Biochar may be Another Sustainable Solution for Eco-friendly Agriculture 

Biochar may be Another Sustainable Solution for Eco-friendly Agriculture 

If you’ve never heard of biochar before, you may think that it’s a blend of two words: bio and charcoal. You’re definitely not wrong.  

Fundamentally, biochar is something like charcoal, but it’s made from organic material such as agricultural and forest waste. And for those who haven’t heard of biochar, it’s not a new innovation. In fact, it’s a traditional agriculture practice that humans have done since centuries ago. 

Together with a team, Wei Ren, a researcher at the University of Connecticut (UConn), has published an article in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.  

In the study, they synthesized data from around 600 studies on biochar globally; with a purpose to analyze biochar’s potential as a viable, eco-friendly agricultural solution, also known as climate-smart agriculture (CSA) approach. 

Now, CSA doesn’t only focus on farming practices that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. It also aims to secure enough crop yields to feed a growing population while, at the same time, bringing a positive impact on anybody living and working in the area.  

In short, soil health and climate resilience are two things that CSA can achieve while alleviating greenhouse gas emissions.  

To further boost the benefit of CSA management practices, which include integrated nutrient management strategies, Ren’s group compiled data on biochar research so they could get a good understanding of the practice—all of its merits, challenges, and limitations.  

Ren said, “We wanted to evaluate biochar as climate-smart practices through field observations/measurements, big data analysis, and numerical modeling. 

“We evaluate if this sustainable agricultural practice can serve as a climate-smart agricultural practice in terms of food production, soil health, and environmental sustainability. We hope to quantify related water and nutrient footprints and the potential to promote climate resilience” 


Biochar’s ability 

Any organic material that contains carbon like wood waste, crop residues, woody debris after forest fire, can be turned into biochar. These materials are heated at high temperatures with no oxygen: a process called pyrolysis.  

When they’ve become biochar and used as a soil amendment, there’s the potential to help build resilience.   

It takes a long time for biochar to break down, and in turn it increases soil’s carbon content. It counts as a long-term carbon investment.  

Compared to the case when the carbon-containing materials are just blended into the soil instead of being turned into biochar, the latter option is better.  

The reason? Those materials would quickly break down and release greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide as they decompose. Biochar, however, will sequester carbon and remain within the soil for a much longer time. 

Moreover, biochar has a similar property to a sponge, and it can improve soil’s capacity to hold water and nutrients. And as mentioned, the soil can then be more resilient, as it’ll contain more nutrition, will stand strong in periods of drought, and still sustain crop yields. 



Utilizing debris from forest fire into biochar 

I mentioned that remains of forest fire are transformable into biochar. An example would be a recent project established by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the U.S. Forest Service. 

Back in early March this year, the project began to sweep clean six different plots on the bureau’s administered lands which had been affected by Holiday Farm Fire in 2020. 

BLM’s botanist Jessica Celis said, “In an area like the Holiday Farm Fire, where we’ve lost the organic layer, no more leaves, needles on the ground, this can help protect and reestablish an organic layer. 

“Biochar is a great carbon storage mechanism, so it’s very stable in terms of carbon storage, which is why they talk about biochar in relation to climate benefits.” 

The devastation caused by any forest fire isn’t exactly easy to manage or clean. But according to BLM, turning the woody debris into biochar may be a cost-effective solution.  

Project officials admitted that as for now, it would still take some time to apply the technology in the most economic and efficient way. Nonetheless, they still consider biochar a useful method to manage forest fire debris. 

Aquatics and soil program lead with BLM Mike Brown said, “In western Oregon, we manage thousands and thousands of acres, and we produce an immense amount of slash from Tillamook to Salem to Medford and Coos Bay and we have to pay to remove all that slash. That costs the taxpayers a lot of money. 

“So exploring options where we can take a material that is a financial deficit and turn that into an asset like biochar that can be used to improve water holding capacity in soil and has a lot of other benefits.” 


The case in Connecticut 

Turning forest fire and other woody debris into biochar is supported by the UConn research. According to the researchers, tree and wood waste can be valuable when it becomes biochar.  

Biochar made from trees can reduce a large amount of nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than CO2 when it comes to global warming contributors. 

Moreover, Connecticut is a great place to explore and apply biochar in a CSA practice.   

“We have so many trees and natural resources here,” said Ren, who has a vision to use tree waste from Connecticut’s forest management to make biochar so that all farmers in the state can use it. “Our state has the potential to play a leading role on the national level in the application of biochar.” 

The researchers have an aim to make more states and more countries repurpose waste to achieve sustainability.  

Ren said, “The forest owners have the potential to make the biochar from their own resources to benefit cropland or farmland. You can use the crop residues or other non-agricultural organic wastes and return them back to the soil too. I want to expand the concept of climate-smart agriculture and forestry to create a climate-smart landscape.” 


Biochar ready for application. Photo by GIZ Bush Control and Biomass Utilisation Project, Wikimedia Commons


Can it be too good to be true? 

Ren’s team found that in general, biochar does help improve soil quality and proposed to use it more broadly, including Connecticut, in their research.  

Lead author Yawen Huang said, “Through the global data synthesis, you can see that across different soil and climate conditions, biochar, together with other practices, can help farmers to sustain food production. It can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce nitrogen leaching, and save soil water” 

Although, some other lab experiments might have overstated biochar’s advantages. That’s why the team wants to further explore biochar’s properties by testing it in more field experiments with a purpose to better understand where and when to use it. 

Ren stated that the team still needed to consider biochar with other sustainable practices, because different areas have different local climate conditions and therefore need dissimilar nutrient management and irrigation treatments. 

As for now, the UConn team has applied for additional funding to bring the project forward. They’ve connected with local biochar producers and are planning to keep it local, as they want to save energy and emissions needed for transportation. 

Besides, after the pandemic, customers have shifted their food habits towards more local-sourced products. This shift, along with biochar and other sustainable solutions, will hopefully contribute to more resilient and circular food systems in the future. 



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