It can hardly be called a new development or a scientific breakthrough; in fact, it’s been around for millennia. Nearly 2000 years ago, farmers in the Amazon basin used it to create terra preta, once regaled by explorers as the most fertile and beautiful of foamy, luscious soil.

Yes, it’s what we now call biochar and it’s been gaining popularity in the scientific community for years. Recently, it was brought back into international spotlight as Britain’s government commissioned a study on biochar’s potential, and the US released a study saying that widespread use of the additive could result in a 12 per cent drop in global greenhouse emissions.

The product is quite simple. It’s a charcoal-like soil additive that consists of cooked biowastes, like wood chips and animal manure. When it’s added to soil, the carbon dioxide released from plants is locked up for thousands of years, instead of being released into our environment. The soil is pitch black as a result of the high concentration of carbon, and is much more fertile.

According to an article in a 2006 issue of Nature, "terra preta contrasts strongly with normal soil and in colour and produces much more vigorous crops."

If further studies come back with positive results, the only thing left to determine would be whether creating terra preta would release more emissions than would be saved by its use. Many scientists argue that exact point, outlined in a letter sent last year by environmental groups to various policy makers. Of course, that would make biochar more of a problem than a solution.

However, according to the same 2006 Nature article, "a hectare of metre-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes in unimproved soils…The extra carbon is not just in the char — it’s also in the organic carbon and enhanced bacterial biomass that the char sustains." The scientist who conducted these trials, Bruno Glaser, as well as his colleagues in the industry, feel that carbon-friendly ways of production can and should be discovered, so the world can reap biochar’s potential.

Many scientists remain skeptical, but if the products ends up being all it’s expected to be, it will decrease the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and help produce crops in soils that were previously polluted and lacking proper nutrients.

If biochar’s use can somehow be implemented in farms in our world’s more under-developed areas, it could prove to be a literal live saver. In the same Nature article, the author cites the remarkable results of a biochar vs. regular soil trial.

"Bruno Glaser…estimates that productivity of crops in terra preta is twice that of crops grown in nearby soils."

Further studies will determine whether biochar can be produced in low-emission methods. If it can, the result would be a simple, natural product that can potentially reduce emissions and increase food production in the forgotten and ignored corners of our world.

Two of today’s biggest social, moral and political issues — global warming and hunger — could be partially reversed because of innovations by Amazon tribes thousands of years ago.

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About The Author

Sachin Seth is the Blast Magazine world news reporter. He writes the Terra blog. You can visit his website at or follow him on twitter @sachinseth

One Response

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