxide. Char doesn't. What's more, because of its micro-porous and physico-chemical characteristics, it will improve both the retention and exchange of key nutrients needed by plants. This opens the prospects of lowering the need for fertilizers and for increasing crop yields in an organic matter. Biochar also has some positive effects on microbial life in soils, and it plays a role in retaining moisture.
However, much depends on the type of soils into which biochar is introduced. For at least one soil type—oxisols in the (sub)tropics—there is a large body of scientific evidence indicating that it will boost crop yields. These generally poor soils are found across Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Especially in Africa, their presence is one of the main causes of low agricultural productivity and of deforestation, as slash-and-burn farmers seek new land after having depleted a plot.
Mongabay: What is the history of this practice?
Laurens Rademakers: Several decades ago, archaeologists and anthropologists discovered ancient "dark earths" in the Amazonian rainforest. It was very evident that these soils, known as "Terra Preta", are man-made because they contain pot shards, fish-bones and other materials indicating a human presence. These soils are of an extraordinary fertility, and prompted new theories on pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations. With such fertile soils in an otherwise infertile environment, it might have been possible that large, well organized populations once lived in these forests—forests which we thought to be "pristine" and inhabited by small groups of hunter-gatherers only. Well, the key ingredient of these fascinating soils is charcoal. Thousands of tonnes of it have been put there in thousands of square kilometers of soil, in what was probably a conscious and well-managed agricultural technique, practiced by large groups of farmers.
After these discoveries, scientists from a range of fields crossed each other, and found that charcoal in soils indeed improves their fertility and at the same time sequesters carbon. The climate change community became interested, as did researchers in the bioenergy sector, who knew that biochar can be produced efficiently via modern pyrolysis technologies.
This confluence of disciplines, technologies and possibilities is what makes biochar a rapidly emerging concept for environmental management and climate change mitigation today.
Mongabay: How can it provide food security for some of the world's poorest and hungriest people?
Laurens Rademakers: We focus on biochar as a tool to improve food security amongst the hungry—75% of whom are, strangely enough, farmers. This is our priority. Climate change mitigation or adaptation, and possible carbon compensations for putting char in soils, are of secondary importance.
Biochar will increase the fertility of problem-soils in a very noticeable, quick and long-term way. This is important for subsistence farmers, because they often cannot afford to buy fertilizers or invest in organic cultivation techniques that take a long time to establish. Biochar can be produced locally, with very low investment, and in a simple, easily understood process. Most subsistence farmers—especially those who practice slash-and-burn farming—already have some knowledge on the effectiveness of charcoal in soils. So it is not difficult to convince them to apply the technique.
Currently, slash-and-burn farmers shift fields and deforest because their soils are rapidly depleted. They spend a lot of time and effort in cutting down and burning trees in order to free up some land that will become infertile after just a few harvests. With biochar, this cycle can be slowed down, or even halted. The benefits to these farmers are instant and very significant. With biochar, they can jump from being undernourished to well-fed, and from subsistence farmer to a peasant that can sell some surplus—after only one or two harvests.
Mongabay: How does biochar save forests? Why is biochar better economically than slash-and-burn farming?
Laurens Rademakers: Biochar can slow the rate of deforestation by phasing out slash-and-burn farming. When a slash-and-burn farmer can double his yield and increase the fertility period of his field three times, the effect is very obvious: he doesn't have to cut and burn as many patches of forest as he used to, to produce the same amount of food.
The strategy is only competitive under specific scenarios: how big is the yield increase of the crop? Is there a carbon compensation (carbon credit or other)? What is the production cost of the biochar? How much does one need to invest in distribution, and so on.
Our trials in Cameroon and Congo indicate that we can produce and apply biochar in a sustainable manner (we use biomass that would otherwise be burned, and farm residues) and make a profit, merely because of the crop yield increase. A carbon credit for sequestering carbon permanently in soils would be an added bonus. Money for the "avoided deforestation" resulting from the intervention would be so too.
Mongabay: Does biochar replace the need for fertilizers?
Laurens Rademakers: In fact, it doesn't. Biochar is not really a fertilizer in the strict sense of the word. It is, however, a soil (structuring) element that helps maintain the natural fertility of the soil, or reduces a soil's depletion rate. In this sense, biochar can replace the need for some fertilizer. Ours and others' field trials demonstrate that biochar often functions as effectively as an organic or an inorganic fertilizer. But in practice, it is always good to mix biochar with organic fertilizers.
Mongabay: Are there other benefits of using biochar?
Laurens Rademakers: In an ideal scenario, the production of biochar can yield some useful thermal energy that can be put to work to dry agricultural and other products in a very low-cost way. Some technologies promise the co-production of char, heat, and power. This opens up our ultimate goal: to bring renewable electricity to off-grid rural communities.
Mongabay: What were the findings of the field test of biochar in Cameroon?
Laurens Rademakers: Very briefly: we did this trial with 75 farmers' groups, representing around 1500 subsistence farmers. We found that biochar applied at a rate of 10 tons per hectare is as efficient as both organic and inorganic fertilizers. It increased crop yields on average by 240% on poor soils. Similar results were found for applications at a rate of 20 tons per hectare. This research is ongoing, because we want to investigate so-called residual effects.
Mongabay: How is the project in the Democratic Republic of Congo progressing?
Laurens Rademakers: This is a most unique project, financed by the Congo Basin Forest Fund: the world's poorest people, cut off from much of the world, 70% undernourished, will use biochar in their fields. These farmers, living in the Equateur Province south of the Congo River, have the most difficult lives in the world, and we think we might help them in overcoming some of their problems in an extremely simple way. We carry out this project in collaboration with a local NGO called ADAPEL—a courageous group of young people who aim to reverse the trend of deforestation they witness in their own community.
We have built 12 large biochar production units at the forest frontier, close to around 20 villages spread out along a 50-kilometer long track in the forest. These units transform tonnes of biomass into biochar. The biomass we use is slash that would otherwise be burned. The char will be introduced in August, some time ahead of the second planting season (mid-August).
The logistics of this project are challenging: it takes boats, canoes, motorcycles, push-carts and baskets to get things going. Nonetheless, it's worth the effort. The slash-and-burn farmers in this region already have some understanding of what char does in a soil, even though they don't express it in scientific terms. They have a lot of practical knowledge and insight. We aim to tap into this knowledge.
The goals of the project: slow down the local deforestation rate by at least 50%, boost crop yields by 100%, thus improve farm incomes and alleviate some poverty and hunger, and reduce fire-wood consumption by households by 50%, which we are doing by introducing char-producing cooking stoves that burn very cleanly and efficiently.
Mongabay: Where are some future sites? Are there any plans to work in other regions such as South America or Southeast Asia?
Laurens Rademakers: We wanted to build some expertise in the most difficult places first. This has allowed us to build up some project implementation routines. We are ready to work in all places where deforestation is a problem caused by poor people who have no alternative. Some 500 million people in the tropics are believed to be practicing slash-and-burn farming.
The tropical forest frontier has become a mental frontier in the West. It is here that the fight against climate change can be won in a relatively straightforward manner, simply by protecting forests. However, biochar seems to be one of the few strategies with which one doesn't chase people off their lands or into alternative, problematic livelihoods in the name of conservation.
Mongabay: How could communities that use biochar possibly be eligible for carbon credits?
Laurens Rademakers: There's a lot of work going on to develop routines to measure the impact of biochar projects. In our projects several streams of potential carbon credits operate simultaneously: (1) there's the carbon you sequester permanently in soils; (2) there's the avoided deforestation—and the value of the carbon contained in these forests—resulting from the fact that one stops slash-and-burn farming; (3) there's carbon savings when one introduces technologies that produce biochar and yield useful thermal energy at the same time, such as efficient cooking stoves that burn less wood.
In our model, we group farmers into a cooperative that manages both farm outputs and potential carbon credit inputs. Collective action is the only way to achieve some scale and to get projects on the carbon markets. The good thing about our projects is that it is the farmers themselves who take the carbon savings actions. It is they who produce the char; it is they who put it into soils. They are in control. Our projects more or less guarantee that they will receive the carbon credits, and not some middle-man higher up.
Mongabay: You're employing biochar and other initiatives to reduce the bushmeat trade by 50 percent in ten villages in Gabon. Why do you think you might succeed where other organizations have failed?
Laurens Rademakers: Our approach is not very different from what has been tried before. But it is more subtle and more integrated. Subtle, because it takes into account the complex gender aspects of life in small villages (when introducing technologies, we play on the pride of hunters and on their role in the public sphere). Integrated, because it changes both the agricultural and energy landscape in these villages (we grow local crops for animal feed on biochar amended soils with nitrogen-fixing trees supplying N-nutrients, and we use animal manure to produce biogas and biochar—a closed loop that reduces deforestation otherwise witnessed from the production of animal feed).
Many other projects to phase out bushmeat hunting and trading were too mono-dimensional, in that they were either based on simplistic forms of "protein substitution" (raise cattle, no matter how, and the problem will solve itself) or on "job substitution" (turn hunters into, e.g. ecotourism guides, and they will stop hunting).
In our project, hunters remain hunters, but only in their spare time. They are now attracted to managing prestigious renewable energy technologies and outputs, whereas their wives will generate substantially more income from the sales of animal protein, and provide a more comfortable living environment by transitioning to a cleaner form of energy. If carbon credits come into play, for using biochar in farms that produce animal feed, a serious financial incentive makes the concept irresistibly interesting to the hunter.
Mongabay: What would 'industrializing' biochar entail? What are the dangers of this?
Laurens Rademakers: As with many bioenergy concepts, much depends on scale. We do not advocate the industrial production of biochar, because this might not be sustainable. However, there are several technologies under development that might produce biochar in large quantities. These often focus on the production of liquid biofuels for the transportation sector, in which biochar is only a by-product. We distance ourselves from these initiatives, because biomass can better be used for the production of electricity or for biochar plain and simple.
Industrial production needs social, cultural and environmental sustainability criteria, especially when sited in forest-rich regions.
However, "industrial" doesn't always have to be bad. James Lovelock once said something to this extent: "humanity eats food, and when we produce food, we generate waste. All farmers should turn this waste into biochar, to save the planet." Now whether we produce this biochar centrally in big installations and then redistribute it to farmers, or whether we take a decentralized approach, is all a matter of economics. Centralized has logistical challenges, decentralized has investment challenges. Both have pros and cons. But I don't see why large-scale biochar production in well-organized societies, in which sustainability can be monitored, is necessarily a problem.
Mongabay: Given the amazing effects of biochar, why is this process not on the front page of every newspaper in the world?
Laurens Rademakers: Well, it has been. Some of the world's leading climate scientists and environmentalists have spoken out in favor of biochar. To mention some: NASA's James Hansen, the man who started the global warming debate in the U.S. in the 1980s; James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory and green guru par excellence, or Tim Flannery, Australia's leading climate voice. Richard Branson wants to invest. Biochar has been on climate change agenda's (Bali and Copenhagen). The president of a micro-state, the Maldives, has said that only biochar can save his nation from sinking. In short, there is growing attention for biochar, but it is a young concept. We must give it some time, and test it more thoroughly.
Some critical voices have sprang up, and have launched a debate on biochar, which is very much needed. But unfortunately, these voices have been very poor on the science behind biochar. Consequently, they were not taken seriously by the scientific community. They tried to frame biochar as some conspiracy of green imperialists who want to geo-engineer our planet against our will.
We wish to have a more mature and in-depth debate about biochar that goes gradually from the science to more practical questions: which systems might work? What are optimal scales for projects? How about the implementation of the precautionary principle? And what to do with biochar on the carbon markets? These are stringent questions that are waiting for informed answers.