Although there are some excellent ideas to sequester carbon, one method may prove more effective than others. It's time to take a closer look at biochar and its potential future in agriculture.

Does Biochar Have a Future in Agriculture?
Does Biochar Have a Future in Agriculture?

Jane March | Environment

Climate change has had a significant negative influence on food production and security. Every year, agriculture produces billions of tons of food worldwide. However, even though this valuable economic sector is essential for the population's survival, it's harming the environment. In the United States, agriculture accounts for about 10% of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

In the same industry that offers food to the global population comes harmful carbon emissions that make it more challenging for farmers to grow sustainable crops and keep their yields. Researchers have been trying to find ways to eliminate or at least reduce the number of greenhouse gases, like planting more trees or making industrial farming more sustainable.

Although there are some excellent ideas to sequester carbon, one method may prove more effective than others. It's time to take a closer look at biochar and its potential future in agriculture.


What Is Biochar?

Biochar has been around for many years and dates back to a 2,000-year-old Amazonian practice. Recently, it made a comeback in the agricultural world. It's a byproduct that resembles charcoal and is made through pyrolysis, a non-oxygenated thermal decomposition of plant residue and other organic materials. This process produces bio-oils and syngas, which are fuels that produce both heat and electricity.

To clarify, it is not ash. Ash results from burning, which often includes oxygen. The process to create biochar does not involve oxygen. Since the process to create biochar doesn't utilize oxygen, it leaves behind a product rich in carbon, which can sequester even more carbon.

Often, biochar comes from plant materials like forest residue, grass, and agricultural materials. The resulting material is highly porous and stable, which would make it an excellent soil amendment.


The Benefits of Biochar

One issue facing agriculture is soil degradation. It's a significant concern because it's forcing farmers to source new land, which often comes from deforestation. Researchers are suggesting that farmers in the agricultural industry take a look at the benefits of biochar. It could help improve soil quality by:

  • Enhancing the soil structure: Soil degradation is a common problem for the agricultural industry. However, biochar improves the soil structure so the soil remains in one place and isn't at risk for erosion.

  • Boosting porosity: Biochar is a porous material. It can better retain nutrients to enhance the fertility of agricultural soils, which can help boost yields.

  • Increasing water retention: Because of the porosity of biochar, it can hold more water in the soil. This decreases the amount of water needed for plant growth, which can help solve water conservation issues.

  • Regulating nitrogen: Too much nitrogen in plant soils can limit other nutrients from reaching the plant. Often, fertilizers contain nitrogen, but biochar could replace most fertilizers, which would regulate nitrogen levels in the soil so plants aren't restricted in their growth.

  • Improving microbes: Biochar helps promote microbial growth and activity, accelerating the composting process so farmers can use compost more often and more efficiently as fertilizer.


Biochar has already been at work in some parts of the world. In Kenya, for example, the application of biochar over a 10-year period increased soil fertility and sequestered carbon.


Biochar as a Sustainable Resource in Agriculture

Besides the benefits listed above, biochar can greatly help the future of sustainable agriculture. There has been a societal push for agriculture to consider how the sector can be more environmentally friendly and sustainable as one of the most needed industries. This push towards sustainability could benefit from a wider acceptance of biochar as a regularly used product and resource.

Biochar could potentially reverse the effects of climate change from an agricultural standpoint. The product's features, like its porosity, water retention, and enhancement of soil structures, aid in its ability to sequester about 0.5-2.0 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by the year 2050. Instead of agriculture contributing to carbon emissions, they could use this resource to hold in carbon.

Creating biochar can be expensive, and using it for carbon sequestration or as a soil supplement may not be the most cost-effective option. However, as the market for it continues to grow, those prices will drop, making it an efficient use of organic matter.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

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