The hot topic of climate change has been in discussion amongst scientists and politicians for years and the issue is becoming more widely accepted. Now there’s the on-going debate as to the best way to overcome it, reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses and reducing our overall footprint upon the Earth.
But, there may already be a way to offset our warming emissions, whilst at the same time significantly improving soil health and increasing crop productivity too. Surprisingly this technology stems from ancient farming techniques employed over 8,000 years ago.
We linked up with Sean Blackhurst, an environmental researcher, author and project lead on neutrality 2036, who has been studying BioChar and its uses for many years. His interest in tackling climate change and famine, which he considers to be ‘two of the major threats to humanity as a species’, has led him to the science behind BioChar, due to it’s exciting potential as a carbon sink and soil improver.
A lesson in history.
BioChar is the modern equivalent of an ancient Amazonian farming system that incorporates a ‘simple variation of charcoal’ into the soil. Terra Preta, which literally translates as ‘black soil’, is a dark anthropogenic soil once cultivated to solve the poor fertility of soils found in the Amazonian basin. Despite their formation thousands of years ago, large deposits of these dark soils can still be found today because of the characteristic stability of the buried charcoal, which can remain locked up for hundreds of years. Because of its complex structure (mostly containing fixed carbon compounds), the longevity of BioChar far outweighs that of other simple organic compounds, organic matter and debris, which may only last a few years in the soil.
Despite the discovery of these soils over 200 years ago, it’s only in the last 10 years or so that their benefit’s to modern agriculture have been recognised. One pioneering researcher is Sean Blackhurst, who hopes to identify a way in which we can use current science alongside old technology to effectively combat climate change and global food issues.
He believes that “BioChar is one of the research avenues that, when combined with existing technology, offers a really good chance at bringing us back to carbon neutrality.”
Sean is currently planning an expedition into the unexplored areas of the Amazon rainforest to locate suspected deposits of early Terra Preta. By locating these 500-year-old pockets, Sean hopes to prove that BioChar is a viable long-term solution for soil fertility.
He says, “Analysing previous deposits and the long-term impact on the soil should help steer future conversations in more productive directions”.
The science of carbon.
At 59 Degrees, we understand the importance of soil organic carbon. Not only does it release nutrients, uphold structure and provide a buffer against harmful substances, it is the basis of soil health and fertility.
On average soil organic carbon accounts for less than 5% of the mass of the upper soil horizons, and this figure may drop to as low as 1% in heavily exploited soils. By increasing the carbon stored in the soil, not only can it improve soil health, but it will also reduce the amount in the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change.
As a complex carbon-based compound, Biochar has the potential to increase soil organic carbon content. The addition of Biochar to certain soils (sandy soils in particular) can increase nutrient retention and reduce leaching, increase the cation exchange capacity of soil, improve soil structure, drainage and water-holding capacity and increase habitats for soil microbes.
Sean believes that:
“when used in conjunction with other technology, BioChar has the potential to significantly improve crop yields, and could be used to convert old industrial brown belt sites into green belt sites (Geo-Engineering) bringing about carbon neutrality”.
BioChar’s secret lies in its unique structure. It has a huge surface area (up to 500 m2per gram), which not only helps it absorb large quantities of water and nutrients, but also provides a habitat for beneficial bacteria and fungi: ‘a coral reef’ if you like for Fungi and Bacteria!
Our Radispores mix (Mycorrhizal Spores) is combined with a BioChar base, since the large surface area of the BioChar provides a good protective medium for the spores to grow on. By utilising this unique property, we can ensure maximum success of our spores, so that they can become established within the soil.
We believe that soils are vastly underappreciated and yet they are one of the most important structural elements of our Earth. At 59 degrees, we like to work alongside scientists and researchers like Sean, in order to continue our product development and think ahead for the future. Our primary aim is to bring about a positive change, and by linking up with other like-minded people, this will only happen faster!