Sunday, January 9, 2011

Biochar book review

Dear Friends,
The first photo is a pile of biochar. Also in view are our new solar panels and barrels of cow manure collected by Jack and Jeff for compost. (This stuff us as gold around here. I considered an armed guard but it seems inconsistent with the hope of building trust in our village!)
Below is a book review. There's reason to be modestly hopeful about the potential of the use of biochar in farming and gardening to have a useful impact on sequestering carbon.
This is particularly interesting to me, as we use it here regularly when we plant anything, even little seedlings. Atamai has a biochar-based soil amendment. The formula was put together some years ago by village founder Jurgen Heissner and colleagues. It includes rock dust, effective micro-organisms and much more. We are in general very pleased with its effects, but very much need to do systematic trials.
Update on us:
Healthy, active, enjoying the addition of our youngest son, Jeff to the family. The guys are outdoors a fair bit. Right now, Jack is mowing grass with a crawler and Jeff is assisting the masons who are laying blocks in our new house.
The new house is progressing, but some months off moving-in time.
Atamai Village: There has been a surge of new interest in the village, with two couples having committed themselves over last weekend and a third looking likely. They are from Australia, the US and New Zealand. All of them share our worried projections for the future of the mainstream economy, and see strong reasons to aim for self-reliance in basic needs.
Transition Town Motueka: A low level of activity specifically organised under this aegis, but considerable activity on the things that matter. Riverside continues to run workshops on relevant skills. this weekend's is on how to build yourself a solar shower. The Motueka Community Garden is developing. I continue with my radio show. The upcoming session will be an interview with a fascinating man who keeps a team of Clydesdales, has the remnants of a bullock team, and has a full range of horse-drawn agricultural implements. He sees these as of historic and tourist interest. I see them as valuable potential assets for the future. Lester Rowntree, the man with the horses and bullocks, has been ploughing the community garden with them, a very picturesque sight.

The review has been written for Peace Magazine, published in Canada, which I recommend to you.

The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates.
Gabriola Island, BC Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010.
We are in big trouble, as readers of this magazine know, from our violent
relationship with the Earth. We risk runaway climate change, and even the aware
among us shrink from imagining what that would be like for our children
and grandkids.
Biochar to the rescue? Of course not. Sorry. We know perfectly well there is no
one solution, nothing that will absolve us from the strenuous task of working out
how to live with less and then no fossil fuel. That is and will remain our first
duty to the Earth and our offspring. I get irritated by writing that includes the
word 'offset', as if we can keep polluting the atmosphere as long as we offset our
sins by planting more trees or some such activity.
But biochar may play a modest but significant role in bringing carbon back down
to safe enough levels for human civilization to continue. Albert Bates's book does a
splendid job of telling us how this could be done, and giving a global coverage of
who is doing what in this arena. Bates has impressive credentials for exploring
alternatives to our current suicidal patterns. He shared the 1980 Right Livelihood
Award for work to preserve the cultures of indigenous people and is co-founder of the
Global Ecovillage Network, which he represents at the UN climate change talks. He is
a practical man who has made and used biochar himself. And he is a good story-
His book is full of fascinating stories - of the discovery of Amazonian biochar,
and of the many people who have followed up on this, in one way or another. The book
is fun to read. In addition, Bates does a good job of explaining the science behind
charcoal, the nature of soil, climate change and so on.
Here's the plot. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture began in the Fertile
Crescent. The technology of ploughing and irrigating the soil were steadily refined.
These were wrong turns for humanity. The ploughing depleted the soil web of life and the
irrigation salinated the soil. Over time, the Crescent became a desert, and the
civilizations that once flourished there disappeared. This story has repeated itself
on most but not all continents. Australia's Murray River basin tragedy is the latest
episode. In two places agriculture took a different turn. In China, extensive
composting returned to the soil what was taken out, even to the extent of routinely
taking the humanure from cities back to the fields. Forty centuries later, the soil
continued to be fertile (1). In Amazonian South America, a pattern of composting
incorporating charred biomass developed. Bates believes it was sytematic, done to a
recipe. The soil remains highly fertile, much more so than the surrounding rain
forest soil, to this day, and even 'grows', apparently drawing nutrients in to the
soil life from the surrounding area. When rediscovered last century, it came to be
known as 'terra preta' , black earth. . Bates cites recent archaeological evidence of the remarkable
population density of pre-Columbian Amazon civilization, supported by this soil. When it fell
suddenly after Spanish contact, their agricultural methods and the adapted cultivars they had used
perished too, along with the formula for terra preta
Other early agricultural and pastoral practices began to increase atmospheric
carbon dioxide long before the fossil fuel age. Flooded rice paddies produced
methane, as did increasing flocks of domesticated animals. Burning forest areas to
clear land produced carbon dioxide and decreased the carbon dioxide 'sink' capacity
of the disappearing forest. By 1000CE, most of England's trees were cut down. By taking off crop after
crop and dispersing the biomass, soil carbon decreased by 30-50% in most places, thus increasing carbon in atmosphere and ocean. In our reasonable focus on the role of fossil fuel in climate change, we tend to ignore the contribution of land use and change in land use, such as deforestation, in sending carbon into the atmosphere. It is substantial, perhaps responsible for a third of the excess greenhouse gases.
After 6000 years of ploughing we are relearning how to grow food while maintaining the health of the soil, including its crucial carbon content. We need to change our patterns of land use and agriculture urgently in ways that sequester carbon in stab le form. It can be expected to remain sequestered in this form for centuries or millennia, and this is a vital parameter in the dynamics of the carbon cycle. In fact, the potential of massive programmes of soil and biomass carbon sequestration could make a difference to atmospheric carbon in the next two decades – a time scale much faster than the probability of effective action from technologies now being invested with questionable hope, such as new fuels and carbon capture at source.
So-called carbon farming involves no tillage of the soil, organic growing methods, using crop residue as mulch (thus returning its carbon and other nutrients to the soil), using cover crops between the food or fibre crops, rotational grazing of pasture animals, turning from annual crops to perennial polycultures, employing the great range of Permaculture strategies, agroforestry, leaving wild plant strips, keyline water management and subsoil ploughing. And incorporating biochar mixtures in recreated terra preta-type soil amendments. These methods also have the potential to eliminate the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers – an important source of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
The programme needs to involve massive global tree-planting, stopping deforestation, carbon farming and biochar sequestration. Bates suggests that carbon farming could sequester 1 Gigatonne of carbon a year in both labile (short-term) and stable (long-term) carbon. Biochar use could sequester another Gigatonne a year in stable carbon. . Reforestation on a massive scale could sequester 4.5 Gigatonnes a year. There are about 800 Gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere, so we could slowly reverse the current disastrous accumulation of carbon.
Bates tells us how biochar is made and why it works so well. There is a fascinating chapter on stoves, especially low-cost stoves to replace the smoky cooking methods responsible for a fair slice of low-income country mortality and morbidity. Some of these inventions also produce biochar which can increase garden fertility for the owners.
Bates doesn’t deal with the limits to biochar sequestration in soils with high carbon levels, or with the issue of loss of nutrients other than carbon in forming charcoal rather than letting biomass rot back into the Earth.
This book sent me into action – joining the International Biochar Initiative, and going to inspect our ‘terra preta’-enhanced tree plantings which experts say are doing remarkably well. I like to think of the biochar around their roots, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries.
Joanna Santa Barbara is working to develop Atamai, a New Zealand ecovillage trying to respond to peak oil and climate change issues. She and her colleagues use a biochar mix in all their plantings.

1. FH King. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan.Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004. (First published in 1911.)

1 comment:

Mark Prado said...

I'm curious how you store the electrical energy you generate from your solar cell panels, and how well solar energy is serving your needs.

The costs of solar cells have come down so far that now it seems that a main cost driver is the storage cost.

Solar energy has a lot of potential for supplying our daily daytime surges in electrical energy consumption but the nights are of course another matter, so there are various storage methods being tried out.