Oft-times it seems that Life is made in the form of a problem waiting for a solution or ‘fix’. Agriculture becomes a problem whenever the soil becomes infertile and crop production declines. This decline occurs when the soil is tilled and its humus content oxidized. After ten thousand years of tilling virtually all the arable land world-wide, the soils have became seriously infertile. The first major ‘fix’ to this problem was a chemical one but while it boosted yields the soil’s inherent fertility was diminished. Alarmed by the realization that chemical agriculture ultimately results in soil collapse, where additional inorganic fertilization no longer have an effect, organic agriculture arose. It has proved to be a valiant attempt in bringing the inherent fertility of soil back to life but it is only a partial restoration of damaged soil. Unless organic agriculture adopts a practice of non-tillage, full soil restoration can never occur as it does not address the root cause of soil decline which is over-aerification via tilling.
GMO is another quick ‘fix’, of which there is growing evidence it will prove as catastrophic as the chemical ‘fix’, though in a different manner than soil collapse. By now we should be suspicious of quick ‘fixes’, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact we are addicted to quick ‘fixes’ for whatever psychological reasons might be the case. (Another discussion)
Now we are confronted with the problem of global warming and a new ‘fix’, a bio-engineered “fix” called Biochar, which proposes not only to reduce global warming but to help restore the world’s soils at the same time. Biochar is manufactured humus, if you could even call it humus, since it lacks many of the critical qualities of Nature’s humus which is produced aerobically. In looking into the matter of Biochar I found it to be just one more aggressive assault against Nature, but it may not be stoppable because profits can be made and jobs created, however temporary.
You can’t argue about its intentions but you can, and should, argue against the environmental devastation involved. As if deforestation were not already a serious matter, the large-scale production and use of Biochar as proposed is calculated to eliminate all the remaining forests in 30-40 years. Biochar is necessary, the enthusiasts say (including many scientists) to sequester carbon, but a tree is already sequestering carbon, and does so continuously during its entire long life. When you cut down a tree and burn the wood what you have in carbon is all you’re ever going to get. It is not just wood waste used in making Biochar, which the proponents acknowledge, since such “waste” is valuable for making rot-resistant lumber. The proponents say, however, that producing Biochar will actually reduce deforestation because it will improve agricultural land so much that more land will not be needed and so more trees will not be cut down!
I must confess — to me this stretched logic past its breaking point! We have a long way to go yet in exploiting Nature’s way of producing humus, but replacing it with Biochar is a non-starter. Biochar seems to be jealous of Nature’s stable humus, as Nature’s humus is depleted when Biochar is introduced into the soil!
I try to be fair and look for some positive uses of Biochar and, yes, Biochar could be useful in particular situations like helping in the early stages of restoring collapsed soils. It also could be helpful in reducing the acidity of very acid soils, although lime would be a better choice in most cases. As a soil conditioner Biochar could be an ingredient in potting soil, though again a much better choice would be calcined clay (kitty litter), which absorbs water while Biochar repels water.
At the COP-15 meeting Biochar was put on the list as one of several serious ‘fixes’ regarding global warming. Fortunately there has been pressure mounting to insist on an in-depth environmental study before Biochar is released for worldwide use. But short-term financial gain almost always trumps environmental concerns. It is going to require, as I see it, not just environmentalists but the pressure of an informed public, to stop this latest agricultural ‘fix’.